The chief city of Alsace only walking distance from Germany, Strasbourg has lived through distinctly different eras and shifting borders, reflected in its football teams and the trophies they challenged for.
Only one, however, is referred to these days as ‘Strasbourg’. Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace won the French title in 1979, involving the city’s most famous footballing son, long-term Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. A minor squad member who played in two games when Strasbourg pipped Nantes and Saint-Étienne to the league crown, Wenger was steeped in the soccer culture of the region, nipping over the German border to watch the Total Football of Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga.
If any figure embodies the patchwork history of Alsace, it’s Wenger, whose native tongue was Alsatian and whose father was sent by the Nazis to serve on the Eastern Front. Yet Wenger junior was the ultimate cosmopolitan, the polyglot who transformed the dull edifice of an Arsenal team into a dynamic network of European pedigree.
In turn, the Strasbourg where he was born in 1949 personified a new continent that would emerge from the ruins, the European Court of Human Rights established here that the same year.
Only seven years before, a football team from the city had won the regional league: SG SS Straßburg, SS as in the SS. Bearing the logo of the dreaded Nazi paramilitaries, the club fielded players forced to leave behind their original teams. The 1942 champions of the Gauliga Elsaß (‘Alsace’) made it as far as the quarter-finals of the German national play-offs.
SG Straßburg were created from the defunct FC Frankonia 1900, who come into the story of Racing Club de Strasbourg early on – it was their pitch at Hämmerle-Garten park that the current Ligue 1 club took over more than a century ago to develop the Stade de la Meinau.
La Meinau, named after the rural community on the southern bank of the Ill river facing Strasbourg’s historic centre, is one of three stadiums in France that co-hosted both the 1938 World Cup and Euro ’84. It was here that the Brazilian star Leônidas scored a spectacular hat-trick to help defeat Poland 6-5, one goal the first bicycle kick seen in Europe.
Such was the poor form and chaos surrounding RC Strasbourg, however, that the ground was not used for the 1998 World Cup nor Euro 2016. Few stadiums in France, however, can trace their history back to 1906. While Frankonia were playing at Hämmerle-Garten, a certain FC Neudorf, the immediate predecessors of RC Strasbourg, had set up in the adjoining namesake district closer to the river.
Neudorf had been formed by local Alsatian pupils from a school on rue d’Erstein, halfway between the river and Meinau, in 1906. Frankonia attracted players of German descent. Alsace became part of Germany at the time of its unification in 1871 and would remain so until 1918. When Neudorf became an independent amateur side in 1909, they joined the Southern German League, winning Division C, the lowest of its three tiers, in 1912.
From this position of strength – and with soldiers in the Frankonia team needed elsewhere – Neudorf moved to Hämmerle-Garten in 1914. Two months after Armistice Day in 1918, the club became Racing Club Strasbourg-Neudorf – soon shortened to Racing Club de Strasbourg.
With its base in the city, the Ligue d’Alsace de football association (LAFA) was formed out of 39 clubs in 1919. The regional championship was first won by Sélestat, then by RC Strasbourg in 1923, 1924 and 1927. In between, AS Strasbourg were crowned Alsatian champions in 1926, their heritage Germanic. Formed in 1920 as a complex merger of German clubs established in the 1890s, ASS still have a senior side, currently in Poule N of the lowest rung, Regional 3, in the area. Opponents include Duttlenheim, the village whose team were once managed by Arsène Wenger’s father, and Mutzig, where Wenger started his playing career at the age of 20. ASS play at Stade de la Rotonde, in a municipal sports complex just over the A35 motorway from Strasbourg station, linked by trams A and D to Rotonde.
Running out in red and white, the club has direct link back to the first team formed in the city, Fussball Klub Straßburg, by students in 1890. A merger with FC Celeritas in 1898 created Fussball Verein Straßburg, winners of the South German regional title in 1899 and 1900, when they became one of the 86 founding members of the German FA.
