PARIS — Les Herbiers players are experiencing a whole new world as they prepare for the biggest game of their careers.
In the buildup to Tuesday’s French Cup final against Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade de France, the third-division minnows have been invited to stay at Clairefontaine, the national football centre known as “The Castle” where the country’s international players prepare for their matches.
“I believe I have been staying in (Antoine) Griezmann’s room,” said Les Herbiers captain Sebastien Flochon. “It’s a dream come true, we are preparing for that final in ideal conditions. With all the history attached to this castle, we could not hope for a better place.”
In terms of players, budget, salaries and glamour, PSG and Les Herbiers — a small town with a population of just 16,000 — could not be more different. While super-rich PSG sealed the French league title with five games to spare last month, Les Herbiers has yet to secure its place in France’s third tier for next season.
The club from the Vendee region in western France has a stadium holding just 5,000 fans and a budget of about two million euros. Last summer, PSG paid 220 million euros to buy Brazil superstar Neymar from Barcelona.
And while PSG boast the likes of Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe, the Les Herbiers players don’t make headlines and reportedly earn 2,500 euros monthly on average.
To sum it up, Les Herbiers’ challenge looks like a lost cause.
“Some people rate our chances of winning at about one per cent,” Flochon said. “It would be the biggest upset of the last 20 years.”
This year’s unexpected deep run in the competition could help secure the future of the club. By making it to the final, Les Herbiers is already guaranteed to pocket a minimum of about 1.5 million euros. If it wins the title, the club will earn a bit more than two million euros.
The fourth third-division side to reach the final after Nimes, Amiens and Quevilly, Les Herbiers has already beaten second-division teams Lens and Auxerre.
“Our chances are minuscule, but we will give ourselves fully,” Flochon said. “It will be important not to step onto the pitch thinking it’s already over.”
Facing one of Europe’s best attacks, Les Hebiers will be counting on goalkeeper Matthieu Pichot, who has allowed just five goals in nine cup games.
“What we have already achieved is extraordinary, some top-flight players have never experienced that,” Pichot said. “They are going to attack from everywhere and it will be a very unbalanced contest. If we manage to make them doubt, even just for a while, this final will be successful.”
Les Herbiers coach Stephane Masala’s tactics could also play a big role. A big fan of Italian football and Juventus, the 41-year-old coach is respected for his knowledge of the game and a style based on short passes.
“I’m stunned by my players’ abilities to turn thing around,” Masala said his team came from 2-0 down to beat Laval 3-2 in the league on Friday. “Knowing they took on PSG four days later, they could have given up. But no, they found the moral and mental resources to win, I’m very proud to be their coach.”
Despite the huge gap between the sides, PSG coach Unai Emery is not taking anything for granted as his players seek a fourth straight French Cup.
“It’s a final, it’s a title, it’s the French Cup,” he said. “If they got to the final, they deserve it. The best way to show respect is to play to win.”