St Étienne 3 Dynamo Kyiv 0 (aet)
European Cup quarter-final second leg, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, St Étienne, 17 March 1976
A flat green line animates a black screen accompanied by a long, ominous beep. French hearts had been beating to the rhythm of Saint-Étienne for a year or so, but on 3 March 1976 all signs of life appeared to be fading into a bitterly cold evening on the northern coast of the Black Sea.
Saint-Étienne had flown to Ukraine a couple of days earlier for the first leg of their European Cup quarter-final against Valeriy Lobanovskyi's formidable Dynamo Kyiv. For many of the team's players it was their first trip behind the Iron Curtain. Their opponents were the Cup-Winners' Cup holders with the current European Player of the Year in their ranks, Oleh Blokhin.
An already daunting experience was made even more so when they touched down not in Kyiv but in Simferopol. With the pitch at Dynamo Stadium still frozen, the match had been moved from the Ukrainian capital. It was thought that conditions in the subtropical climes of Crimea would be ideal. Not for the first time, Uefa were wrong. "They sold the place to us as if it were the Cannes of the Soviet Union," recalled Jean-Michel Larqué, the club captain. What they found was thick snow.
Adding to their general feelings of unease were the sinister Kafka-esque trappings of the local Soviet regime. Even Pierre Repellini, the team's dressing-room joker, failed to see the funny side. "We were in a hotel with 100 rooms on each floor," he said. "However, we were on a floor where the heating didn't work. Alain Merchadier and I had to sleep in the same bed to keep warm."
Beyond the superficial complaints of some players were the political views of the others. Saint-Étienne's sinuous winger Dominique Rocheteau, whose angelic face adorned the posters of many a French teenager's bedroom, was widely known to harbour strong socialist views. In 1978, he and a group of players arranged to meet the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy at the French embassy in Buenos Aires to discuss whether to boycott the World Cup in protest at the military junta then in charge of Argentina.
His trip to Simferopol was a formative experience in that regard and served to check his idealism. "Before I had sympathy for this country," Rocheteau wrote in his autobiography On m'appelait l'ange vert(They Called me the Green Angel). "I had grown up in a family that was very engaged with the left. One of my uncles declared himself a Communist. But there, when I touched the daily reality of the Soviet Union with my fingertips, I became disenchanted. It was a lot less seductive than the legend. What struck me was the presence of the army. It was everywhere. At the airport. In the streets. At the hotel. I got the impression that the people here lived under permanent surveillance."
Rocheteau wasn't far wrong. Saint-Étienne were also being watched, and not from a scouting perspective. "A soldier with a kepi welcomed us," Larqué remembered. "He opened up an empty road for us. When we left our rooms, the soldier with the kepi was there waiting. When we made our way to the stadium, he was there again. When we went to the toilets, same story. Was it the same man? Or several with the same uniform? It was like a bad dream and in the end it destabilises you. The Soviets have always been great chess players and I got the impression that we were pawns on a chess board."
With the pitch covered in snow, Saint-Étienne trained the night before the game on an indoor basketball court. As kick-off approached, the weather showed no sign of relinquishing its icy grip on Simferopol. Realising that something drastic had to be done if the first leg were to go ahead as planned, the local authorities shifted a set of jet engines to the ground and used them to clear the pitch while four anti-aircraft installations projected light from each corner to stop the fog from falling. It was a Potemkin village fit for the Empress Catherine, but not for Saint-Étienne.
The playing surface was as hard as the coalfaces up in Donetsk. True, it wasn't quite pitted black rock, but the pitch was covered in treacherous black ice, which as it expanded had left the pitch perilously cracked and uneven. The wind was blowing a gale, too. "You had to kick the ball like a mule to clear it well so it didn't come back towards goal," said Christian Lopez, Saint-Étienne's mustachioed libero.
The chess hadn't finished either. Dynamo's opening move was a simple mind-game, and it left a tough-tackling defender like Merchadier in a state of anxiety. "Just before we took to the pitch, we were informed by some random guys that our wives, who were due to fly out to see the game were still up in the air because of the adverse weather conditions," he remembered. "Of course it wasn't true."
Intentionally or not, Dynamo had managed to get under Saint-Étienne's skin. In some respects, Lobanovskyi needed to do so. While to many his side were the overwhelming favourites for the tie, they were neither playing at home nor did the conditions suit the neat, precise and fluid style of play that he demanded.
The former Ukrainian Footballer of the Year, Volodymyr Muntyan, was out with an injury and Dynamo missed the midfielder's vision and economy of passing. He was a key cog in a machine that was still rusty. The Soviet Supreme League was yet to start and Dynamo, without competitive matches since November, had travelled to Germany and Yugoslavia for a series of warm-up fixtures.
Saint-Étienne's head of recruitment and chief scout, the industrious Pierre Garonnaire, had been on their tail, gathering as much intelligence as possible. His proclivity for espionage led to the nickname 'Philby' after the most notorious member of the Cambridge Spy Ring. Like a character from a John Le Carré novel, Garonnaire would smuggle primitive camera equipment across Europe's borders so he could film the opposition.
Still, the best chance Saint-Étienne had to see Dynamo came shortly before the first leg, when Lobanovskyi brought his side to France to play a friendly against Nantes at the Stade Marcel-Saupin. The Soviets were out of practice and stuttered, but in flashes they showed the class that had beaten Ferencváros in the 1975 Cup Winners' Cup final. Blokhin in particular caught the eye when in the first half he accelerated at such blistering pace that within 10m he had taken 5m out of Nantes's centre-back Maxime Bossis and his defensive partner, the right-back Ángel Bargas.
The Ballon d'Or winner had evidently recovered well from a niggling muscle injury suffered the previous December. Sat in the stands with the rest of his Saint-Étienne teammates that day was the lean Martinique-born full-back Gérard Janvion. If he was under any illusion as to the size of the responsibility that came with marking a player like Blokhin then the rather arrogant advice to "hang on to my coat-tails" from his pale blond-haired opponent left him in no further doubt.
