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‘I felt tears in my eyes’ – how tiny Réunion team stunned French football | Paul Doyle | Football

Until a couple of weeks ago JS Saint-Pierroise were best known, paradoxically, as a byword for footballing obscurity. They are the remote club from which a 38‑year‑old Roger Milla was summoned out of semi-retirement to take the 1990 World Cup by storm. Since then several other dwindling strikers have followed in the Cameroonian’s footsteps but without the sensational late-career twist. Jean-Pierre Papin and Djibril Cissé have decided that a sojourn with the leading club on Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean nearly 1,000km east of Madagascar, was a darling way to wind down their playing days.

A few forwards have done things the other way around, with Réunion‑born Dimitri Payet being the most notable player to start his career at Saint-Pierroise before finding fame elsewhere. The former Liverpool attacker Florent Sinama‑Pongolle also began there and went back to play for them last year at the age of 34 before cutting short his stay in order to take up a punditry gig with French TV. But now all eyes are on Saint-Pierroise thanks to the exploits of the whole team, who have made history in this season’s Coupe de France.

On Saturday Saint-Pierroise will compete in the last 32 of France’s most prestigious cup competition for the first time, becoming only the second club from a French overseas territory to reach that stage, following Le Gedar of French Guiana in 1989. Getting there has been an extraordinary achievement and not only because their last tie involved the amateur side making an 18,000km round trip.

Saint-Pierroise play in the Réunion Premier League, a level comparable to the sixth tier of France’s regionally divided football pyramid. They gained entry to this season’s Coupe de France by winning the Coupe Régionale de France (thereby completing a treble, having also won their local cup and league). That earned them an away tie in November against Jura Sud, a fourth-tier club in eastern France. The Storks – as Saint-Pierroise are nicknamed – won 1-0 thanks to a magnificent volleyed goal by Jean-Michel Fontaine, who fans of Fleetwood Town may or may not remember as a forward released after making three appearances for them in 2013.

Next up for the islanders was a home tie against fifth-tier ES Thaon in front of more than 6,000 fans, who rejoiced when the hosts took an early lead. But then Saint-Pierroise had a man sent off and conceded a last-minute equaliser. Their resolve was severely tested. But they prevailed in a penalty shootout to reach the last 64 of the Coupe de France for the first time. Very few people expected them to go any farther when the draw handed them an away tie against Niort, a team from four tiers higher.

Saint-Pierroise play in the Réunion Premier League, a level comparable to the sixth tier of France’s regionally divided football pyramid

Saint-Pierroise play in the Réunion Premier League, a level comparable to the sixth tier of France’s regionally divided football pyramid Photograph: Richard Bouhet/AFP via Getty Images

But Saint-Pierroise sprung a huge shock by beating their Ligue 2 hosts 2-1. “At the final whistle I felt tears in my eyes,” said Fontaine. “What we are doing is truly crazy.” And yet it was a deserved victory for the side managed by Christian Dafreville, a Réunion-born former defender whose brief playing career in France amounted to eight appearances for Saint-Étienne in the 1980s. His team showed themselves to be cleverly organised and supremely determined and benefitted from splashes of quality from the Madagascar international defender Pascal Razakanantenaina, the former Blackpool midfielder Elliot Grandin and the 21-year-old striker Ryan Ponti, who scored the winning goal and said he hopes this cup run will act as a springboard to a professional career.

By the time Saint-Pierroise completed their 11-hour flight back home, Niort’s manager had been sacked and the draw for the next round had been made. At the same stage in 1989 Le Geldar, the team from French Guaiana, were pitted against a Nantes side featuring budding young stars such as Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps. They were crushed 11-0 (on aggregate, ties being two‑legged back then). Saint-Pierroise, by contrast, will face Épinal, a club 35 miles south of Nancy who are just the two tiers higher than them but boast a daunting home record.

“Frankly we’re a bit disappointed,” said Dafreville. “We would have liked to get a top‑flight team and finish our run like that … On the other hand, this draw leaves us with hope of progressing. But to do that we will have to prepare very well.”

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On Sunday Saint-Pierroise flew back to Paris to begin their preparations, then took a five-hour coach trip to their training base before, on Wednesday, drawing 2-2 in a friendly against Nancy’s reserves. Meanwhile, Réunion natives have been clamouring for tickets for Saturday’s big game and expressed their dismay that Épinal only gave the club the mandatory 10% allocation for a ground with a capacity of 3,500.

“We have been a bit taken aback by the level of demand,” admitted an official from Épinal, who said anyone wishing to support Saint-Pierroise could buy tickets on general sale. So on Saturday, despite being 9,000km away and in an entirely different climate zone, the team from the Indian Ocean will at least feel a little bit at home as they try to break even more new ground.

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