The most romantic name in French club football represents the industrial and transport hub of Saint-Étienne. Forever linked with the great side of the 1970s, AS St-Étienne, and the epic 1998 World Cup clash between England and Argentina, this revamped art destination will once again stage a major tournament in 2016.
As the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard prepares to host the European Championships, its home club has climbed its way back onto the European stage after decades of decline and scandal. In 2016-17. AS St-Étienne compete for the fifth consecutive season in the Europa League, reviving memories of classic nights and classic matches against Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United back in the 1970s.
Geoffroy Guichard was the local entrepreneur behind the Casino supermarket chain, set up in Saint-Étienne. Own-brand goods, loyalty cards, trading stamps, sell-by dates, they all started here. The company started up the sports club in 1912, the football section adopting its green colour scheme and, originally, its name, after World War I.
As a football club, AS St-Étienne are a post-war phenomenon, first winning the title in 1957 and dominating the domestic game from the mid-1960s onwards. At the helm was president Roger Rocher, a former local miner turned industrialist, who had taken over from Geoffroy Guichard’s sport-mad son Pierre in 1961. It was Rocher, a St-Étienne man through and through (‘In football, St-Étienne is the capital, Lyon the suburbs’), who lifted the club to cult status in France, dominating the domestic game long before Marseille or Lyon managed to.
But it was only in the mid-1970s that ‘Les Verts’ began to make progress in Europe. St-Étienne were stopped by Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich two years running, the second time the disputably thick width of the crossbar preventing the French champions from taking the lead in the 1976 European Cup Final in Glasgow.
AS St-Étienne is also where Michel Platini finished his French playing career before joining Juventus, helping Les Verts to a record tenth title but not making a European final. Three years later, Platini’s France did win Euro 84, their captain scoring a hat-trick at the Geoffroy-Guichard against Yugoslavia in their final group game.
Le Chaudron, as it still nicknamed, ‘The Cauldron’, was relit for the 1998 World Cup. It was Platini’s idea that, given the quality of French infrastructure, groups should not be confined region-by-region, but games distributed around France. Thus crowds at Saint-Étienne saw Austria, Chile, Holland, Iran, Mexico, Morocco, Paraguay, Scotland, Spain and Yugoslavia – the World Cup circus pulling out of town after the heartstopping 2-2 draw between England and Argentina, Beckham’s red card, Michael Owen’s wondergoal, David Batty’s penalty and all.
Meanwhile, AS St-Étienne suffered scandal after scandal and attempted comeback after comeback – while local rivals Olympique Lyon were winning seven titles in consecutive seasons. With a League Cup win in 2013, AS St-Étienne have bounced back, making Europe five years running. There’s life in Les Verts yet.
Saint-Étienne’s underused airport is 12km (7.5 miles) north-west of town. There’s no direct public transport to town. City bus No.37 only runs to Hôpital Nord, where you must change onto tramway T1 for town, passing the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Tramway T2 runs parallel, then onto Saint-Étienne’s train station of Châteaucreux. Radiotaxis St-Étienne (+33 4 77 25 42 42) charge €20-€25 from airport to town.
The nearest main airport is Lyon-St-Exupéry but with no direct transport to Saint-Étienne. There’s a direct Rhône Express tram to Lyon Part-Dieu, then a train every 30min to St-Étienne Châteaucreux (50min journey time, €12).
In Saint-Étienne, transport consists of a two-line tramway and buses. A single ticket is €1.40.
The Saint-Étienne Tourist Office has a comprehensive database of hotels.
Adjoining the supporters’ club bar of Le Chaudron Vert by the stadium, the Hôtel Nord (23 rue des Trois Glorieuses, +33 4 77 74 23 18) is a basic but convenient two-star.
There is plenty of affordable accommodation around the Hôtel de Ville in the city centre. Two-star design-friendly Hôtel Continental offers cheap rooms with shared facilities as well as comfortable, mid-range ones. Opposite, Hôtel du Cheval Noir is more basic. Equally central, some of the rooms in the Hôtel de la Tour suffer from years of guests smoking, and those on a budget may be better accommodated at the brighter Furania.
Saint-Étienne is well facilitated for bars. Trendy locals gather at L’ExcuZe (38 rue de la Résistance), a cool spot with occasional live music and football screenings. Reconfigured in the spring of 2016, it now features retro TVs. L’Elixir (12 rue François Gillet) also concentrates on providing match action and decent sounds.
Le Smoking Dog (5 rue Georges Dupré) appeals to locals and expats with a fine range of beers and live sounds. Of the more expat-focused venues, Soggy Bottom (9 rue de la Résistance) stands on the site of an Irish pub of 1998 vintage and also offers live music. Le Saint Patrick (44 rue des Martyrs de Vingré) is another option for match-watching.