Blokhin was like a MiG fighter jet with the ball at his feet. Speed ran in the family. His mother, Catherina Adamenko, was a 60m hurdles champion and Oleh inherited her fleet of foot. Valentin Petrovski, the coach of the double Olympic gold medalist Valeriy Borzov, went so far as to claim that Blokhin would have had a great career as a sprinter if he hadn't become a footballer. One day, Petrovski clocked Blokhin running the 100m in 10.7 seconds.
Yet, according to Blokhin, a well-practised orchestra like Kyiv was anything but a one-man band. Talking to France Football before the first leg, he played down his influence. "You're making too much of a clamour about me," he said. "I am only one link in a chain. I am no different to my teammates."
In that same interview, he also hinted that Saint-Étienne had yet to see the real Dynamo. "One thing is for sure," he said. "Rocheteau and his teammates, who came to spy on us in Nantes, they won't recognise us. We have kept some strength in reserve."
His comments generated great debate among the press in France. They asked whether that wily fox Lobanovskyi had deliberately tried to put Saint-Étienne off the scent? It certainly felt like he had. "We thought that this team would be lacking in competition. But that was a big mistake. We didn't quite sense the danger," admitted Oswaldo Piazza, Saint-Étienne's lion-hearted Argentinian centre-back.
Dynamo were still an unknown quantity, but not for much longer. After a calm and assured start in the bleak surroundings, Saint-Étienne's nerves began to fray. Dynamo attacked from the off, setting off at a furious pace. Webs of short one-touch passes were spun, entangling the visitors in their own third of the pitch. The apparent innocuousness of their build-up play revealed itself to be insidious when Leonid Buryak picked up a pass from his captain Viktor Kolotov just a few feet inside the Saint-Étienne half. There didn't seem to be any imminent threat as the right-sided attacking midfielder let the ball run across him then followed it towards the sideline. But Buryak then checked back, straightened up and fizzed a low shot from 35 yards. The ball skimmed up off the turf, bypassed the Saint-Étienne defence and left their experienced Yugoslavian goalkeeper Ivan Ćurković reeling.
Ćurko spilled the ball just a few inches in front of him and, sniffing blood, the wolves of the Dynamo attack went in for the kill. Blokhin pounced, as did his strike partner Volodymyr Onyshchenko, who shot from point-blank range. Ćurković dived at his feet, fully extending himself, taking out Onyshchenko and coming away with the ball.
Dynamo had signalled their intent and weren't about to surrender the initiative. After 21 minutes, a corner was floated into the Saint-Étienne penalty area, drawing the red and yellow figure of Ćurković out of his goal. He managed to get a strong punch on the ball, which veered outside of the box to the right where Dynamo's regista Anatoliy Konkov was lying in wait. He whipped a volley with the toes of his right boot and saw it take a deflection off Dominique Bathenay, deceive Ćurković and land in the net.
It was one-way traffic. White and blue shirts came from everywhere, an overload on one side created an overlap on the other, and so it was when, seconds after the break, Kolotov dashed into the box and found himself alone with a cross hanging in the air begging to be hit. He leapt to meet it in midair and bang. Luckily for Saint-Étienne, Janvion came across to cover and got his body in the way.
Far from content, Kyiv sensed that Saint-Étienne were there for the taking and went for the knock-out blow. It came somewhat fortuitously in the 54th minute when Buryak teed up a free-kick a yard or so outside the box for Volodymyr Veremeyev to ping at goal. The Saint-Étienne wall held up well, but the ball bounced back to the feet of Blokhin. He nonchalantly struck the rebound first time, catching Ćurković flat-footed as the ball bobbled once, twice, and then for a third time before slowly finding the left-hand corner. It was a cruel blow, but Dynamo deserved nothing less and Saint-Étienne had to resort to damage limitation.
With the final whistle drawing ever closer, the commentator Hervé Duthu was joined in the gantry by a subdued Roger Rocher, Saint-Étienne's straight talking president. "As anticipated an accomplished Kyiv side…" Duthu mumbled. "Yes," Rocher replied. "We knew that and indeed in this match, we have seen a superb team of European pedigree, a team that is capable of winning the European Cup. The scoreline makes sense, but I do think we put in a decent performance all the same."
Detecting a faint note of optimism in Rocher's voice, Duthu asked, "Do you think Saint-Étienne can peg back these two goals?" Not one to shy away from a challenge, Rocher appeared to rediscover the swagger that had once led him to claim Saint-Étienne would always be the capital of French football and Lyon its suburb. "Nothing is impossible at the Geoffroy-Guichard," he reminded the millions watching on television back home. "Anything is possible."
In the immediate aftermath Saint-Étienne's players weren't so sure. Walking back down the tunnel, Piazza shook his head and was heard to say, "Ouf, the merry-go-round is over." He wasn't the only one who felt in a spin. Lopez, his partner at centre-back, spoke in awe of Dynamo. "We should have lost by four or five goals," he confessed. "Of all our matches, it was the one we controlled the least — perhaps out of fear but above all because of their great individual skill. They went at a speed of 200mph, and were capable of going from defence to attack in a hundredth of a second."
Kyiv's performance dominated discussion on the plane home. They were likened to Ajax and spoken of as the Soviet national team. Jacques Santini, watching on the bench that night, compared Konkov's display to that of Clodoaldo for Brazil at the 1970 World Cup. Unsung though he might have been, it was his positioning and metronomic passing that allowed the likes of Gerson, Tostão, Jairzinho and Pelé to thrive.
Another Kyiv player coming in for praise was Veremeyev, this time from Patrick Revelli, the versatile Saint-Étienne attacker with the wispy look of a musketeer. "Dynamo really came from another planet," he said. "If I retained an admiration for Franz Beckenbauer, a great gentleman who knew the art of making the right decision with a great sense of anticipation and a lot of class then how could I not rave about the immense talent of Veremeyev?"
