Friday, 18 December 2015

Clermont-Ferrand takes a most unlikely lead

I spent 24 hours that felt more like a week in Clermont-Ferrand a couple of years ago. It is a dull industrial city, home to the Michelin tire empire, with very little to recommend it to travellers or gourmets as a destination.

It is, however, surrounded by the gorgeous countryside of the Auvergne, where on the highlight of that particular day we visited the Bellonte farm, where guests a
re invited to watch all aspects of Saint-Nectaire cheese production. The Bellonte family has been making cheese since 1663. 

Like the town, the local football team, Clermont Foot Auvergne 63, has been a model of mediocrity since being founded in 1990 following a merger of two local teams.


The first incarnation of the club, dating back to 1911, had been similarly unsuccessful - with the city never having been represented in the French first division.

Clermont hit the headlines in 2014, when they became one of the first professional teams to appoint a female manager; Helena Costa. But less than a month after taking charge, Costa quit her job, saying she was merely "a face to attract publicity".

But club president Claude Michy was not to be dissuaded and appointed Corinne Diacre as her replacement.

A brave move - and one that has proved a stroke of genius.

Diacre was no football neophyte. She played 121 times for the French national women's team, many as captain, and had successfully managed her Soyaux women's club side.

She took over a team that had finished 14th in the French second division, fulfilling the roles of both sporting director and manager. 


It was a direct echo of the The Manageress, a British television series from 1989-1990 about a woman (a marvellous performance from Cherie Lunghi) who becomes manager of a professional football team.

The program was derided at the time as being completely unrealistic.

Diacre, however, has more than proved her worth. Recruiting cleverly on the second-lowest budget in the league, she guided Clermont Foot to a respectable 12th position in her first season.

As I write, Clermont Foot are third in the French second division - and would gain promotion to the Ligue 1 for the first time if they stay there.

Diacre, 41, has been rewarded with a new, improved contract through June 2018 and was this week named division two manager of the year by the respected France Football magazine. 

It has been a remarkable success given the many difficulties she has encountered, including gaining respect from a multi-national squad that includes several Muslims.

In France, she has been a sensation. The rest of the world has been slower to recognise her achievements.

"Yes, I had to say stop," she told France Football of her reluctance to do media interviews. "I don't need to be talked about every day in the press.

"Why am I the only woman? How am I different from the others? I didn't know.

"I wanted to stand back from all that and to work."

Now she has big ambitions - and no one is laughing any more.

"The dream would be able to get promoted into Ligue 1 with Clermont," she told France Football.

"Not to annoy people who were against my arrival but for the risk-taking of the president." 

At last a reason to visit Clermont-Ferrand.






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