LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Racing Club

Parisians aim to reclaim legacy and return to Colombes

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

If there’s one name that echoes the glory days of French football pre-PSG, it’s Racing. Five times winners of the Coupe de France either side of (and during) the war, league champions in 1936, the Ciel et Blanc were reinvented half a century later by a wealthy industrialist who gathered stellar names to create a second credible club for Paris. The bright lights of Friday nights at the Parc des Princes then burned out all too quickly.

Now another, more modest, revival under owner, one-time film star Patrick Norbert, sees the tenth (!) iteration of the venerable Racing climb out of amateur obscurity to seek promotion from the fourth-tier National 2.

A run in the Coupe de France in 2023-24, meanwhile, pushed Racing back into the public consciousness when the Parisians were drawn to play Lille in the Round of 32, a repeat of the finals at either end of World War II.

The venue then was Colombes, Racing’s home from 1907, stage for the World Cup final of 1938 and the de facto national stadium until the arrival of the Parc des Princes in 1972. Its return to international prominence to host the hockey tournament of the 2024 Olympics required a major redevelopment, and a nomadic existence for Racing around the outskirts of Paris.

Café do Stade/Peterjon Cresswell

For 2023-24, the Ciel et Blanc moved into their final home before the big event, the Stade Alphonse Le Gallo, by the Seine in Boulogne-Billancourt, just beyond the Parc des Princes, the Bois de Boulogne and the city limits.

In a way, the location brings Racing Club round full circle. Formed by students of the Lycée Condorcet in the 9th arrondissement in 1882, the same year that writer Marcel Proust was inducted, Racing Club first encouraged running then athletics and tennis.

On a plot at the Bois de Boulogne, which would later see the Parc des Princes and the Stade Roland Garros built alongside, Racing set up a rugby team and a football one along strictly amateur lines in the 1890s.

Combining with those other great sporting pioneers, Stade Français, Racing formed the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA), partly under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin and feeding into the burgeoning modern Olympic movement he was overseeing.

The USFSA set up the first French football championship in 1894, initially involving clubs from Paris and surroundings, including Racing in 1897. It organised the football tournament of the Paris Olympics of 1900, Club Français representing France, and the first official match played by France, in Belgium in 1904.

Café do Stade/Peterjon Cresswell

Though Racing provided no players for either event, they won five USFSA Paris championships in the decade after 1902. Overshadowed by the rival Comité français interfédéral, which ran its own domestic tournaments, the USFSA left FIFA and lost its status by 1919. The CFI, meanwhile, became today’s French Football Federation. 

Les Racingmen, as they are referred to in French, competed in the first Coupe de France, organised by the CFI in 1917, and the last USFSA Paris Championship of 1919.

Having played at the original Parc des Princes before World War I, Racing moved into Colombes in 1920, shortly before Paris was granted hosting of the Olympics in 1924. Here, Uruguay won football gold and Scot Eric Liddell won the 400 metres to inspire the later film Chariots of Fire.

Domestic football, meanwhile, was divided into regional divisions, Red Star, Stade français and Club français dominating in Paris, Racing relegated to the second tier in 1925. The arrival of young entrepreneur Jean-Bernard Lévy changed things around and ushered in a golden era at Racing. He also foresaw the introduction of professionalism and a nationwide league in 1932.

Bringing in young left-half Edmond Delfour, one of only five players to appear at all three World Cups in the 1930s, veteran Hungarian Ferenc Lhottka and burly Basque striker Manuel Anatol from Real Madrid, all in 1929, Lévy broke the bank to field the best. It soon paid dividends. Racing won the Paris title in 1931 and 1932, and made their first French Cup final in 1930.

Café do Stade/Peterjon Cresswell

At Colombes, top pre-war club Sète required extra-time to defeat ten-man Racing, goalkeeper André Tassin, another 1929 signing and French international taken off injured towards the end of normal time.

