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LES ECHOS

How A Small Southern City Reached The Heights Of France’s Sporting Big Leagues

This weekend, the soccer team from Montpellier may become the champion of the French Ligue 1 for the first time in its history. It would be just one more success for this small southern city at the top in 22 different sports.

Montpellier at the height of French rugby, but also soccer, handball, water-polo, etc. (Florent PUISSEGUR)
Montpellier at the height of French rugby, but also soccer, handball, water-polo, etc. (Florent PUISSEGUR)
Bruno Lesprit

MONTPELLIER - With its 500,000 residents, Montpellier and the surrounding suburbs come in as only France's 15th largest metropolitan area. But in sports, the small southern city has long managed to compete at the very top.

The current 2011-2012 season may be the city's greatest showing ever. In soccer, the Montpellier Herault Sport Club (MHSC) sits atop Ligue 1, poised to win its first-ever first division title. In rugby, after a disappointing start, the Montpellier Herault Rugby (MHR) squad has made it to the playoffs, a year after reaching the finals.

And in handball, one of France's favorite sports, the Montpellier team has already secured the title, with three more games to go in the season. That's five titles in a row and 14 over the past 18 years.

Taken together, these performances make Montpellier a heavyweight in three of France's four main team sports. The only sport missing is basketball, but that's just on the men's side. The women reached the league finals this year. On Sunday, Montpellier's women's soccer team will also be playing the finals against Lyon.

Montpellier's domination doesn't stop here. Montpellier's Barracudas are leading the water-polo league. The city has teams competing at the highest levels in 22 different sports and received the award for "most athletic French city" in April.

"I came here from Versailles when I was 15 years old and I immediately felt the impact that sports have here," says Bruno Carotti, who played for the MHSC before becoming its general manager. "There is a sports culture at every level, be it society, health, values. That's what makes this unique mix between elite sports and the general population possible."

Handball world champion Joel Abati, now a local official, notes that the Languedoc-Roussillon region where Montpellier is, has 600,000 registered athletes among its 2.4 million residents. "That's a quarter of the population," he says. "We go around the whole region to find the best athletes while at the same time creating a social network. There was a time when you met people in church, today, people meet on athletic fields. Here sports aren't a luxury, they're a necessity."

Loulou and his trashmen

Demographics are also key. Montpellier is a college town with 55,000 students, or 20% of the population. And though college sports in France may not be as developed as in the US, it's what kicked off Montpellier's domination. It all started with the Montpellier Volleyball University Club. The men became champions seven times between 1947 and 1975, and so did the women between 1949 and 1962. Then in the 1980's, handball took over.

For the rest of France, one person embodies Montpellier, the loud-mouthed and full-figured Louis "Loulou" Nicollin, who would reach a career high if his "boys' won the soccer Ligue 1. "I came to Montpellier in 1967 and I've never thought about going to Lyon for my sports-related business," says the MHSC president.

Nicollin built French soccer's biggest success story starting from "trash." He created a team of garbage collectors, the Cleaning Sports Team, which later became the Paillade and finally the MHSC that it is today. This odd team reached the elite in 1981 and won the French Cup in 1990 with the likes of Laurent Blanc, Eric Cantona or Carlos Valderrama. Nicollin's one-liners, rustic for some, plain vulgar for others, did the rest.

"Loulou" – as he's known to French sports fans – doesn't like taking credit and would rather pay tribute to someone else – even more polarizing than he is: "We owe this success to Georges Freche. Before him, there was nothing for sports in Montpellier. When we made it to the second division, he helped us. He did the same for all the sports teams. So we all voted for him. Since his death, things are going well with local officials."

Freche was mayor of Montpellier from 1977 to 2004 and president of the agglomeration from 2001 to 2010, when he died. With him, the municipality became the biggest investor in elite sports and still spends about 30 million euros a year – 10% of its budget. According Jean-Pierre Moure, the current president, the reason behind Montpellier's athletic success is an "ambitious sports policy of infrastructure and equipment." Alongside La Mosson, the soccer arena (35,000 seats), there is the rugby stadium Yves-du-Manoir (12,000) - the only stadium built since the sport went professional in 1995 – the Park and Suites Arena (10,000) and the Palais des sports (3,000) home of the handball champions. "You often hear that there aren't enough people at La Mosson," says Moure. "But if you add rugby and handball, we have 45,000 fans every weekend."

The top three teams also have the added advantage of having three stars with matinee-idol looks: Olivier Giroud, Ligue 1's top scorer, fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, MVP of rugby's TOP 14 last year and handball's Nikola Karabatic, crowned best player in the world in 2007, and back in Montpellier after four seasons in Germany.

Montpellier is also a breath of fresh air in an increasingly money-flaunting sports world. The city has a down-to-earth image and players who often tour the city's toughest neighborhoods. Before the decisive match, Vignal didn't hide his satisfaction at the prospect of his team winning the title ahead of Paris-Saint-Germain, the team in the capital owned by Qatari billionaires. "Here," he said, "sports isn't for sale."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Florent PUISSEGUR

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