A $1 billion operation. The most financially powerful club in world football. The possessor of the two most expensive players in the history of the game. Today Paris Saint-Germain are a major player on the global soccer stage, perpetually in contention for the Champions League and reign supreme in France with seven titles and seventeen major trophies in the past eight seasons.
But twenty years ago Paris Saint-Germain, France’s foremost firepower, were humbled at the hands of a second division minnow for one of the most prestigious club accolades in the country.
It happened almost exactly two decades ago, on April 22, 2000. It became the singular occasion when FC Football Club Gueugnonnais won their only domestic title in their 80-year history, and remains the only time in French football history that a team from outside the top division has won the Coupe de la Ligue.
The names and the faces that achieved that miracle are virtually confined to the memories of the Gueugnon faithful. The Burgundy-based side now has to ply its trade in the Championnat National 3, whilst PSG maraud through the foremost division year after year and take the Champions League midweek spotlight, up against Europe’s elite rather than the likes of Jura Dolois, Pontalier, and Dijon’s reserves. You want a comparison? It’s Stockport County against Manchester City.
Sylvain Distin - later of City, Portsmouth, Everton, Bournemouth, and, yes, PSG - was a youthful 22-year-old centre-back just about to launch into an impressive career, the defender would become a Premier League institution, the top outfield foreign appearance maker in the division. And it was Distin, sporting a remarkable Eminem-esque bleached barnet and part of the Gueugnon backline in 2000, whose duty it was to try and tame and contain a PSG attack that had put them in contention to be champions of France, when they met in the Coupe de la Ligue final at the Stade de France.
“With the cup you have to take it game by game,” Distin tells The Sportsman about the background to the remarkable achievement in 2000, “But we had a really good season in the league (finishing fifth) and we had exited the Coupe de France to a big Ligue 1 side in Nantes in the Quarter-Finals, having beaten Olympique de Marseille (at the Stade Vélodrome!) 4-3 in the Last 16. The momentum was there, it had started early in the season, we had done well across competitions, and as a result you didn’t feel after every game ‘Oh my God, what the hell are we doing here?!’.
“It was taking it game by game, but after we started every match, we knew that we could do it.”
In six decades of existence however, Gueugnon had never had a sniff of a cup. And now they were playing Paris Saint-Germain for one of the three major domestic titles. Founded in 1940 in the commune in Saône-et-Loire, an area famous for its cow breeding, Gueugnon had spent their first forty years as an amateur club, eventually turning pro in just 1980.
“There were only 7000 people living in Gueugnon at the time,” Distin explains when they reached the final, “In comparison Paris had a population of nearly 10 million.
“But there were 15,000 Gueugnon fans inside the Stade de France: double the number of people living in the city! It was an amazing moment for all of us. Nobody expected us just to be here. It was simply ‘small club, small town’.
“A draw against PSG would have seemed like a win, and as a result we were able to play completely relaxed. We could just give our best, we knew it was going to be hard, but we could just ‘go for it’.”
Captained by the Senegalese Amara Traoré, Gueugnon proceeded to engage in a remarkable pre-match ritual that involved stomping on the ground, spreading themselves into a circle and then proceeding to run at each other full pelt into the centre, grit, determination and anger etched across faces, in a communal chest-beating.
“We did a lot of warm-ups that included drills that incorporated both mobility, and dancing and singing,” elucidates Distin, “It was a weird one, it’s more similar to American football or rugby. We were getting ready for war.”
And war it would be. Within the Gueugnon ranks, the brotherhood and camaraderie was palpable. You wouldn’t want to be going over the top with anyone else. This was going to be Parthia vs Rome at the Battle of Carrhae.
“Amara was amazing, he was the spirit of the team,” explains Distin, “I found the dressing room at Gueugnon to be very similar to what I would later find at Everton. It felt like a group of friends. With training it never felt that you were going to work. There was a great atmosphere and team spirit, and no problems in talking to each other about the good things or the bad things. You could confront people to their faces and nobody would hold grudges. I think now within football that’s difficult to find.”
Then it was time for kick-off, and immediately Gueugnon showed that they were unfazed by the occasion, matching Les Parisiens for chances, blow for blow, lashing attempts at the PSG goal, and frequently testing their keeper Dominique Casagrande.
Even a cock, sprayed yellow to match the colours of Gueugnon, invading the pitch couldn’t distract Distin & Co.
With the stalemate unbroken, in the 65th minute Gueugnon midfielder Nicolas Esceth-N'Zi unleashed a 25-yard hail mary, ricocheting off the post to which his teammate Marcelo Trapasso reacted quickest, evading the PSG defence and blasting a strike home, careening off to the bench in wild celebration.
“When we went 1-0 up it was a similar feeling to what we had felt going 4-0 up by halftime against Marseille in the Coupe de France,” says Distin, “We walked back into the dressing room thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?!”
In response, Ali Benarbia and Jay-Jay Okocha both attempted long-range efforts, but then came the famous triple-save from Gueugnon goalkeeper Richard Trivino. One shot, two shot, three shot; Trivino plus limbs repelled everything the PSG front-line could throw at him, leaving powerless striker Laurent Leroy bereft on the turf as Gueugnon kept their advantage. “As a defender you watch that and just go ‘Wow’,” comments Distin as he watched his comrade’s miraculous efforts.
With PSG launching bodies forward as the clock ticked down, Gueugnon substitute Sylvain Flauto decided to grab the spotlight in the 90th minute, deftly controlled a wild, driven clearance close to the half-way mark, and proceeded to pretentiously penetrate the enclosing Paris defence before a missile-guiding a low arrow of desire into the bottom corner.
It was done.
“PSG was different. We felt strong,” says Distin, “We didn’t feel like we were going to win the game, we just felt comfortable with what we were doing. We also knew they needed something special to beat us. We were very calm at 1-0, it felt more like 0-0, but after the second goal, that’s when we knew we were going to win the cup.”
Distin would in fact move to PSG soon after, playing alongside Ronaldinho, Mauricio Pochettino, future Man City teammates Benarbia and Nicholas Anelka, and players who would go on to be familiar Premier League faces in Okocha, Laurent Robert and Mikel Arteta. Though already with drastically different status, the two clubs’ fortunes would also depart from each other further. Whilst PSG were bought and have been bankrolled by the Emir of Qatar, Gueugnon dropped through the ranks to the third tier and were liquidated in 2011, later reforming to try and work up the league ladder.
“We did something that no other club had done before or has done since,” reflects Distin, “We were a Ligue 2 club who had won the Coupe de la Ligue. At the time you don’t think about it. It’s when you stop that you realise it’s quite special.”
After an exceptional career in England, Distin retired in 2016. Was he ever tempted to bring back the yellow hair?
“No. Certainly not! It was a one-off and it will remain that way!”
Gutsy Gueugnon, Coupe de la Ligue champions. It certainly was a one-off.