Talk about football in Paris and the conversation is likely to be dominated by Paris Saint-Germain after Les Rouge-et-Bleu completed a domestic treble last season. Laurent Blanc’s side are dominating French football at the moment while making impressive strides in the Champions League; it is difficult to see the Qatar-backed juggernaut being stopped given the club’s financial muscle.
However, in the shadows of the Parc des Princes, there is another Paris club making progress in France, with a rich history that dwarfs PSG’s 44-year existence.
Red Star Football Club was founded 118 years ago in 1897, only 25 years after France’s oldest football club, Le Havre, and three years after the integration of Association football as opposed to other forms of the game.
The founder of Red Star Club Français, as they were then known, was Jules Rimet, the former FIFA and French Football Federation president who was instrumental in designing the first World Cup. Rimet, a grocer’s son, had a strong connection with the working-class and, unlike other clubs in France, refused to discriminate against club members on the basis of class, an ideal that is still represented in the club’s identity as a banlieue working-class club.
Red Star joined the third division of the Union des Sociétés Françaises des Sports Athlétiques league in 1898 but had risen to the first division, under Rimet’s guidance, by 1904. The club changed their name to Red Star Amical Club following a merger with Amical Football Club, moving to Grenelle for three years before moving to Saint-Ouen, where the club still reside.
With the USFSA becoming increasingly disorganised Red Star joined the Ligue de Football Association in 1910, leading to a productive spell in the club’s history.
The 1912 season saw Red Star win their first honours in the shape of the Ligue Nationale and finish runners-up in the Trophée de France.
The French Football Federation was founded in April 1919, with Rimet installed as inaugural president, and Red Star went from strength-to-strength, winning four Coupe de France titles.
With French football clubs voting in overwhelming favour of embracing professionalism Red Star were founding members of the French Division 1, now Ligue 1, in 1932. The all-professional league, named National, contained the likes of Nice, Nîmes, Rennes and Sochaux, with two leagues of ten teams. The bottom three teams from each league were relegated while the two division winners met in a grand final.
Olympique Lillois from Lille won the inaugural title, while Red Star struggled and were relegated to Division 2. However they bounced back at the first time of asking and won the 1936 league title.
Red Star suffered a similar fate for the 1938-39 season, being relegated before winning Division 2. Another Coupe de France, the club’s fifth, followed in 1942 but honours would dry up after that.
Red Star yo-yoed between the top five levels of French football before hitting rock bottom and dropping into the sixth division in 2003. With the club on its knees Eric Charrier took over as president, to be swiftly succeeded by Bruno Davoine.
Promotion into the Championnat de France amateur 2 in 2006 was instantly followed by another promotion to Championnat de France Amateur a season later. The Parisiens stayed in the fourth division of French football until 2011, when they were promoted to the Championnat National.
Red Star could still rely on a prodigious youth academy to produce players for the first-team, although they rarely made an appearance before bigger clubs swooped. Abou Diaby and Moussa Sissoko are two examples of French internationals that both represented Red Star’s youth sides.
Alex Song grew up in a flat overlooking Red Star’s Stade Bauer stadium and the midfielder was quickly picked up after impressing in a trial, although he moved on to Bastia aged just 13, so evident was his talent.
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Read | A potted history of Paris Saint-Germain
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Last season saw Red Star promoted to Ligue 2 as champions, under the stewardship of manager Sébastien Robert and chairman Patrice Haddad, who took over from Davione. The victory was all the sweeter given Red Star finished four points above Parisian rivals Paris FC, ending the season with four straight victories including a final day 8-0 victory against Chambly.
Kévin Lefaix, who helped himself to a hat-trick against Chambly, ended the season as Championnat National joint top scorer on 21 goals, equal with Bourg-Péronnas’ Pape Sane. Lefaix is a typical example of Red Star’s squad that is built around experienced campaigners who have learned their trade in the lower levels of French football.
The 33-year-old joined Red Star in July 2013 after spells with AS Vitré, US Orleans and Poiré-sur-Vie. Lefaix was one of nine Frenchman aged 30 or above in Red Star’s squad last season, the eldest being 37-year-old captain Samuel Allegro, who is moving to Le Mans next season.
However, not all the squad have spent their careers grinding in French football’s lower tiers. For one player in particular the 10,000 capacity Stade Bauer must feel very intimate in comparison to Old Trafford where he used to play.
David Bellion was born in Paris but graduated through AS Cannes’ academy, before moving to England to join Sunderland without making a league appearance. After two years at Sunderland Bellion moved to Manchester United on a free transfer to play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
Unsurprisingly, given the presence of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha, Wayne Rooney and Diego Forlán, Bellion found first-team opportunities limited at Old Trafford. Loan spells with West Ham United and Nice resulted in a permanent move to Les Aiglons in 2006, where he finished as the club’s top-scorer, leading to a transfer to Bordeaux.
Seven years in Bordeaux ended in 2014 and, without a club, the 32-year-old returned to Paris to join Red Star in the third division, scoring eight goals last season.
Hameur Bouazza is another player who joined Red Star with top-flight experience following a nomadic career. The Algerian international played in England for Watford, Swindon Town, Fulham, Charlton Athletic, Birmingham City, Blackpool and Millwall, in Turkey for Sivasspor, in Cyprus for AC Omonia and Racing Santander in Spain before arriving at Red Star via Algerian club ES Sétif, scoring five goals last season.
There is also 23-year-old centre-back Pierrick Cros, who played one game for Saint-Étienne, 34-year-old goalkeeper Vincent Planté who played for both Cannes and Caen and 24-year-old midfielder Florian Makhedjouf who played for PSG in the Europa League.
With new manager Rui Almeida in charge preparations for Ligue 2 are well underway. Almeida is part of an exciting crop of Portuguese coaches like Valencia boss Nuno Santo and Monaco manager Leonardo Jardim, and has experience as an assistant at Panathinaikos and Sporting Braga.
The 45-year-old has used his knowledge of Greek football to sign defensive midfielder Yann Boé-Kane from Ergotelis on a free transfer while left-back Rémy Amieux has also joined on a free from Dutch side NAC Breda. The incoming signings are direct replacements for Julien Ielsch and Massiré Kanté who have joined Amiens and Racing Strasbourg, respectively.
While PSG may not be quaking in their boots at the prospect of their neighbours being promoted to Ligue 1, only themselves, Saint-Étienne, Lille, and Marseille can top Red Star’s haul of five Coupe de France trophies.
A return to the top-flight for the first time since 1975 is unlikely but just being back amongst the likes of Le Havre, Valenciennes and Auxerre is a testament to Red Star’s drive given that they were in the bottom level of French football just 12 years ago.
By James Robinson. Follow @JvmesJournalist