Les Racingmen would go on to appear in three more finals during this golden era, and win them all. Other new arrivals would have a major influence on Racing, in more ways than one. Left-sided forward Émile Veinante, signed from Metz, was another to play at all three World Cups in the 1930s. A chain smoker of rare technical ability, Veinante played a vital role in Racing’s significant haul of silverware, returning to his native Metz in 1940 when his local club became part of the Nazi Gauliga league system in Germany.

He played his last game for France in January 1940, half the team which lined up against Portugal in Paris comprised of Racing players. But Veinante would then abandon his German-occupied home town to return to Racing as player-coach in 1942-43 – remarkably, entire league seasons were still played for much of the war, divided by zones.

His Racing and international teammate, Alexandre Villaplane, had a different sense of duty. Captain of France at the 1930 World Cup, this Algiers-born half-back had had brushes with criminality during betting scandals shortly afterwards, but then sank into racketeering and Nazi collaboration in war-time France. In December 1944, he would be executed by firing squad.

Stade Yves-du-Manoir/Peterjon Cresswell

Austrian goalkeeper Rudi Hiden had appeared for his country’s famous Wunderteam but then left Vienna for Racing before the 1934 World Cup. A league and cup winner for Les Racingmen, Hiden would play for his adopted France in that 1940 friendly with Portugal, and serve in the French military against his fellow countrymen in World War II. 

His compatriot, Auguste ‘Gusti’ Jordan, who came to Racing with him, also naturalised to win French caps either side of the war. His last were at Wembley, in the friendly with England shortly after VE Day, and, fittingly, against Austria in a devastated Vienna in December 1945.

Then there was Raoul Diagne, born in French Guiana, nicknamed the Black Spider for his agility in almost any position on the pitch. Of Senegalese descent, Diagne lined up alongside Delfour and Veinante for France against the black-shirted Italy in the World Cup quarter-final of 1938. A close friend of Josephine Baker, Diagne would be among the movers and shakers socialising at Racing Club during the 1930s, mingling with the cosmopolitans of pre-war Paris.

What centre-forward Fred Kennedy made of it all isn’t known, the old-school Lancastrian battling for Blackburn, Oldham and Middlesbrough before returning to Racing for the double win of 1935-36. In charge of this international troupe was George ‘Sid’ Kimpton, the man credited with bringing the WM formation to France. 

Café do Stade/Peterjon Cresswell

He was said to have shed tears after the cup victory over Charleville, when Diagne became the first black player in France to be presented with a winner’s medal. Disciplinarian Kimpton would spend the war in an internment camp outside Paris, before leading Rouen to the last war-time title in 1945.

Before 1939, Jean-Bernard Lévy had instigated an annual series of friendly matches with Arsenal, flying Racing, the first French team to do so, to Highbury for a showcase fixture around Armistice Day in 1932. The November fixture would run for another 30 years, long after Lévy had given his life defending France against the Nazis in 1940. It also led to a long alliance between the London club and France.

Lévy died days after Racing won the Coupe de France over Marseille in May 1940, but the money he bequeathed to the club in his will kept Racing going as players such as Diagne headed south to play in Vichy France. Days before the VE Day celebrations in May 1945, Racing won a fourth French Cup in front of nearly 50,000 at Colombes, a team captained by Gusti Jordan beating Lille.

Four years later, 61,473 packed into the Colombes to see Racing repeat the feat. This would prove to be the last major silverware the illustrious club has won to date.

Stade Yves-du-Manoir/Peterjon Cresswell

Initally, their demise was slow, coach Gusti Jordan overseeing immediate promotion back to the top tier in 1954 and title challenges later that decade. Goals from Polish-born Thadée Cisowski, three times top league scorer, kept Racing in the hunt. When major injuries interrupted his career – though, remarkably, Cisowski is fifth in the all-time list since 1932 – then former Hungarian youth international Joseph Ujlaki stepped in to do the honours.

