Saint-Etienne mired in deep malaise ahead of Lyon derby

SAINT-ETIENNE, France (AP) — Ahead of its biggest game of the season, Saint-Etienne is in the doldrums.

In normal days, Sunday’s reception of Lyon would be enough to turn the whole city into green, the traditional color of the team.

Among the most popular clubs in the country, Saint-Etienne and Lyon are only 60 kilometers (37 miles) apart and their rivalry is one of the fiercest in French football. Saint-Etienne dominated the league during the 1960s and ’70s and won a record 10 league titles while Lyon has the most consecutive French league crowns, seven from 2002-08.

A city with a strong industrial past, Saint-Etienne lost its past luster in the wake of a financial scandal that rocked the club in the 1980s, but the passion for soccer remains intact.

This week, however, Saint-Etienne fans are not in the mood to party.

Even the prospect of a full stadium on Sunday night can’t ease the growing fear of relegation in everyone’s thoughts: Saint-Etienne has not won a single match since the start of the season, earning just three points from its eight opening games to sit bottom of the standings.

It’s the club worst start since 1988 and the club faithful are losing patience. Following last week’s 3-0 home loss to Nice, they lashed out at the club owners, with some calling for coach Claude Puel’s departure.

“There are difficult moments, and in these moments the coach is often blamed. I take full responsibility,” said Puel, who joined the club two years ago. “It hurts everyone. but we won’t give up. The upcoming derby is a game apart, it can be the spark that will allow us to move forward.”

Since his appointment, Puel has rejuvenated the team but has not been able to compensate for the loss of experience in the process. Apart from the signing on loan of striker Juan Ignacio Ramirez, the club did not make any significant acquisitions during the summer transfer window, and Puel’s tinkering with the tactics and formations have not helped.

In addition to the grim picture on the field, the club is also going through financial difficulties that have deteriorated during the pandemic and the French soccer TV deal crisis. The club is officially on sale and could be purchased soon by a Cambodian prince.

Three years ago, France’s most decorated soccer club started negotiations with American investors that failed. Saint-Etienne owners Bernard Caiazzo and Roland Romeyer are still willing to sell, with Cambodian prince Norodom Ravichak among the candidates for a takeover.

Ravichak, who is competing with two other bidders, has pledged long-term investment.

“I am not coming to make a financial transaction,” Ravichak told RFI radio, confirming his bid in a recent interview. “I want to invest in the long term and take care of (Saint-Etienne). If we agree, I will bring sufficient means to achieve these ambitions and allow Saint-Etienne to regain its splendor.”


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