x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Montpellier have climbed their way to the top of Ligue 1 the hard way

Fans waited for the low-spending club to falter, to be passed by wealthy PSG or the defending champions Lille, but they are one game away from being champions, writes Andy Mitten.

Montpellier supporters before the match against Lille. BORIS HORVAT / AFP
Montpellier supporters before the match against Lille. BORIS HORVAT / AFP

An overweight ticket tout struggles through the happy crowd, pursued by a gang of angry youths from the adjacent housing projects on the edge of Montpellier's poorest outer suburb. A blue smoke bomb is thrown by nearby ultras, creating a smokescreen in the Mediterranean sun. The terrified scalper is soon surrounded by the feral mob who demand tickets and money, his safety is ensured only when a dozen policemen come to his rescue.

"It's not normally like this in Montpellier," says Aurelien Nasson, a student who has travelled across the city of 255,000, France's eighth-biggest, on a sleek tram. "Normally the stadium is only half full, today there are people with signs for tickets. Everyone wants to be here. We could win our first ever league title tonight."

The appeal of this Ligue 1 game between surprise league leaders Montpellier and third-placed Lille, the reigning champions and France's in-form team, is obvious.

With Paris Saint-Germain in second and all three teams still in contention to lift the title with two games to go, France has never known a title race like it: the country is set to see a fifth different champion in five years, a dramatic shift away from Lyon's hegemony and seven consecutive titles before 2008.

France has been waiting for Montpellier to slip all season, just as they did last year when they collapsed in February and tumbled down the league to finish 14th.

Montpellier have held their nerve this time and their rise has captured the hearts of the neutrals who couldn't understand how a team that played in the second division three years ago could challenge giants like PSG, whose spending is able to rival Manchester City's thanks to the ownership by the Qatari Investment Authority; Marseille, Lyon and Lille. It was as if France's most famous prankster, the Montpellier-born Remi Gaillard had staged one of his elaborate hoaxes.

As is the norm for provincial clubs, Montpellier can't count on a vast support; they average 17,000, well below PSG's 43,000, Marseille's 40,000 and Lyon's 33,000. Club magazines from all three are on sale in Montepellier's news kiosks. Montpellier don't have a club magazine to sell. Crowds have risen with their success, but just 5,000 rattled around their 32,900-capacity Stade de la Mosson home when they were in the second division in 2009, the year Rene Girard, the current coach, took charge.

The softly spoken Girard has excelled, but he inherited a well-honed youth system overseen by 1980s France international Jean-Francois Domergue, himself a former Montpellier manager.

Sixty per cent of the club's current first team squad came through their youth ranks. PSG and Lille unquestionably boast more individual talent, but Montpellier have repeatedly shown it is they who have an indomitable team spirit.

They do have stars in the making, too. Powerful No 9 Olivier Giroud is Ligue 1's leading scorer, with 21 goals, while the attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda, 22, has just won the Marc-Vivien Foe award for being the league's best African born player, despite being born in France to Moroccan parents. They both have attracted interest form richer, bigger clubs, along with the captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, a defender so strong he would thrive in more physical leagues abroad.

The trio starred as Montpellier grabbed national attention with a win at Lille in the second game of the league season. It was no fluke, though Paris asserted their expected authority with a 3-0 victory at Montpellier at the end of September. Coached by Carlos Ancellotti, PSG boast a glittering front three comprised of Europe's most expensive signing this season, the Argentinian midfielder Javier Pastore, the excellent Brazilian Nene, plus the French international Jeremy Menez.

The defeat made sense. Montpellier had spent almost nothing in comparison with PSG; their playing budget of €36 million (Dh169.1m) a year was the 13th of the league's 20 clubs.

Their title charge is as implausible as Stoke City winning England's Premier League, but they continued to prosper and by February's return in Paris, an emboldened Montpellier drew 2-2 and journalists began asking their president Louis "LouLou" Nicollin if it was possible for his club to win the league.

They went to him because the entrepreneur has French football's biggest, most outspoken and offensive mouth. Nicollin, who took charge in 1974 when the current incarnation of Montpellier was founded, laughed off the comments.