The high-scoring Racing still attracted the best attendances in France – but it wasn’t enough. Relegated in 1963-64, Racing would tread water as a mainly amateur outfit for 20 years, until the arrival of Jean-Luc Lagardère.

Racing could still draw a crowd, such as for the visit of the great Saint-Étienne, Platini and all, to Paris for a cup game in 1982. It could also still attract celebrities, such as Verts legend Jean-Michel Larqué, who faced his former club as player-coach.

The 19,000 gate spectators had convened at the rebuilt Parc des Princes, which had replaced Colombes as the national stadium. Played shortly before the 1982 World Cup which had France enthralled, the game seemed to signal a new era for football in Paris. That May, a simply epic French Cup final, also featuring Saint-Étienne, saw the emerging force of Paris Saint-Germain win their first major silverware. The revived Parc, meanwhile, had staged three European finals, with Euro ’84 already confirmed.

Café do Stade/Peterjon Cresswell

Jean-Luc Lagardère, who had taken over modest electronics company Matra in 1977, sensed there was something in the air. Diversifying into transport and especially telecommunications, the Berlusconiesque Lagardère bought up major radio stations and magazines.

Having already tasted considerable sporting success – driven by Jackie Stewart, Matra had won the Formula One constructors’ championship in 1969 – the debonair Lagardère, still in his fifties, took the plunge into football. The year was 1982.

First buying, then discarding, Paris FC, who finished mid-table in Division 2 that year, Lagardère had already placed his new enterprise, Racing Paris 1, one tier from the top level. Then he began hunting players, beginning with later Porto star Rabah Madjer, whose goal for his native Algeria against West Germany had been one of the highlights of the 1982 World Cup.

On the eve of Euro ’84, Paris was gripped by a series of promotional play-offs involving Racing and, first, Olympique Lyonnais, defeated 3-1 after extra-time. Then came another legendary name, Nice, and another thriller decided over 120 minutes, this time front of 30,000 at Colombes.

Stade Yves-du-Manoir/Peterjon Cresswell

Finally, Saint-Étienne, ten-time title winners, most recently in 1981, came to Colombes to save their top-flight status, before 40,000 spectators. The first leg ending goalless, few expected Racing to prevail – but two goals from the visitors silenced the crowd at the Geoffroy-Guichard. Racing were back in Division 1, in a city soon to celebrate the first major victory by France on the international stage.

Promotion also meant the first derbies of the modern era, against PSG, with whom Racing were now groundsharing the Parc des Princes. The Ciel et Blanc, however, were way out of their depth and finished bottom of the league.

After they bounced back up thanks to a goal nearly every game from Zaire international Eugène Kabongo, Lagardère reached for his chequebook. His team needed a figurehead and there was no more regal one than Uruguayan World Cup star Enzo Francescoli, ‘The Prince’. Alongside him came another favourite from the TV screens of recent summers, West Germany’s Pierre Littbarski.

Lagardère’s real coup, however, was to nab PSG and France World Cup hero Luis Fernandez from his rivals. With home games at the Parc scheduled for Friday nights, and France still reeling from another classic World Cup involving the protagonists now donning the Ciel et Blanc, all was set for sky blue revolution in French football.

Parc des Princes/Peterjon Cresswell

It didn’t happen. Despite the majesty of Francescoli, voted Best Foreign Player that season, Racing failed to gel and finished mid-table. Sensing the problem lay in his coach, Lagardère waved his chequebook again and hired Artur Jorge, who had just taken Porto to a shock European Cup victory.

Racing hit the top of a strong Division 1 that December but tailed off in the spring, even failing to reach Europe. The public began to disappear, Lagardère to lose faith. Teetering just above the relegation zone in 1989, Racing stayed up on goal difference but their sugar daddy was gone.

With him went Francescoli, Fernandez and Artur Jorge, three reasons why Lagardère had blown 300 million francs – $50 million then, $125 million today – in barely seven years. Having then become a successful breeder of racehorses, winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1998, Lagardère came to an untimely end five years later. Suspicious circumstances surround his strange collapse over dinner in exclusive company, though nothing was ever proven.   

