Racing To The Bottom – RC Paris And The Failed Quest For Glory

As egotistical multimillionaire French businessmen with an interest in sport go, Bernard Tapie pretty much broke the mould. The former owner of Olympique Marseille, famous for buying the club unprecedented glamour and success in the early nineties – including the 1993 Champions League – saw it all come crashing down around him after the match-fixing scandal which resulted in OM being relegated from Ligue 1 as punishment. They were stripped of their 92/93 league title while he, eventually, was stripped of his liberté. Before this, he had also acquired ailing sportswear giant Adidas and been the principal benefactor of the Tour de France winning cycling team, La Vie Claire.

While Tapie cast a long shadow over French football, he was by no means the only industrialist to have developed a penchant for sporting pursuits.

Jean-Luc Lagardère was just about the most famous entrepreneur in France. Having earned his degree from the noted French engineering school École Supérieure d’Électricité (Supélec) he began his career with the Dassault Aviation company, manufacturers of both military and civilian jet airplanes. From there he moved on to armaments and missiles producer Matra (with whom he later became CEO), and by the time he died in 2003 from a rare neurological condition, his firm conviction in the diversification of his business interests had also seen him involved – to varying degrees of success and failure – in aviation and defence (Airbus Defence and Space), publishing (Hachette, Paris Match, Elle and others) and television (Tele 7 Jours, La Cinq). Yet, it was his grounding and understanding of the engineering world that continually sustained his economic success in the face of repeated setbacks in other industries and in the political arena; this enabled Lagardère to indulge himself in his other passion – sport.

Jean-Luc Lagardère

While working with Matra under the guidance of its owner and his mentor Sylvain Floirat, he merged several companies under its umbrella including car makers Automobiles René Bonnet. They soon exploited Bonnet’s expertise and began commercial production of iconic sports cars of typically French design. By the mid-1960s, Lagardère also branched into Formula 3 and Formula 2 racing before making the leap into the glamorous world of Formula 1 in 1968. Just a year later, with Jackie Stewart behind the wheel, the Matra-Ford team were crowned Constructors’ and Drivers world champions. They pulled out of Formula 1 just a few years later to concentrate on competing in the endurance sports car field, although their involvement as engine suppliers continued until 1982. Perhaps unsurprisingly, success was instant there too; Lagardère’s Matra-Simca MS670 car won the Le Mans 24-hour race for three consecutive years from 1972 to 1974 and the World Championship in 1973 and ’74.

If he enjoyed racing on four wheels, he positively adored the four-legged variety. Lagardère purchased the Haras d’Ouilly stud in France and became the leading breeder of thoroughbred race horses in the country. His steeds were recognisable around the world carrying the stud’s famous grey and pink colours to victory in such prestige events as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. Indeed, in 2002 that course renamed the Group 1 race for champion 2-year-olds – the Grand Critérium – the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère, in his honour, such had been his immense contribution to the sport in France over the previous 20 years.

Lagardère never shied away from a venture he truly believed in, whether it was in his business, political or sporting life, and although he suffered plenty of reverses, he always rebounded stronger than before. Those triumphs on the track and the turf instilled in him the conviction that he could take one more gamble and win: football.

Racing Club Paris’ (previously Racing Club de France) best days were most certainly behind them at the turn of the eighties. From their heyday in the 1930s and 40s, when they won one French Championship and the Coupe de France five times, financial struggles rendered them helpless against multiple relegations. However, Lagardère didn’t see problems, only opportunities; especially with his own new media ventures and French TV’s growing involvement in the sponsorship and coverage of football. He knew that to be a hit, particularly if you weren’t an established name, you had to create your own headlines and bring some razzamatazz to the venture. It had worked in spades in Formula 1 and sports car racing; the engineering magnate believed, with Racing, he could pull off the three-card trick in football.

Racing Club lived very much in the shadow of Paris St. Germain, who although only formed in 1970 and had experienced inauspicious beginnings, were occupying the city’s premier venue – the Parc des Princes – and had just won their first piece of silverware in 1982, the same year Lagardère became owner of the Colombes-based club. In order to build a viable opposition to PSG, Lagardère had to merge Racing with Paris FC, who, ironically, had also been part of a merger during PSG’s uncertain first steps in the French league but had regained their own identity in 1972.

Positive results were swift in coming as the newly merged entity earned itself promotion to Ligue 1 in just its second season, 1983/84; Algerian World Cup star, Rabah Madjer, a major influence with his goals in his first campaign of European football. Restructuring meant that by time Racing Club were lining up alongside French football’s elite, Paris FC were forcibly shuffled down to the fourth division, once again cast aside by those who used them as a vehicle by which to further their own ambitions.

To fulfil those ambitions, Lagardère was well aware it would come at a significant cost, but his motor racing experience told him it could be done, and to be the best you had to buy the best. He soon embarked upon a period of investment in the team that had rarely been seen before on such a scale in the European game. His aim was to rapidly elevate the small but historic Parisian football club into the continent’s hierarchy. It’s a philosophy that the likes of Real Madrid’s long serving president Florentino Pérez – architect of the modern day Galácticos project – is a fervent disciple of.

Matra, inevitably, were bankrolling the whole venture. Lagardère wanted to first emulate and then surpass the company driven sports clubs of Eindhoven (PSV/Phillips), Turin (Juventus/Fiat) and Leverkusen (Bayer 04/Bayer); while making a tidy profit at the same time. Football, he believed, could mean francs as well as frivolity.

