DERBY DU RHÔNE – The rivalry between Olympique Lyonnais and Saint-Étienne

Updated: August 18, 2013

Lyon St Etienne

Although not one of Europe’s best known rivalries, the Derby du Rhone played between Olympique Lyonnais and AS Saint-Étienne is, nonetheless, one of the most historic and keenly fought in French football. Separated by just 50km, the rivalry is one of many around the world that can trace its roots back to local antagonism and class structure.

With a population of 500,000, Lyon is a city of white collar workers and was once one of the most important merchant trading centres in Europe. In contrast, Saint-Étienne is working class city with its roots in coal mining. Described as the “most authentic derby in France”, the two clubs are a paradox as Lyon try to build a twenty first century legacy whilst St Etienne in modern times struggle to compete with its great teams of the past.

The clubs first met in 1951 and Saint-Étienne currently lead the head-to-head encounters with 38 wins, Lyon have triumphed 29 times and the clubs have overall met on 96 occasions. However since losing 3-0 in April 1994, Lyon went 16 years undefeated in the fixture until they were controversially beaten at the Stade de Gerland in 2010. Lyon had dominated the game, which has been common place over the past decade, however the turning point came when a cleanly won tackle by Kim Kallstrom on Loic Perrin was adjudged to be a foul. Up stepped Dimitri Payet for Saint-Étienne, whose free kick flew past Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to nestle neatly in the back of the net. To make matters worse, the home side also had a legitimate penalty claim turned down and post match confrontations with the referee ensued.

Saint-Étienne were a dominant force in the previous century, winning ten titles between 1957 and 1981 as well as six French cups and their distinctive green kits became famous across Europe. Their fall from grace however was spectacular. A financial scandal in 1982 led to the jailing of club president Roger Rocher and the discovery that two of their players were using false passports invoked a points deduction which led to relegation from Ligue 1 in 1984 and the club have struggled to recover ever since. A recent resurgence has seen them win the French League Cup in April 2013, their first trophy in almost thirty years.

Lyon’s recent success is well documented. From winning Ligue 1 for the first time in 2002, they won the next seven league titles in a row setting a new French record. They also reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and boasted players such as Michael Essien, Juninho Pernambucano, and Florent Malouda amongst their ranks. Lyon’s success has antagonised Saint-Étienne supporters as their rise and success has coincided with the Saint-Étienne’s decline and there have been suggestions by some that maybe as the two clubs are not in direct competition anymore, the fixture is beginning to lose its meaning. For Lyon, the big fixtures now are matches against larger French clubs such as PSG, Marseille and possibly in the future, Monaco.

Not many players have played for both teams with even fewer transferring directly. Aimé Jacquet knew more than most about the depth of feeling between the two clubs, yet after a thirteen year career with Saint-Étienne he crossed the divide and spent three years as a Lyon player before managing them to victory in the 1973 Coupe de France. Lyon legend Bernard Lacombe similarly transferred directly to Saint-Étienne in 1978, though his stay was less popular and Lacombe was jeered by St Etienne fans throughout the season. Annoyed by the anger towards him, Lacombe moved to Bordeaux after just one season.

Other incidents of antagonism include players being led off the pitch during a fixture in 2007. In the 52nd minute, St Etienne fans had unfurled a provocative banner towards the Lyon fans, who then responded by throwing flares towards the section of St Etienne supporters who were holding the banner. These same fans then threw the flares back towards the Lyon enclosure. The referee then sent players back to the changing rooms as police moved in with tear gas to try and control the degenerating situation. “You don’t come to a stadium to see that kind of thing. Let’s hope it never happens again,” said Lyon’s Malouda of the incident

In May 2012 it was the Lyon players themselves who were the instigators of heightened tensions between the two clubs. Having beaten Quevilly 1-0 in the final of the Coupe de France, the club displayed the trophy to celebrating fans outside the team hotel. Several players were alleged to have joined in with the fans in singing derogatory songs about Saint-Étienne whose club president Bernard Caiazo threatening to lodge a complaint to the French FA calling the incident “undignified”, whilst going on to state that “It is the duty of the players and officials to be respectful and not do something that can lead supporters to misbehave.”

Saint-Étienne goalkeeper Jeremie Janot went further by tweeting that those players involved should be punished in the same way that Olympique Marseille’s Taye Taiwo was for doing something similar. Janot also said that any future violence between fans would be the responsibility of those players who had been singing, “If, by any chance, there is misbehaviour and violence at the next derby, they are largely responsible. They have stirred up hatred,” Janot’s moral compass seemed to leave him somewhat though when he considered playing in an AC Milan shirt the week after Lyon were knocked out of the Champions League by the Italian giants.

There are moments of humour within the rivalry too. In 1967 St Etienne coach Jean Snella said of Lyon after they sneaked a victory in the French Cup; “they scored and then dangled a carrot at us” in annoyance at both the result and Lyon’s defensive tactics. At the next fixture Lyon fans bombarded the pitch with carrots, one of which hit Saint-Étienne player Georges Bereta, who promptly picked it up and ate it. The afore mentioned Lacombe who played for both clubs and is now a consultant at Lyon recently quipped that Saint-Étienne’s return to Ligue 1 was a good thing; “It’s good to have the Verts back this season,” he said. “That’s a guaranteed six points”

The rivalry itself is typical of many around the world. A local hatred between two neighbouring cities whose roots are both historic and class based. Couple that with the one team who has traditionally dominated being usurped by those they hate the most and there is a fixture which whenever played is a tinderbox of noise, controversy and excitement. Caiazo highlighted the colloquial and regional mentality of the rivalry when he expressed his annoyance at the Lyon players post match singing: “There are some big derbies, like Manchester City v Manchester United … you cannot imagine that the players [from these clubs] start singing these types of songs.”

This fixture is one where it is apparent that most fans of the clubs are not too bothered about other achievements in the season so long as they beat their noisy neighbours.

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