A 9,000km journey and a set of missing socks: The team from Reunion living a fairytale in the Coupe de France

Saint-Pierroise defy the odds to make last 32 of the tournament - and could still go further

Saint-Pierre's football club "La Saint-Pierroise" players practice during a training session in Saint-Pierre, on the French indian ocean island of La Reunion, on January 10, 2020, five days after the club's qualified for the French cup round of 32. Saint-Pierre will play its round of 32 football match against Epinal on January 18, 2020, hoping to become the first Overseas team to reach the French Cup round of 16. / AFP / Richard BOUHET
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After an 11-hour flight, ahead of the biggest date of his club’s history, there was a setback for the acting kitman for Saint-Pierroise, the champions of Reunion.

He had forgotten to pack the team’s socks. When a cup tie means a 9,000km journey, not much chance of slipping back home to retrieve the missing garments.

Besides, Saint-Pierroise do not have a full-time kitman. They have a small number of full-time employees on their annual budget of barely €400,000 (Dh1.64m). So, in the best amateur tradition, they solved their equipment problem with an expedition to a local megastore in the north-eastern French town of Epinal.

Some players bought thermals - temperatures at home had been creeping up to 30-degrees in Reunion when they left and France is wintry - having, happily, found enough socks in black and white, the club colours, to go around. Saint-Pierroise’s players will look smart when they take on SAS Epinal on Saturday.

The fixture is the standout tie in the last-32 round of the Coupe de France, a tournament which each year promises long-haul romance like no other competition but very rarely delivers a fairytale like Saint-Pierroise’s.

The Coupe is open to all French territories, which means clubs from as far away as Guyana in South America, or New Caledonia, in the South Pacific, enter the long filtering process. If they are fortunate, and defy hierarchy, one or two might survive into round nine, when the Ligue 1 clubs come into the draw. Not for over 30 years has an ‘overseas’ team made it as far as this stage, been still involved in late January.

Reunion is a palm-fringed island, almost 1,000km to the east of Madagascar, an agreeable retirement spot for some French pensioners, but a challenging place to live for much of the population, with unemployment high and resources stretched.

It has a proud football culture, though most famously as a destination for distinguished players winding down their careers. The legendary Cameroonian, Roger Milla, was playing for Saint-Pierroise, when he was unexpectedly summoned, aged 38, to represent and star for his country at the 1990 World Cup. Reunion islanders cheered his goals as their own.

As Milla remembers it, “it was my semi-retirement, a chance to play with the sun on my back and not have to get up early for a run.”

The great France striker Jean-Pierre Papin followed the same route after spells at AC Milan and Bayern Munich, staying long enough to take note of a fine native talent. Dimitri Payet, of France and Olympique Marseille, is from Reunion and played for Saint-Pierroise in his teens.

But in the broad French football pyramid, Reunion is a minnow in an ocean. Their head coach, Christian Dafreville, believes “we are at a level no higher than Regional 1,” the equivalent of the sixth tier of football in mainland France. Hence the miracle of two weeks ago, when his players beat Niort, of Ligue 2, 2-1 to progress in the Coupe de France, and earn their tie against fourth-tier Epinal.

Against Niort, Dafreville’s men played the game of their lives - Gerard Hubert, the 39-year-old defender opened the scoring with a header and confessed he could not remember ever having netted a headed goal - while their arrival in the Coupe’s last-32 played havoc with everyday lives.

From December until March, the domestic season in Reunion is paused for summer. Some players had holidays booked. Some stayed in France rather than make the 18,000 kilometre round trip between cup ties.

With Niort conquered, they will face Epinal “without fear,” promises Dafreville. Three new signings have been made, from local Reunionnais rivals, to supplement a squad that includes a trio of Madagascar internationals, Ibrahima Dabo, Mamy Gervais Randrianarisoa and Pascal Razakanantenaina, who six months ago were performing other giant-killing acts, at their country’s first Africa Cup of Nations finals.

Alongside them, a 32-year-old journeyman, Elliot Grandin, once of France’s under-21s, of Blackpool in the English Premier League and of stints in Bulgaria and Romania. Grandin thought he had seen it all - until Niort. “It was an amazing experience to view all this from the other side,” he said of his part in the underdog coup. “I was so happy for the younger players.”

Accustomed to crowds of a few hundred for domestic matches, Saint-Pierroise were supported by 2,000 expatriate Reunionnais at Niort. Their president, Lucay Arayapin, lobbied the French Federation to move this next, historic tie from Epinal’s modest stadium to closer to Paris, so more islanders who live in France could come.

He was unsuccessful. The solution? Win again, make the last 16, where a trip to a big French city becomes likelier, perhaps Paris Saint-Germain, or Payet’s Marseille, and with the right socks on next time.