They survived just one season in France’s top flight despite having moved into the Parc des Princes to share with PSG. The owner would not stand for such a loss of face, so further reinforcements were called for in the shape of prolific Congolese striker Eugene Kabongo and, more significantly, France international defender Maxime Bossis. The move worked, and Racing returned to Ligue 1 at the first attempt. Lagardère was determined the club would not suffer an immediate downfall again. That summer – the summer of 1986 – René Hauss, who had guided the team to promotion, would be furnished with the kind of players he needed to make a serious impact on the domestic and European scene.

If you were the agent or representative of world football’s finest players, and you heard that Paris had come calling, the obvious assumption would have been that PSG were interested. Although not the leading club in France as they are today, thanks to the backing of a mega-rich Qatari investment group, PSG was undoubtedly an attractive option; good money, good food, culture, art, glamour. It likely would have taken greater powers of persuasion to convince top athletes to sign contracts with this relatively unknown minnow trying to muscle in on the big boys’ turf. However, Lagardère knew what he wanted and, more crucially, exactly how to get it. His record in business was ample evidence of that.

Convinced by the goals of the project, or perhaps by the size of the pay packet on offer, Racing were able to attract Uruguayan stars Ruben Paz and Enzo Francescoli, West Germany’s playmaker Pierre Littbarski, and another of France’s top internationals and one of the midfield quartet known as ‘Le Carré Magique’ (the magic square), Luis Fernandez, who was pinched from rivals and title winners PSG.

On paper, Racing had the weapons capable of challenging for silverware. Yet, the season didn’t pan out as hoped, and despite the goals of Francescoli, the team limped to an apologetic 13th place finish; closer to the relegation positions than qualification for European competition.

Lagardère involved himself again, keen not to see either his faith or finances wasted. Firstly, he took the bold step to rename the club in honour of its principal owners. The name Matra Racing bore more of a resemblance to his former motorsports teams than a professional football club, but the increased exposure to the new name was at least some kind of advertising return to show for all the investment pumped in to this apparent rich man’s folly.

Believing that he had purchased the calibre of player needed to win the championship, he went and enticed a coach with a big enough reputation to get the best from them. Artur Jorge was the toast of the continent in 1987 after he guided unfancied Porto to an unexpected European Cup final triumph over Bayern Munich. Suitably impressed, Lagardère got his man.

The Portuguese manager – most recognisable for his thick, dark, drooping moustache – was able to bring about improvements in his first season in charge but they were still too far off the pace of the eventual winners, Monaco, who were coached by a young, professorial type named Arsene Wenger. Too many drawn matches and a chronic lack of goals thwarted Matra Racing, but in the industrialist’s dick waving contest between Lagardère and Tapie, honours were more or less even; the latter’s Olympique Marseille only topping the Parisians on goal difference in sixth place.

As his record in motor racing proved, Lagardère would often cut and run from one of his sporting projects after very little time, even if success had been forthcoming. Matra Racing had already taken up more of his time than most of his other diversions, so his patience began to wear thin by the start of the 1988-89 season.

Littbarski was already long gone but the other expensive recruits were still on board. They were joined by Dutch international Sonny Silooy, France defender Bernard Casoni, keeper Pascal Olmeta and a talented young winger by the name of David Ginola, among others. They were fully expected to give a good account of themselves.

By this time Bernard Tapie’s revolution at the Stade Vélodrome was well under way and served as a stark contrast to the sketchy achievements of Matra Racing. Marseille dominated the campaign, winning both Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France. Conversely, Racing’s season was an abject failure; they only avoided the drop to Ligue 2 by virtue of goal difference ahead of Strasbourg.

After eight years of patronage, including the name change in 1987, Matra and Lagardère had simply had enough. Having already ploughed in around 300million francs (approximately 46million Euros in today’s money) they did not see the sense in continuing to throw good money after bad. Matra Racing had been playing in front of virtual empty houses at Parc des Princes which meant they could not recoup the outlay on the players and management who had brought nothing but a seventh-place finish in Ligue 1. The losses at the bank proved to be as damning as those suffered on the pitch. Their subsequent decision to pull out was immediately vindicated; Matra’s stocks rose 5% on the announcement of their withdrawal.

The team returned to being called plain old Racing Club Paris again and the star signings dried up. Those who had arrived during the good times were beginning to drift away to find better situations; Francescoli, for example, left for the south coast and Tapie’s Marseille where he would pick up a championship winners medal.

Relegation duly caught up with Racing in 1989-90, hammering the final nail in the coffin of Lagardère’s grand football plan. Not even an appearance in the final of the Coupe de France could lift the gloom (they lost in extra time to a Montpellier side featuring Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc). They began the following season back at amateur level, where they have remained – under various names – ever since.

To rub salt into the Matra chief’s wounds, French football’s other great vanity project, Marseille, kept winning. And winning. Tapie’s money assembled one of the most renowned squads of the modern era, teeming with household names, that went onto to win more French championships and, eventually, fulfilled his dream of being crowned champions of Europe. It did, of course, all turn sour but it’s entirely possible that Monsieur Tapie thought it a small price to pay to have experienced football’s highs in a way that Jean-Luc Lagardère only ever dreamed about, despite risking so much of his money and reputation in the pursuit of.


Mark was the founder of the FBA nominated Football Pink site. You can find him these days on Twitter @thatmarkgodfrey

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