Paris (AFP) – Versailles might be far better known for its spectacular chateau than for its football team but the flourishing local club find themselves just 90 minutes away from a place in the French Cup final.
The fourth-tier outfit from just outside Paris face Nice in the semi-finals on Tuesday as they dream of making it all the way to the tournament’s climax at the Stade de France in May.
It is the second year running in which a team from France’s regionalised, amateur fourth tier has made it to this stage of the national knockout competition, after unheralded Rumilly-Vallieres lost 5-1 to Monaco 12 months ago.
For Versailles, hopes of a monumental upset against a Nice side lying third in Ligue 1 were compromised when they were forced to give up home advantage and accept the offer from their opponents to play the semi-final on the Cote d’Azur.
Their own stadium does not meet the necessary standards to host the game, and attempts to find a venue in Paris proved fruitless, leaving Versailles with little choice.
It turns out the chateau is partly to blame.
The Palace of Versailles is one of the country’s most-visited tourist attractions, but it is also a hindrance for the club.
Their little home ground, the Stade Montbauron, does not have good enough floodlighting to stage games at night and its close proximity to the chateau prevents them from installing pylons that might obscure the view of the UNESCO world heritage site.
However, Versailles were already forced to give up home advantage against Ligue 2 side Toulouse in the last 16, yet that did not stop them winning 1-0.
They then beat fourth-tier rivals Bergerac on penalties in the quarter-finals, with fans gathering to watch on a big screen in Versailles’ market square.
– Promotion the priority –
It has been a dream run already, but they have not come up against top-flight opposition, until now.
“A few months ago most people in Versailles didn’t even know there was a football team here but now they know there is more to the town than the chateau,” said Jean-Luc Arribart, a former professional player and a pundit on French television who is the club’s director general.
Versailles, with a locally-based property and construction firm as their majority shareholder, are top of their league and on course for promotion to the third division.
That is the priority, whatever happens in the Cup for a club where the likes of Thierry Henry and Hatem Ben Arfa spent time as youngsters.
“We can dream, but it would be a bit pretentious to imagine that we might win the Cup,” said Arribart before their win in the quarter-finals.
Beating Nice, a club with ambitions of reaching the Champions League under the ownership of British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, may prove beyond Versailles but this is hardly a park team.
While the club officially has amateur status, most players are paid to play.
Left-back Makan Traore is a former Paris Saint-Germain reserve team player who used to train with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and other superstars.
“One day I tried a backheel, gave the ball away and we lost the ball. I had Zlatan on my team and he just gave me a look,” he remembered.
“I didn’t enjoy the rest of the session but then afterwards he came up to me and kindly gave me some advice.”
Nice, who knocked out holders PSG on penalties in the last 16, are aiming to win the Cup for the first time since 1997.
The other semi-final sees Nantes take on top-flight rivals Monaco.
French Cup semi-final fixtures
Tuesday (2000 GMT)
Nice v Versailles
Wednesday (2015 GMT)
Nantes v Monaco
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