Back at Racing, one player who stayed in 1989-90 was a young David Ginola. Sensing his chance to shine as stars left in droves, the later PSG star led Racing to an unlikely appearance in the final of the Coupe de France. While form in the league was disastrous, barely helped by baffling lack of sponsors post-Matra, the miracles performed in the cup were remarkable.

Café do Stade/Peterjon Cresswell

Trailing in the quarter-final to Bordeaux in the Colombes, Racing found an equaliser at the death, then beat the Girondins 5-4 on penalties. In the semi, at recently crowned title winners and cup specialists Marseille, at team of Tigana, Waddle and Papin, Racing reversed a 2-1 deficit at the Vélodrome to hit two in the dying minutes of the game.

The final at a packed Parc des Princes pitted the Montpellier of Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc against the Racing of an ambitious Ginola and determined goalkeeper Pascal Olmeta, hero of the quarter-final against Bordeaux. 

The scoreline remained unchanged for 90 minutes, then a Blanc free-kick in extra-time led to a second Montpellier goal, answered immediately afterwards by a Ginola header. It wasn’t enough. Racing’s days in the spotlight were over.

Forcibly relegated to the third tier, ousted from Colombes, Racing partnered with the Hauts-de-Seine départment just beyond the Bois de Boulogne, branding around its administrative number 92 but it was clutching at straws. 1992 was the year the club turned amateur, and when a teenage William Gallas began his career at Racing.

Café do Stade/Peterjon Cresswell

Buyers and sponsors came and went, but in 2013, Racing were relegated from the fifth tier, below Paris FC reserves, and would register an average gate of 50 the following season. Still the club refused to die, and a reorganisation of the French league pyramid in 2017 pushed the Ciel et Blanc back up to the new National 3.

Having partnered with the district of Colombes, the rebranded Racing’s historic home, the club was now playing back there – at the Stade Lucien Choine, the training pitch alongside the main stadium.

It was then that former actor and film producer Patrick Norbert entered the picture. President of SCO Angers in the early 2000s, he had overseen the progress of his son, Guillaume, on PSG and Arsenal’s books as a junior, whose stint at his father’s club propelled him to Nantes. 

Despite a promising start, injuries curtailed his playing career, which had finished by the time he arrived at Racing Colombes as sporting director, alongside his father, the club’s new president.

Stade Yves-du-Manoir/Peterjon Cresswell

Guillaume Norbert became coach in 2019, Racing’s form picking up just before the pandemic shutdown. This continued into 2020-21 and 2021-22, the Ciel et Blanc topping the table to reach the fourth tier after 12 long years. 

Moving during the season to the Stade Municipal Montbauron at Versailles while Colombes was completely rebuilt for the 2024 Olympics, including the removal of the Stade Lucien Choine, Racing gave Rouen a run for their money in the National 2 in 2022-23, before trailing Boulogne in 2023-24.

Home for the campaign before the Olympics was the Stade Alphonse Le Gallo in Boulogne-Billancourt, for a team of well-chosen youngsters who gave a good account of themselves in the 0-1 defeat to top-flight Lille in the Coupe de France in January 2024.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the story behind it

Colombes, officially named Stade Yves-du-Manoir after a heroic rugby player killed in an air crash, is a stadium of legend. Originally a racecourse in the 1880s, it was converted in 1907 for athletics, rugby and football thanks to a collaboration with the Parisian daily, Le Matin.

The Stade du Matin welcomed Racing from 1920, then was redeveloped as Stade Olympique de Colombes before the Games of 1924, when staged the athletics events and key matches of the football tournament. Here, Italy beat Spain, both semi-finals were decided and soon-to-be world champions Uruguay won gold.