But for all the admiration they had for Lobanovskyi's side, Saint-Étienne weren't about to roll over and be tickled by Dynamo. The mood in the camp was disconsolate but defiant. For the most part, the players were in a deep funk. Larqué apparently didn't bother taking a shower between the first and second legs, so desperate was he to pick up where the match left off and put things right.
Ćurković was also bitterly disappointed. He had been Saint-Étienne's Man of the Match in Simferopol, making a string of saves that kept his side in the competition. That the second leg wasn't already a dead rubber was purely down to the reflexes of Ćurko. But initially even he had his doubts about salvaging the tie.
"Frankly," he said, "we had the feeling that we would never manage to beat this side. They played like a basketball team with moves that had been worked on in secret, which they knew off by heart. Whether it was five-men or eleven-men, they came from everywhere."
But slowly, the red mark from the slap Kyiv had dealt Saint-Étienne's face faded and a knowing smile started to emerge. After all, no one beats Saint-Étienne at the Geoffroy-Guichard. Not Dynamo. Not anyone. The place was a fortress, known to the French as le chaudron (the cauldron) or l'enfer vert (green hell).
If Lobanovskyi had done his homework, which seems likely, he would have discovered from a quick glance through Saint-Étienne's results that they were in the middle of an unbeaten run at home that had started on 24 March 1973. It wouldn't end until 19 August 1977, more than four years later.
Saint-Étienne had done the double in 1974 and did it again in 1975. Their dominance was absolute. "At this rate, Saint-Étienne will be champions for 10 years," the Nancy president Claude Cuny lamented. That wasn't hyperbole as the French contingent of the side — everyone except Ćurković and Piazza — had an average age of just 22.
The seeds Saint-Étienne had planted when Rocher walked into the boardroom at the Geoffroy-Guichard 15 years earlier were beginning to blossom. He didn't just come with a pipe sticking out of his mouth billowing about as much smoke as the red brick chimney rising from the steelworks behind one of the stands. He came with a plan to build a team based on the ideals of youth, hard work and courage, a team that was in touch with its roots and reflected its origins.
Saint-Étienne was an industrial town. The road signs pointing in the direction of the Geoffroy-Guichard also led to the region's mines where Rocher had spent a decade working. Central to the realisation of the project that he had in mind was Garonnaire, a native of the city with a leather goods store on the rue de Chambon. He had played a part in the foundation of the club and briefly turned out in their colours as a defender.
Hired by the coach Jean Snella in 1950, Garonnaire was known in local circles to have a keen eye for a player and focussed on finding the stars of the future. There was no better talent scout in France. His suitcase was always packed. Garonnaire travelled up and down the country watching and listening. He'd stand behind the goal at a village or inner-city game looking pensive in a thick fisherman's sweater with his arms crossed. His presence got the parents talking. "Who's he?" they asked, and often by the end of the day there was a knock at their door. It was Garonnaire with a contract in one hand and a train ticket to Saint-Étienne in the other.
The case of Santini was typical; he'd been brought to the club as a teenager and was formed in their image. He would marry a girl from Saint-Étienne and call his son Stéphane after the city's patron saint, much as Johan Cruyff did in Barcelona with Jordi. What Garonnaire understood was that the great teams in football are characterised by the nurture and development of players from a young age, so they create a bond, an extrasensory perception of where they should move and where their teammates are moving.
Hervé Revelli, the club's rangy striker and the elder brother of Patrick, touched on this when he said, "There wasn't a No.1 or a water carrier. There were 13 or 14 players, most of whom were built in the same mould and found themselves together at the right time during an age when such a group could spend a lifetime together. The players could evolve in several different positions. We didn't know if it were 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-1-3-2."
Gérard Farison, a spirited full-back born and bred in Terrenoire, the coal-rich banlieue of Saint-Étienne, agreed. "We found each other with our eyes closed and were able to develop an organisation of play invented by Ajax which demanded a lot of being complementary," he said. "I'd go forward and [Christian] Synaeghel would naturally take my place. It was the same thing for Janvion on the other side, a real game of checkers."
For Saint-Étienne, this organic understanding was established in the Gambardella Cup, France's prestigious youth tournament, which they won in 1970 with the 'seven samurai', Garonnaire's precocious group of kids. Two years later a decision was made to promote them to the first team to coincide with the arrivals of Ćurković and Piazza from Partizan Belgrade and Vélez Sársfield respectively. Both were players of experience brought in especially to complement the leadership and expertise shown by Larqué, and to impart their wisdom on the youngsters.
"I remember what I said to academy graduates like Jean-François Larios and Félix Lacuesta," Ćurković said. "'You're going to leave a little bit of yourselves behind in training, agreed?' They'd look at me with big frightened eyes." It seemed as though the message got through to everyone except Larios. The midfielder would later be sent home from the 1982 World Cup amid rumours that he was having an affair with Michel Platini's wife.
But leaving that aside, and returning to Garonnaire, perhaps Saint-Étienne's most important find of all was that of Robert Herbin. Distinguished by a gaunt face and a shock of fiery red hair more typical of the Irish than the French, he had been spotted on the Côte d'Azur at Cavigal Nice in 1957.
Herbin was a midfield anchor when he first joined Saint-Étienne under Snella, but after the appointment of the great Albert Batteux in 1967, his best position came to be re-evaluated. Bébert-la-science or Know-it-all-Bertie quickly intuited that, with his great tactical awareness, athleticism and ability to organise the play, Herbin would be perfect playing in defence alongside the robust Bernard Bosquier. He would be the man to start the play from the back, a key tenet of Batteux's jeu à la rémoise, the style of football that he had made famous with Stade de Reims by reaching two European Cup finals.