"Montpellier champions? Impossible," said the corpulent president who has seen stars Eric Cantona, Roger Milla and Carlos Valderrama play for the club. "All I'm worried about is that we might qualify for the Europa League and that would annoy me because it's a rubbish competition."

Nicollin knows about rubbish. He made his fortune winning public service refuse contracts all over France and although born in Lyon, he's spent most of his life in Montpellier, content to revel in his image as the most famous man in the city where the locals adore his parochial outspokenness and constant references to the football club as his "girl".

One of his sons, Laurent, runs Montpellier, with father saying: "I'd rather my sons got involved in sport than classical music. That bores me senseless. I've got nothing against it, but I'd rather watching curling than listen to Mozart."

Nicollin continued to dismiss legitimate questions about them being champions. "We're not going to be champions so stop going on about it," he told journalists, before making an offensive comment about what they should do if Montpellier did triumph. On another occasion, he had said: "Montpellier champions of France? If I was Marseille, Paris, Lyon, Lille or Rennes I would stab myself with a sausage. What an embarrassment that would be for them."

There was no false modesty on his part. Montpellier did reach the league cup final last season, but their only previous major honours were the French Cup in 1929 and 1990, when a young Laurent Blanc was their best player.

By last month, Montpellier had assumed the air of prospective champions. They went to the cauldron of Marseille's Velodrome and won 3-1. Nicollin didn't attend and when asked to explain why replied: "I was scared."

Montpellier fans love when he talks football. When PSG were linked to Carlos Tevez in January but instead signed the 30-year-old full-back Maxwell from Barcelona, Nicollin cheekily asked: "Maxwell, isn't that a coffee?"

Nicollin had seen Montpellier's nerves fray under the pressure recently, accused of self-destructing under pressure. On May 1, they were held 2-2 at home by Evian Thonon, with the soon-to-be-suspended Belhanda blaming Giroud for shirking his responsibilities by not taking a last-minute penalty which was missed by Souleymane Camara.

There was talk of a rift in the camp, but Girard created a siege mentality and told his players it was them against the world.

It worked. Without Belhanda, they beat fifth placed Rennes 2-0 away last week to go three points clear with three to play.

That set up Sunday's vital match against Lille, where both teams took to the field with U2's Where the Streets Have No Name failing to compete with the noise in the 27,649 crowd, Montpellier's biggest of the season. With just one defeat in the Mosson, they aimed to become the first team to win 50 points at home in Ligue 1 since three points were introduced for a win in 1994-95.

The feel-good factor hasn't been confined to the city's football club. Montpellier's hand ball team were recently crowned French champions, their water polo team lead the national league, their rugby team are fourth in the prestigious Top 14 rugby league, while in women's sport the basketball team are second in France, the football team third.

The men's football team have yet to win anything, though, and knowing his side would be without Belhanda, a cautious Nicollin said: "Let's try to get a result against Lille. If we do that we could finish second."

The game was close, chances few, with the Montpellier goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren outstanding against a Lille attack featuring the powerful and pacy Belgian Eden Hazard, their 17-goal top scorer who is a target of both Manchester clubs.

With no goals after 80 minutes, news seeped through that Paris were beating Rennes at home. The crowd smelled injustice and sang songs accusing Paris of buying the referee, but in a day of dramatic finishes in English football, Montpellier had one of their own.

In the 94th minute, Giroud crossed for substitute Karim Ait-Fana to score. 1-0. Three points. The Mosson erupted, players cried, and there were even enough cameras to surround Nicollin on the pitch.

The last-gasp winner didn't confirm the title, but Montpellier need only a point at already relegated Auxerre this weekend.

"That was very emotional," the striker Giroud told The National. "The hairs were stood up all over my body. I've never experienced an atmosphere like it here.

"Reaching the Champions League is like a dream for me and this club."

"One match more," said the defender Garry Bocaly.

"It will be difficult, but I have every faith in the spirit of this team to be champions."

As fans flooded into the city's Place de Comedie until 4am on Monday morning to celebrate reaching the Champions League for the first time in their history, they hope their team can achieve the impossible dream of a first ever title this weekend. Hope, too, that the prospect of games against Europe's elite will help them entice Giroud, Belhanda and Yanga-Mbiwa away from Parisian advances and Bayern Munich's money.

They'll worry about that another day, first they want to continue the party.

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