Revamped again for the 1938 World Cup, when capacity reached 60,000, Colombes hosted the quarter-final between France and Italy, then the final itself, infamous in Hungary for rumoured political influence over a controversial team selection bereft of key players. Here, too, Racing won four French Cups during and either side of the war.

Superseded by the Parc des Princes from 1972, Colombes had long lost its status by the time Racing slipped down the league pyramid, although could still welcome crowds of 30,000-40,000 for major fixtures in the early 1980s. When the club hit the big time, albeit briefly, later that decade, it was groundsharing the Parc des Princes with PSG.

Stade Yves-du-Manoir/Peterjon Cresswell

Racing moving out in the 1990s had less to do with their amateur status and more the condition of the stadium, where only the Tribune Sud was usable, the rest roped off. The return of top-flight sport to Colombes occurred in 2009 when Racing’s rugby team reached the Top 14, warranting the building of the sideline Tribune Latérale.

Nearly a decade later, the XV moved out to La Défense, leaving Colombes empty once more, the slowly improving football team now long based at the 2,500-capacity training pitch, Stade Lucien Choine, alongside.

The major reconstruction of the main stadium to host the hockey tournament of the 2024 Olympics, a century after Eric Liddell, the Chariots of Fire and the all-conquering Uruguayan football team, will be complete by the late spring of 2024.

With its capacity of 15,000, it would be far too big for Racing’s current needs but plans do call for the Ciel et Blanc to move back to their spiritual home. All it needs now is promotion – currently from the fourth tier.

After a stint using the Stade Municipal Montbauron in Versailles as a home ground, for 2023-24 Racing decided to use the Stade Alphonse Le Gallo in Boulogne-Billancourt. Part of a sports complex opened in 2017, this will also be commandeered for the Olympics, for training purposes. Up to 450 spectators can gather around a synthetic football pitch, alongside tennis courts and a swimming pool.

getting here

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

The nearest train station to the Colombes stadium, a good 15-minute walk away, is Le Stade, with regular services from Gare St-Lazare on the J line 20 minutes away. From the station, head down rue Alexis Bouvier, turn left along the main road at the end, then right at the L’Olympic pizzeria down boulevard Pierre de Coubertin.

The Stade Alphonse Le Gallo is a short walk from Boulogne Pont de Saint-Cloud, terminus of Métro line 10, which crosses line 9 near the Parc des Princes. Changing at La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle makes most sense, directly linked to major stops a few stations away. From Boulogne Pont de Saint-Cloud, head straight down rue de Sèvres from the roundabout – Alphonse Le Gallo is 400 metres down on the right-hand side. 

If you time it right, bus 467 serves Pont de Saint-Cloud – Albert Kahn by the Métro station, goes around the roundabout and calls at Le Stade two stops away, beside the synthetic pitch. It’s frequent six days a week, every 45mins Sundays.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Admission for league games is an across-the-board €5, €3 for under-12s, cash-only, on the day. Currently there are no online sales, only for cup games against major opposition, when prices rise considerably.

Ticketing arrangements may change as and when Racing return to Colombes.

A modest selection of souvenirs, sky-blue-and-white scarves and hats, should be available at the ground on match days.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

The bar directly opposite Colombes, the Portuguese-run Café do Stade, where labourers currently break for coffee and cigarettes, is the last remaining link with the past. On its back wall, a mural of rare postcards shows Colombes in its prime, from the early 1900s as Stade du Matin, to its glory years between the wars.

Nearer Le Stade station, diagonally opposite the newly opened KOPSTER Hotel, La Belle Époque café is decked out in black-and-white images of French film stars from half a century ago. The friendly owner still harks after the days when rugby fans from the UK and Ireland would spend their nights carousing there after the game.

If you’re going to a game at the Stade Alphonse Le Gallo, by the roundabout near Boulogne Pont de Saint-Cloud Métro station, the Café des Arts (7 rond-point Rhin et Danube) is a standard local, with a terrace and TV screen inside, open six days a week except for Sundays.