It was a tactic that underpinned the first great Saint-Étienne side, spearheaded by Salif Keita, the Black Pearl from Mali. From 1967 to 1970, they won four league titles in a row and the Coupe de France on two occasions. Batteux quit in the summer of 1972, ostensibly because he had fallen out with Rocher over the sale of a player, but more likely in tacit recognition that he had failed to take the club forward in Europe. Saint-Étienne couldn't make an impression on the continent under Batteux. The magic touch that he had shown at Reims only extended as far as the second round in 1967-68 and 1969-70, a season when they did at least hint at what was to come a few years later against Dynamo Kyiv by reversing a 2-0 first-leg defeat to Bayern Munich with a 3-0 victory at the Geoffroy-Guichard.
Such a valiant display was in vain as Batteux's side then lost home and away to the explosive Legia Warsaw of Kazimierz Deyna. Frustrated, the ambitious Rocher consulted Garonnaire on identifying a successor. The candidate had to understand Saint-Étienne and personify its values. With that in mind, they went down to the training ground and handed the reins to a shocked Herbin, then just 33. "When I was named Saint-Étienne coach," he admitted, "I went to see Snella, my old boss, and asked his advice. I levelled with him and said, 'I am an amateur.'" Still, it wasn't as if the horse didn't know how to be a jockey. Herbin was a winner.
After an operation in 1966, his father, one of France's elite musicians and a member of the Paris Conservatoire with a Premier Prix de Trombone to his name, sent Herbin a present as a pick-me-up. It was Mahler's second symphony, better known as the Resurrection. It would provide the perfect score for his coaching career at Saint-Étienne and their second leg fight-back against Dynamo Kyiv.
The influence of classical music was keenly felt in Herbin's football philosophy. "My father practised his scales every morning," Herbin wrote in his book Le football, mot à maux (Football, Word for Pain). "He was a perfectionist, repeating the gestures a thousand times in order to become proficient at executing notes at the right time."
It was this pursuit of control, rhythm and playing from memory that would separate the Herbin era from that of Batteux, elevating Saint-Étienne from the stalls to the stars. The jeu à la rémoise, although pleasing on the eye, was criticised for its politeness and came to be considered too brittle to withstand the huff and puff of a game that was leaving its amateur past behind for professionalism. Herbin responded to the change by laying an emphasis on fitness like no one else in France at the time.
"When I took charge of Saint-Étienne, I always insisted on athletic qualities," he explained. "In order to express yourself, you have to be physically prepared. I remember being occasionally criticised on this point at the time. Some reproached me for being too concerned with the physical side of things. But for me it constitutes an essential starting point, like musical theory for learning an instrument. Only intuition, subtlety and intelligence can be considered innate gifts."
Training would start with 20 sprints round the pitch and was aimed at taking Saint-Étienne's players to the limits of their endurance. "All exercises must be accomplished right to the end," Herbin would shout. Guy Drut, France's future 110m hurdles Olympic gold medalist, one day came down to work out with Saint-Étienne and found it difficult to catch his breath. It was simply too much for some, such as Yves Triantafilos, the rugged target man known as Tintin, who actually bore a greater resemblance to Captain Haddock.
Triantafilos jumped ship after the 1974-75 season, telling reporters, "It sometimes felt like going to work in a factory." In some respects that's what Saint-Étienne wanted. It helped the fans relate to the team. "The people who come to the Geoffroy Guichard are tough," Herbin said, "because they have to fight to survive. Football is not just an outlet for them. They also want to recognise themselves in the team."
Herbin, however, didn't seek to burn out his charges. "The punch and vivacity must be preserved in football," he said. "When I was at my peak, I was also drawn to classical dance. I saw it as an art like football in that I believe a successful move involves minimal effort and efficiency, which in turn gives you more credibility. Even nowadays, an elegant player, to whom everything comes with ease, tires less on the one hand and is more efficient on the other. That contributes to a form of expression."
It was this blend of technique and physique that made Saint-Étienne such a potent force under Herbin. With the league championship already wrapped up in 1975, he could even afford to lace up his boots, pull on the green shirt and temporarily step out of retirement to play in his side's final game of the season against Troyes. He managed to score a penalty, the last of his side's goals in a 5-1 win.
Unrivalled in France, Saint-Étienne sought challenges elsewhere. "In the league it was enough to turn up at the ground, put one foot on the pitch and you knew that we were going to win, but in the European Cup it was different," said Dominique Bathenay, a midfielder voted the revelation of 1974 by France Football with the build of a welterweight boxer and a haymaker of a left foot that would stun Ray Clemence and Anfield in 1977.
The trophy established by Gabriel Hanot became the focus of Saint-Étienne's efforts. "After Herbin took charge, the European Cup became a real objective and no longer a reward for the younger players as it sometimes was under Batteux," Merchadier said. That in turn led to change of mentality It was time to get over their inferiority complex and shatter the glass ceiling of the second round.
The breakthrough came on 6 November 1974, the second leg of Saint-Étienne's tie with Tomislav Ivić's Hajduk Split. The Dalmatian outfit, then in the midst of their own golden age, an era marked by the five straight Yugoslav Cups and four local championships won between 1971 and 1979, had all but booked their place in the quarter-finals.
Hajduk had hammered Saint-Étienne 4-1 at their old Stari Plac ground, where the mop-haired winger Ivica Šurjak wiped the floor with Merchadier. No one gave les Verts a chance; except Herbin, of course. "We have to win 3-0," he acknowledged. "It'll be difficult, but not impossible. We were humiliated by Bayern Munich in 1969. The fans wouldn't bet a franc on us but we qualified."
The fans didn't have much faith this time either. No French team had ever come back from a three-goal deficit in Europe. Only 26,381 supporters showed up at the Geoffroy-Guichard that night, leaving more than 12,000 seats empty. But those in attendance witnessed the unthinkable.
