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Column: In France, a small team makes a big point

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 21, 2014 at 10:10 am •  Published: August 21, 2014
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PARIS (AP) — The principle, beautiful in its simplicity, motivates players in open leagues everywhere, be they school kids or hardened pros: Play well enough through the season to finish top or near the top of the division and the end reward will be promotion to bigger and better things.

So the players of Luzenac, an unheralded team from the lush foothills of the jagged French Pyrenees mountains, felt they'd reached the promised land when they secured promotion from the amateur ranks to Ligue 2, the second of France's two professional leagues, last season. They celebrated through the night after a 1-0 win in April that guaranteed their jump out of the Championnat National, the third rung of French football.

"A great moment," recalled goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, a French-American whose French mother met and fell in love with his father, from Providence, Rhode Island, when studying English in the United States. "We put Luzenac on the map."

Well, almost. Winning on the field, it turned out, got Luzenac to the door of Ligue 2 but didn't open it. While the rest of France slumbered through July-August holidays, Luzenac's portly financier and his lawyers spent the summer fighting — so far unsuccessfully — to prove to the league they are worthy of the spot the players earned with sweat, goals and tedious hours crisscrossing France by bus and on commercial flights for games in fishing ports and towns on the unglamorous outer reaches of football.

In shunning Luzenac, French football administrators have hung the fundamental principle that underpins the sport almost everywhere — play well, move up — from a gallows of red tape. First, the club was told its finances weren't in order. After the club knocked back that argument in court, the league ruled that the stadium Luzenac planned to upgrade for use this season doesn't meet required safety standards, even though it is a regular venue for top-flight rugby.

Setting the clock against Luzenac, too, the league kicked off a new season without the club, even as it continues to argue its case in court and arbitration hearings. If Luzenac's next move — asking a court to suspend the league — fails, then its future looks grim.

"It's horrible. Not only is it hard professionally but it's hard for our families," Westberg said this week in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "My kids go into school in two weeks and, I don't know, if all goes bad, then where are we going to go?"

Luzenac's story has touched a nerve in France not simply because the French, like fans everywhere, like seeing Davids stick it to Goliaths but also because it is viewed by many as another ugly example of the business of football, its commercial obsessions, petty rivalries and often haphazard administration ruining the attractive simplicity of the game.

The government, through its junior sports minister, Thierry Braillard, spoke in support of Luzenac. Braillard said Luzenac appears, if belatedly, to have now "ticked all the boxes on finances and infrastructure." He accused the league of hypocrisy and of blocking the accession of amateur teams with "increasingly severe and sometimes rigid" regulations.

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