It's not easy to surprise
"If you look around the league, on paper you would not have our team sitting in first place at this point, but we don't care about all that stuff," said Bocanegra in an exclusive interview with SI.com. Preseason, the club's target was to stay in the division: after all, Saint-Etienne finished just one place above the relegation zone in each of the last two campaigns.
Last week, Saint-Etienne won 1-0 at local rivals Lyon, a true smash-and-grab after the hosts hit the woodwork three times, had two shots cleared off the goal-line and had a strong penalty claim ignored. A late free-kick from top scorer
Since then, the club has veered from financial mismanagement (1982) to fake-passport scandals (2001), not to mention those recent narrow escapes from the drop. So what has changed to put one of France's most popular clubs, a team that won seven titles and back-to-back doubles between 1967 and 1976, back on top? Bocanegra kindly talks us through some of the reasons:
It takes a certain type of player to succeed at the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard, such is the weight of expectation on a team that was a rounded crossbar away from winning the 1976 European Cup final against Bayern Munich (when
"In the 1970s, Saint-Etienne represented solidarity and success in a poor city of workers at a time when factories were being closed down, and their games were the first to be broadcast on French TV," said
"Here there is a little more pressure from the fans to perform well or they will let you know how poor you were," admitted Bocanegra. "But the club has a fantastic history and I'm loving the atmosphere."
This summer's recruitment, then, took a different tack as the club brought in four older players -- midfielder
It is also a vast improvement on the previous summer's spending, when the club paid over $27 million for the likes of
Saint-Etienne's match-winner against Lyon, Payet, who also made both goal-line clearances, was up for sale this summer after almost coming to blows with captain
Payet has already scored more goals this season, seven, than his combined total for his last three seasons at the club, spanning 66 games. Highly-rated as a youngster at Nantes, Payet initially struggled with the pressure at Saint-Etienne but has benefited from the motivational skills of coach
Payet was rewarded for his sensational form with a call-up to the France side for its Euro 2012 qualifying games against Romania and Luxembourg next week. "He is a technically-gifted player and at the moment his confidence is sky high," said Bocanegra. "He has two good feet and great vision. He sees the game quickly and can give an assist just as easily as score a goal. I like how fast he is with the ball at his feet."
Matuidi, who made his France international debut in last month's win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, was also called up this week. The midfielder was linked with a move to Arsenal last season and, now 23, could be set for a high-profile move next summer. "Not only does Matuidi win a lot of balls in front of his defense, he's also very quick to set things in motion," Marseille coach
Making a simple decision was never easy at Saint-Etienne, which until this summer, had two co-presidents, an overly-influential finance director and a sports director responsible for recruitment. The root of the problem was that the top men had different ideas about the club:
After two years of public sniping at each other and their coaches, this summer brought about some key changes in the club's structure. Caiazzo agreed to take a back seat with Romeyer overseeing the club day-to-day;
Caiazzo did make one move this summer: bringing in
Having a united front off the pitch is certainly helping the team on it. "I'm a firm believer that you create your own luck through hard work and being on the same page as a team," added Bocanegra. "We want to take as many points possible and finish as high up the table as we can."
The season may still be in its infancy but try telling that to Saint-Etienne's fanatical supporters, whose last title came 30 years ago. They are already dreaming of a repeat, even if that is a little optimistic.