Leading at half-time after Larqué had volleyed in a free-kick that had been nodded down by Hervé Revelli, Saint-Étienne's hopes appeared to fade when Micun Jovanovic got behind their defence and poked a shot beyond Ćurković on the hour. Barely a minute later, though, Bathenay headed in a corner and belief was restored. Surging forward, Synaeghel went over in the box and won a penalty, which Georges Bereta converted. With the clock ticking and a fourth goal still needed to take the game into extra-time, Herbin tried one last throw of the dice.
He brought on Triantafilos for the left-back Repellini with 10 minutes to go and 'Tintin' instantly rewarded his coach, whipping a ball that had been cleverly slipped through by Revelli past the goalkeeper Rizah Mešković and into the left-hand corner. Suddenly faced with extra-time, the Hajduk players looked at each other in disbelief.
In the 114th minute, Saint-Étienne won another free-kick on the edge of the box and Bereta, now fighting cramp, laid off a pass to the fresher Triantafilos who belted the ball past Mešković. "After that, the world fell in," he said. Saint-Étienne won 5-1. They were in the last eight, the first French side to reach that stage in 12 years. "It was the true beginning of l'Épopée Verts (the Green saga)," Triantafilos went on. Saint-Étienne would come unstuck in the semi-final against Bayern with Beckenbauer and Bernd Dürnberger ending their dream of playing a final at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
But by then, the whole country was behind one team. "Why aren't les Bleus like les Verts?" asked France Football in a Q&A with the national team coach, Stefan Kovacs. After Split anything was possible, and that performance became the reference point for the second leg against Dynamo, the reason to believe in a turnaround.
"The more days that separated us from the first leg, the more our confidence came back," said Christian Sarramagna, the team's fragile outside-forward, who had a left foot like a Stradivarius. "In our heads we were already imagining beating them just to get revenge for the affront of the first leg. Then, on the day of the match, we were all convinced we would qualify."
Not everyone shared Sarramagna's optimism. The glass at L'Équipe's offices, for instance, were still half empty. They gave Saint-Étienne a 40 per cent chance of going through to the next round and claimed that, even with the mental strength the players had gleaned from their encounters with Bayern in 1969 and Split in 1975, another reversal would be too "Hollywood-like" to comprehend.
Ćurković's experience of overturning a 4-1 first leg defeat to Sparta Prague with Abdulah Gegić's Partizan Belgrade en route to the final in 1966 was also disregarded. But Saint-Étienne were now used to making comebacks of great improbability.
The Geoffroy-Guichard wasn't known as the Lourdes of French football for nothing. Miracles did happen. So on the morning of the game, the team had breakfast as usual at the Novotel Hotel in Bouthéon. There was no drama. No tension. The starting XI was released and although the system would remain a 4-3-3, Herbin made one change, introducing the more natural and unpredictable Sarramagna on the flank in place of Patrick Revelli. The aim was that of occupying Kyiv's right-back Volodymyr Troshkin, he of the owl-like eyebrows, whose raids in the first leg had been a thorn in Saint-Étienne's side.
Faith was retained in Janvion across on the other wing. A subdued display in Simferopol was put down to the passing of his mother, whose funeral he had attended in Martinique just days before. He alone had the pace to go toe-to-toe with Blokhin and could induce a bead of sweat or two on the brow of his Kyiv opponents by carrying the ball forward. Herbin also needed a quick word with his centre-back, Piazza. The constant swapping of positions by Dynamo's strikers in the first leg had left the Argentinian scratching his head in confusion. Now, more than ever, he would have to be fully focused if Saint-Étienne were to prevail.
Anxious to redeem himself, Piazza promised "to take Kyiv by the throat." Patrick Revelli also warned his opponents to expect "a real pressing." And that's just what they got. Saint-Étienne came out of the tunnel at the Geoffroy-Guichard as if they were going over the top out of the trenches.
In the opening minutes Larqué stood over a free-kick about 25 yards out from goal and instead of pausing to assess his options, he gestured his teammates to get forward with great urgency. To him, there was no time to waste. Saint-Étienne had to land the first blow. He played a short diagonal pass to Synaeghel who was closed down by Buryak for a throw-in. The chance was gone. But already Dynamo got the feeling that they might have kicked over a hornet's nest in the first leg. Saint-Étienne were swarming forward and from a panicked Konkov clearance a few minutes later, it was possible to discern during the flight of the ball that only one green shirt — that of Lopez — was still back in Saint-Étienne's half.
There was no let up. Yet occasionally Dynamo threatened and when they did, a silence fell on the Geoffroy-Guichard. "We were afraid of their counter-attacks," Hervé Revelli admitted. "The fans shared the same apprehension as us. They encouraged us when we had the ball, but when the Soviets recovered it, everyone was silent."
Twice in the first 10 minutes, Dynamo came out of their shell. The marauding Troshkin, not checked by Sarramagna, attempted to dart into the box from the right after a swift exchange with Kolotov, but Farison ensnared him with a snapping tackle. Unable to clear their lines, there was danger again, as Kolotov, supported by Veremeyev, emerged on the right of the penalty area, but a miscommunication between the two Dynamo players meant a relieved Farison could shepherd a mistaken pass back to Ćurković.
Poor decision-making in the final third was to dog Lobanovskyi's side all evening. The data printouts back in Kyiv made uncomfortable reading for Dynamo's resident scientist Anatoliy Zelentsov. An android voice saying "MAL-FUNC-TION" wasn't yet echoing off the walls of the laboratory, but after once claiming "a team that commits errors in no more than 15 to 18 per cent of its actions is unbeatable," Lobanovskyi knew his side were fallible.
His approach, perhaps mindful of the difficulties other Soviet sides had faced away from home, was overly conservative. An extra man was added to the midfield as the 4-3-3 used in the first leg gave way to a 4-1-3-2. Konkov acted as a rudder rather than an anchor in front of the defence while Blokhin and Onyschenko took up positions on the flanks in a classic counter-attacking set-up, which left Dynamo without a recognised centre-forward.
