Croix-de-Savoie. Evian. Danone. These names will conjure up many images; Pasta, water, yoghurt, but most probably not football. That however, could all change thanks to the rise of an unknown, unheralded lower league French side currently motoring through the country’s football pyramid.
Back in 2005, Olympique Croix-de-Savoie as they were then known, carried a debt of €300,000 and were threatened by the prospect of relegation to CFA 2. It is a sign of just how crazy football has become, to think that Yaya Touré could have paid off their debts in less than a fortnight. Granted, it wouldn’t be another five years until he was being paid this much, but chronology need not get in the way of this particular example of the lunacy of modern day football.
Luckily, Olympique Croix-de-Savoie were rescued by similarly extravagant wealth through the Danone foods group – who hold the rights to bottle Evian water – and its chairman Franc Riboud, who is the honorary president of the club. The team asked Danone for help, and they duly obliged. Their financial backing set the then-Croix-de-Savoie on the way to Ligue 2, where they currently reside, having made an astonishingly quick climb through the French lower divisions to fourth place in the country’s second tier. Now the club are seriously flirting with promotion to Ligue 1 under the current management of coach Bernard Casoni; they changed their name too, to Evian Thonon Gaillard.
It is a story which has echoes of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, the German village club who rose from the Regionalliga Sud – or the German fourth division – in 2006 to the Bundesliga in 2009. Evian were playing in the French equivalent of the Regionalliga Sud – CFA – just behind the Championnat National, Ligue 2 and Ligue 1 in 2006. At the end of the 2007/08 season, the Parc des Sports outfit won promotion to the Championnat National, and last season won promotion again, moving into Ligue 2; the side now sit tantalisingly close to the top of the table, with the promised land of top flight football within touching distance.
As well as being sponsored by Danone, Evian have attracted a number of former Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 players such as former Nantes striker Nicolas Goussé and Olivier Sorlin, mainly thanks to the charisma, charm and persuasion of chairman Riboud.
Also aiding their progression have been a few high profile figures, from Zinedine Zidane to Bixente Lizarazu, who have invested tens of thousands each into the club, with further plans for attracting similarly household names to their roster of donors under way. With such backing, it is not too hard to understand how Evian have come so far, so quickly.
Despite such rapid progression, the club has its feet firmly on the ground. Its president, Patrick Trotignon, told Inside Futbol that the prospect of the club achieving promotion could be counterproductive, putting their strategy and long-term plans at risk.
"Yes, it’s sportingly possible [to win promotion]. It depends, promotion to Ligue 1 would pose us some difficulties. We must be structured properly, and our infrastructure currently is inadequate to be able to rejoin the elite of French football."
Instead, the club is concentrating on its long-term vision, and plans to create a sustainable model for success that will serve it well long in to the future will also benefit the surrounding areas. Trotignon revealed that a stadium has been discussed.
"We are considering a new stadium project. This stadium with flexible seating could hold between 12,000 and 20,000 spectators…a stadium is fundamental for the development and the sustainability of our club."
Just as well too, as Evian’s current stadium is unfit for purpose for the French professional leagues, and the club were forced to find an alternative venue to use this season. Trotignon’s side initially wanted to use the Stade de la Praille in Switzerland, which is also host to Swiss club Servette, as it is just over the border and close to Evian. Though the French Football Federation gave the move their approval, UEFA did not, and so the club have been forced to use a multi-purpose sports stadium, the Parc des Sports in nearby Annecy, near Geneva.
The club’s ambitions, according to Trotignon, are both sporting and social. This is not just a club with an eye on the sporting prize, but one with a commitment to the local area, and to young players in the Savoy region in which they are based. Evian plan to "create a football school with coaching of such quality to be able to put in place a training regime intended primarily for local talents from the Savoy region."
It is a plan which seems to embody the spirit of all those associated with the club, including the celebrity chef Marc Veyrat, another of their sponsors. Who does he see as a club Evian should model themselves upon? Lyon? Marseille? Paris Saint-Germain? Naturally enough, it is Auxerre, a team with a fine tradition of bringing through young talent whilst remaining near the top of the French football tree.
So concerned are Evian with the solidity of their project, that Trotignon takes the opportunity to point out that staying in Ligue 2 would be a good thing for the success of their plans: "The club is still young, so you have to stabilise at this level", he insists.
So far, so sensible. But it begs a question: How can a team with an eye firmly on solid, gradual progression, yet funded by a multi-billion pound corporation (Danone) have stormed through the hierarchy of French football so quickly?
“Our project has been accelerated by the Danone Group, this would not have been possible without the work of all – from sporting to administrative and commercial efforts, who have driven us to our results today. Everyone has had a part to play", explained the president.
And if Danone’s organisation and ambitions go to plan, it might not be too long before Evian Thonon Gaillard FC are gracing the top flight of French football.