FV Straßburg and Strasbourger FC Donar, set up in 1899, were combined to establish Association Sportive, aka AS, Strasbourg in 1920. Reverted to Sportverein Straßburg 1890 in 1940, they competed in the same war-time Gauliga Elsaß as its one-time champions SG SS Straßburg. SV Straßburg returned to life as AS Strasbourg in the last stages of the war.
The Germanisation process of 1940 applied to all clubs in Alsace, including RC Strasbourg, French Cup finalists in 1937. As key players went into hiding, some who had won caps for France and Germany, the renamed Rasensportclub Straßburg competed in the Gauliga Elsaß and German Cup. In derbies with SG SS Straßburg, the team once played in the blue, white and red of France in a brave display of patriotism.
In 1947, a revived RC Strasbourg reached the their second French Cup final, a decade after the first. Playing in both, 1938 World Cup hero Oscar Heisserer was welcomed back to Strasbourg after active involvement in liberating Alsace. He remained close to the club, celebrating the title win of 1979 as crowds of 50,000-plus took to the streets.
Surprisingly underused Strasbourg Airport is 12km (7.5 miles) south-west of the city. From the terminal, cross the footbridge for Entzheim-Aérogare, where trains leave every 15-20 minutes (every 30min Sat, every hr Sun) for Strasbourg station (8min journey time). Tickets (€2.80 single, €4.50 with an onward journey, valid for 90min) are sold at machines from the airport and at either station, credit cards accepted. Use the blue machine for train tickets, the brown one for train + tram/bus.
A Taxi Strasbourg (+33 3 88 122 122) into town (€30-€35) can be booked online.
Ryanair also uses Baden-Airpark 55km (34 miles) away, 12km (7.5 miles) from the nearest main town of Baden-Baden. A Strasbourg Navette minibus (+33 3 88 61 02 97) shuttles between the airport and Strasbourg station from €15 a head, booked online.
The Strasbourg Navette also serves the nearest major international hub of Basel EuroAirport on the Swiss, French and German borders 135km (84 miles) away. Alternatively, a Flixbus runs directly to Strasbourg (online €8, 2.5hrs journey time), usually four times a day.
Strasbourg station is west of the city’s historic centre a short walk away. The stadium is south of town, also on the cts local transport network of trams and buses. A single ticket on board is €2, a 24hr Solo Pass €4.60, a 24 Trio for up to three people €6.90.
Convenient by tram, though, is the an upper mid-range Hôtel Gutenberg, in the shadow of the cathedral on rue des Serruriers, with comfortable rooms and contemporary décor. On the same square as Strasbourg’s most iconic landmark, the Hôtel de la Cathédrale has rooms with a church view, and also walking distance to the Langstross Grand’Rue stop on tramline A direct to the stadium.
For luxury, the Régent Petite France on rue des Moulins makes the most of its riverside location with a top-notch spa and restaurant, and sunbathing terrace.
Over the water but on the No.10 circular bus line, the boutiquey Dragon on rue du Dragon is in the same family as the Gutenberg, a brightly coloured 17th-century building done out in classic Alsatian style on a quiet street.
Close to the station, the contemporary mid-range graffalgar has 38 rooms, each painted by a different local artist.
With its part-German heritage, decent beer is plentiful in Strasbourg, with bars dotting the historic centre and around place du Corbeau just over the water.
On the cathedral side of the river, the somewhat trendy What the Fox on rue de la Douane offers 16 beers on tap, table football and three TVs showing big matches. A couple of minutes away on rue du Vieux Marché-aux-Poissons, The Dubliners has a large pavement terrace, football on TV and late opening hours. Also close, the Bar Exils on narrow cobbled rue d’Ail attracts a regular local crowd thanks to its decent selection of beer and TVs showing live sport.
Just over the river on place d’Austerlitz, Molly Malone’s has a more upscale feel for an Irish pub, with two screens showing big games and, a real attraction, a large terrace on this lively square.
Back in the historic centre, tucked away behind the main square the other side of the cathedral, Le Cintra has been a fixture on place des Etudiants for moons, with live sport on TV and a small pavement terrace.