Blokhin's flame flickered for the first time that evening after he collected a goal-kick from Yevhen Rudakov that had been flicked on towards the inside-right channel. He cut inside Farison and straightened up, dashing towards goal. Lopez had to come across and made a challenge. He slid to the floor cautiously, Blokhin rode the tackle well and the ball carried off Lopez's hip towards the corner flag. Blokhin gave chase, but seeing Lopez up and at him once more, he played a pass back to Buryak who swung an ill-conceived low cross to the edge of the D.
Lying in wait was Piazza, ready to embark on one of the wild-horse-like gallops that served to mark him out as a unique defender. "Me, I had a double responsibility: that of marking the opposing centre-forward and that of waking the team up when they had a tendency to doze off," he recalled. "A glance exchanged with Herbin was enough to give the signal. Roby knew that he didn't need to repeat things twice. So, I'd take the ball and launch myself on a long run up the pitch. When I played in Argentina, I never did that. But at the Geoffroy-Guichard it was magical. The fans accompanied each of my steps with an enormous clamour because they knew that I needed their encouragement to go all the way. My surges delighted them even when they came to nothing."
On this occasion, Piazza quickly nudged the ball to Larqué and the break was on. Sprinting towards the half way line, the Saint-Étienne captain prodded the ball past the onrushing Dynamo left-back Viktor Matviyenko and tried to outmuscle him. But he couldn't. So Piazza, continuing his run, took over again like a relay runner collecting the baton. With the Dynamo penalty area now on the horizon, he drifted to the right before triangulating a pass along the floor into the box, which Hérve Revelli ran over in the assumption that Larqué would pick it up near the penalty spot. It was a bridge too far, however, and Larqué stood, muttering under his breath, pondering what might have been. "That's a shame," the commentator lamented.
Still, what wind there had been filling Dynamo's sails had definitively changed direction. Revelli, backing into Stefan Reshko on the edge of the box, managed to get a weak bicycle kick away to let Rudakov know he was around. His gloves were about to start stinging. Farison, on a sortie down the left, played a give-and-go with Sarramagna, came inside, shaped to shoot and slipped under pressure from Blokhin. He still cocked a right foot back, though, and hit a deceptively quick bobbling shot to cause Rudakov genuine concern. The Dynamo No. 1 scurried to his right and scrambled it out for a corner.
Sarramagna's cross might not have cleared the first man but Dynamo were still in peril. Bathenay took a throw-in to Lopez just inside Dynamo's territory. He swept the ball ahead of the centre-circle to Larqué who, pressed by Kolotov, elegantly nutmegged the Dynamo captain and unleashed a vicious shot along the floor. Rudakov didn't know much about it and the ball rebounded off his chest into the six-yard box where the libero Mykhaylo Fomienko warded off the swooping Revelli and cleared it on the half volley.
Dynamo could breathe, but not for long. Rudakov was drawn off his line by a speculative cross from Bathenay and punched it away unconvincingly. The ball, hanging over the left-hand corner of the penalty area, was volleyed back into the centre by Sarramagna. It was headed out but not to safety and Larqué watched the ball come down, controlled it with his left and then — boom — struck it with his right. The shot swerved beyond the far post and he again looked at the ground, cursing.
By then Lobanovskyi, wearing a sheepskin jacket and a trilby, was shifting nervously along his bench. He watched a game of head tennis ensue around Kyiv's box. Larqué won one, Farison another, then Synaeghel and Revelli until eventually Rocheteau tore into the penalty area and — like a volleyball player rising to spike the ball at the net — leapt high only to nod the ball meekly down into a relieved Rudakov's arms.
Desperate to release the pressure, he tossed the ball to Blokhin on the left-hand side. After slipping past Piazza and Synaeghel, though, he was stopped in his tracks by Bathenay and returned to Dynamo's half once again. It was as if they were locked up, penned in to a playing area that has been reduced to the 35 yards in front of Rudakov's goal.
A tide was coming in and the water was choppy with wave after wave of Saint-Étienne attacks breaking on Dynamo's defence. Konkov tried to plot a way out, but the current created by Saint-Étienne's hard-pressing game was too strong and he couldn't get Dynamo back on course.
Konkov's repeated efforts to bring Blokhin and Onyshchenko into play with a ball to the wings faltered with demoralising regularity. Nonetheless, as the teams walked back down the tunnel at half-time, the score was still level at 0-0 and Saint-Étienne hadn't been able to make their dominance count.
The pundits sat swivelling in their television studio chairs had abandoned hope of another exploit and talked about the great intangibles of honour and pride. It didn't matter that, aside from plucking one cross out the air, Ćurković had been untested throughout the opening 45 minutes. Kyiv, they said, didn't suffer the ignominy of conceding three goals in a single game during the entire previous season. Why should they now?
A former plumber like Lobanovskyi would plug the holes that had appeared in his side during the first half and, anyway, he didn't mind winning ugly even if in the build-up to the second leg France Football had asked, with some justification whether "the Dynamo school has not marked a new phase in the evolution of our sport after Uruguay in 1925, the Wunderteam of the thirties, Pelé's Brazil, Johan Cruyff's Holland and Beckenbauer's Germany."
This was a crack team and when play resumed after the interval, Dynamo looked to have rediscovered their rattle and hum. Buryak and Troshkin were back freewheeling in tandem on the right, winning a free-kick which hit the wall and they should have had another after Janvion put a broom between the spokes of their bicycle. The Italian referee Sergio Gonella, though, waved play on. Within the time Buryak had let out a gasp of despair, Rocheteau was already looking ominous at the other end.
Receiving the ball from Farison with his back to goal, the Ange Vert turned gracefully and, seeing Fomienko charging out of defence, he sveltely slipped the ball past his assailant, opened up his body and hit a daisy-cutter. Rudakov was sent diving towards his right-hand post, as the shot nipped just wide. The poise Dynamo had hoped to restore was gone. It was panic stations again.
That was never more obvious than when Larqué chipped a speculative pass down the inside-right channel, which bounced into the box as if onto the green of a golf course. Rocheteau glided in from the right to meet it, but had no realistic hope of reaching the ball, such was the time and space Fomienko had to work in. All the same, the Dynamo libero was unnerved and passed the ball out for a corner, prompting an "Oh la la, une petite panique" from the French commentary box.
The tension rose once more when Larqué fired another weak headed clearance brutally back across goal, catching the unsighted Rudakov by surprise. He raised his gloves like a weary boxer and parried the jab away. Battered and bruised, Dynamo were on the ropes, but plenty of sides had discovered it was then they were at their most dangerous, preparing a sucker punch.
With just over an hour gone, the most dramatic moment of the tie — perhaps of French football history — is finally upon us. Rocheteau overhits a corner, which, carried by the head of Bathenay, lands at the feet of Troshkin on the right. He zips a pass ahead of Blokhin down the flank, inviting him to give chase. Like a greyhound seeing a hare, he's off. Janvion is forced to turn. The Saint-Étienne full-back fatally loses a step on the Kyiv striker and the prophecy disclosed to France Football seems about to come true. Janvion would have to hang on to Blokhin's coat tails. Except he loses his grip and falls to the ground, hacking at air.
A flash of blue and white enters the Saint-Étienne half. All that separates Blokhin from a one-on-one with Ćurković is Lopez, the last man in no-man's land. With a sidestep inside that shows Blokhin to be more Bolshoi than Bolshevik he gives the France international whiplash and sends him the other way. The 20,000 megaphones Rocher had distributed among Saint-Étienne fans are muffled; a nation sitting in front of the TV inches forward to the edge of the sofa with hearts firmly in mouths.
Blokhin is through on goal, bearing down on Ćurković. What's more, he isn't alone. Onyshchenko is to his left, unmarked. It's over. Stop all the clocks, bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Then out of nowhere, Lopez re-appears, making up the lost ground. Like a Bond villain faced with an opportunity to do away with 007, Blokhin inexplicably gives the Saint-Étienne defender a chance to save himself. Instead of ending things there and then, he ignores Onyshchenko and accepts the duel, dropping a shoulder to come back across Lopez. It's a moment of hubristic recklessness. "By being greedy, he forgot to do the easiest thing of all," Lopez said.
What happened next is said to be required viewing for every defender Arsène Wenger signs for Arsenal. Lopez stuck out a leg, nicked the ball away from Blokhin with his left foot and, while falling to the ground, cleared it with his right. Piazza, no less, picked it up at the half-way line, turned Kolotov quickly if clumsily and charged into Kyiv's territory. He pushed a pass to the edge of the box where Sarramagna, intentionally or otherwise, flicked the ball up and over the Kyiv defence towards the far post. It hung teasingly above the head of Fomienko, who tried to turn and meet the ball, but as it bounced the spin of the delivery took it away from him and back across goal.
Hervé Revelli was lurking on his shoulder, perfectly positioned to take advantage. He wrestled to get control of the ball and then stretched to stab it across Rudakov and into the bottom corner of the net. 1-0 Saint-Étienne. Thirty seconds after being given their last rites, they were back, the uplifting sound of Mahler's Resurrection booming through Herbin's head. A heart-stopping moment followed by one of instant defibrillation. "It was a moment that can only be experienced through football," wrote L'Équipe the next morning.
Eager for the re-start Piazza wasted no time in grabbing the ball and running back towards the centre-circle. The battling Patrick Revelli was brought on for the flagging Sarramagna. It would prove a decisive change. But first, Saint-Étienne had some defending to do, as Onyshchenko, still angry at being disregarded by Blokhin, took matters into his own hands. He slithered past Bathenay, aligned his sights and shot from outside the box. It drifted harmlessly behind the goal, and Dynamo's beautiful machine, dismantled into individual parts, misfired.
Another spanner was thrown into the works when Larqué, shepherded towards his own half by Burjak, pirouetted and pitched a pass to the goalscorer Hervé Revelli on the edge of the box, where he was pushed from behind by Reshko. A free-kick was awarded amid protests from the Dynamo defender who claimed to have received an elbow in the mouth. Lopez trekked over and gestured to his wrist, signalling that Reshko was time-wasting.
Another key moment. Seventeen minutes remain. The arrival of the physio to see to Reshko delays things a while longer. Larqué keeps his cool and welcomes the breather. He has led by example this evening, retreating to his own penalty area before the start of every move and insisting that Ćurković roll the ball out to his feet. Right now, he is assessing the wall. He checks Rudakov's position then drills a shot low and hard into the right-hand corner of the goal. The net bulges and Larqué wheels away in celebration with both fists clenched: 2-2 on aggregate. A little slap from Patrick Revelli brings everything back into focus. "Come on," he says.
It was Larqué's last act of the match. Visibly limping and wiping the sweat from his brow, the midfield general gave way to Santini and received a standing ovation. Faced with the prospect of extra-time, Lobanovskyi also made a move. He hauled off Buryak and threw on Aleksandr Damin, a percussive forward, switching to 4-3-3 with Blokhin assuming a more central role.
Almost immediately things started to open up and as the first period of extra-time began, Santini, for one, had difficulty adjusting to the cadences of the game. The absence of the unerring Larqué temporarily revived the confidence of Dynamo's midfield, but it was Saint-Étienne who carved open the next chance, a header from Hervé Revelli falling for his brother Patrick to scissor kick over the bar.
Dynamo won a corner. Veremeyev didn't beat the first man, but an unsettled Santini whacked it out for another. This time, the delivery curled inwards and dipped, so Ćurković, fearing that it might sneak underneath the cross bar, was forced to backpedal. He saw it over the woodwork and ended up in a heap in his own net. Dynamo soon gave them another scare. A late tackle from Synaeghel on Troshkin presented Veremeyev with a free-kick in a dangerous position. Spotting that a run across goal from Fomienko had been followed by the Saint-Étienne defenders while leaving Matviyenko unmarked at the far post, he picked out the Dynamo left-back, who toe-poked a powerful shot first time at Ćurković. Caught unawares, the ball bounced down off the keeper's chest, on to the bottom of the post and back into his arms.
The crowd shrieked like the audience at a horror movie. Another jump soon followed as Onyshchenko ghosted in to the box past Farison and was brought down by Bathenay's trailing left leg. It was a clear penalty, but Gonella didn't give it. Synaeghel was permitted to bring the ball out with Santini and the game carried on.
That took the fight out of Dynamo. Destiny clearly wasn't on their side and it was time for Saint-Étienne to put them out of their misery. The coup de grâce came from the unlikeliest of places early in the second period of added time. "I was on the sidelines with Rocheteau who had come over because he was crippled by cramp," Sarramagna remembered. "He asked Herbin if he could be substituted. I'll always remember Roby's response. 'Cramps are physical,' he said, 'you can beat them thanks to your mental strength'. Not only did Dominique stay on, he scored the goal that saw us qualify."
It was the 107th minute. Kolotov had misplaced another pass for Onyshchenko and the immaculate Lopez shuffled the ball to Santini. With a jinking run along the chalk of the right flank, he got between Matviyenko and Kolotov to free Patrick Revelli on the edge of the box. Not known for his finesse or elegance, the younger Revelli zig-zagged inside then outside to the byline, beating Fomienko. He deftly pulled the ball back to Rocheteau who flew into the six-yard box and scooped the ball over Rudakov for Saint-Étienne's third.
"C'est ex-tra-ordi-naire," shouted the commentator, as the camera panned to Patrick Revelli jumping in ecstasy in front of the stands. The wire fencing was shaking and above the tinny vibrations the verses of Jacques Monty's rousing song Allez les Verts could be heard. "After that goal, the match became mythical," Rocheteau told France Football.
Everyone was standing except Robert Herbin, who remained crouched in his dugout staring at something only he could see in the distance. A quick glance at the watch slinked on his left wrist was all he afforded himself before resuming a statue-like pose of control.
From the press box at the Geoffroy-Guichard, the France Inter reporter Jacques Vendroux fixated on the Saint-Étienne coach. He, like many of his colleagues, was struck by the apparent lack of emotion Herbin displayed. Filing his piece shortly after the final whistle, Vendroux described Herbin as the Ginger Sphinx, a nickname that has proved just as durable and long-lasting as the legend of Saint-Étienne.
The Dynamo miracle marked the height of the fiévre verte or green fever. "It was a little bit like when the Beatles went on tour," Merchadier said, no doubt remembering the time an overly excited fan got too close to the team's plane at Bouthéon airport following Saint-Étienne's European Cup semi-final against PSV Eindhoven. He died amid the whirring blades of the propellers.
A month or so later, Herbin's side lost the European Cup final 1-0 to Bayern Munich at Hampden Park. Blame for the defeat was laid not with the players but the cursed set of poteaux carrés — the square goalposts. Had they been round in shape, say the geometry enthusiasts, Bathenay's shot and Santini's header might have fallen beyond the grasp of Sepp Maier and into the net ensuring that Saint-Étienne became the first French club to win the European Cup. As it was, they bounced back into play.
The following day, Saint-Étienne were welcomed back across the Channel not as losers, but as a nation's champions. Herbin's side paraded along the Champs-Élysées in a fleet of Renault R5 convertibles before an adoring crowd, an honour no team had previously received and which wouldn't be repeated until Aimé Jacquet's France in 1998. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the French president, received the players at the Élysée palace. Pope Paul VI had requested an audience, but he would have to join a lengthy queue, for Saint-Étienne had touched everyone.
"We achieved the 'sacred union' with all French supporters," Larqué claimed. "The fans would encourage their teams on Saturday and get behind les Verts on Wednesday, something which is inconceivable today. The dramatic intensity of the matches also contributed to the phenomenon. There was real suspense, even to the point that today a lot of people are capable of naming nine or ten of our starting XI. Try that with the Paris Saint-Germain side that won the Cup Winners' Cup in 1996."
Many have noted the absurdity of celebrating a defeat, something of which the French already had experience with the cyclist Raymond Poulidor, who never won the Tour de France or even wore the yellow jersey, but still enjoyed a greater affection in the hearts and minds of the public than his more successful rival, Jacques Anquetil.
This, though, was different. The festivities weren't for the performance against Bayern, but the memory of that night against Dynamo and what it signified. "I believe Saint-Étienne emerged at a time when several events converged," Repellini mused. "The French economy was still strong, but the country lacked heroes. After us a lot changed." As France's GDP grew at an annual rate of 2.5 per cent in the early seventies, so society became more progressive as the voting age was lowered and the divorce laws liberalised. But while the standard of living began to overtake that in England, the standard of football had stagnated.
France failed to qualify for a major international competition between 1966 and 1978 and an entire generation of sport looked to have been lost between the golden ages of Anquetil, Michel Jazy and Jean-Claude Killy in the sixties and that of Alain Prost, Bernard Hinault and Yannick Noah in the eighties.
Saint-Étienne would occupy much more than the space between. They were French football's green shoots of recovery, a club side elevated to the status of an unofficial national team, the national team a country wanted. "In the life of a French fan," wrote Gérard Ernault in L'Équipe, "there is Seville 82, Guadalajara 86 and July 98. But paving the way for all of that was 17 March 1976 at the Geoffroy-Guichard" — Saint-Étienne versus Dynamo Kyiv."