It's not easy to surprise Carlos Bocanegra these days but even the U.S. national team captain, who has spent his last six years playing in Europe, has to pinch himself when he looks at the top of France's Ligue 1. After Saturday's 1-1 draw against reigning champions Marseille, his new club Saint-Etienne was top of the pile, with five wins from its first eight games.
"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 Dimitri Payet settled the match, keeping Les Verts top of Ligue 1, a position it last occupied in February 1982.
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 Jacques Santini famously headed against the squared upright at Hampden Park, only to see the ball rebound out), and currently has over 200 supporters' groups.
"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 Yohann Hautbois, author of the best-selling book about Saint-Etienne, L'épopée Des Verts. "But since then, the club seems to have been cursed. They have never escaped from the heavy weight of their past and the many former players who dream of being the coach that wins them a trophy. That's been going on for 30 years."
"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 Laurent Batlles, 35, and defenders Sylvain Marchal, 30, Albin Ebondo, 26 and Bocanegra, 31 -- for a combined €165,000 ($227,000). The experience that the new quartet has added has improved the defense, which, before last night's game against Marseille, had only conceded once in its previous five. "It definitely helps to have experience but to be honest it's been a great team effort," Bocanegra said. "Our midfielders and attackers have been doing well not only to score but get back and help the unit defend. You have to have that."
It is also a vast improvement on the previous summer's spending, when the club paid over $27 million for the likes of Gelson Fernandes, Gonzalo Bergessio and Boubacar Sanogo, only to end up in the same position as the season before (17th) and with the same number of points (40).
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 Blaise Matuidi during defeat to Toulouse in Week 37 last season. No one matched the club's $11 million asking-price and so, after a summer of contemplation on his home-island of La Reunion, Payet has returned a different man. "I'm not proud of my behavior back then and I spent the summer thinking how I could improve things," he told L'Equipe.
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 Christoph Galtier, who is much closer to his players than predecessor Alain Perrin.
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 Didier Deschamps told Canal Plus. "He reads the game fast and sets up attacks with ease. I'm impressed with him."
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: Bernard Caiazzo, the businessman who pulls the strings, liked big-name players and enjoyed the attention he got from running the club, while Roland Romeyer preferred hardworking players, spoke like a supporter, and was happier in the background. "It's amazing to have two presidents who can't speak with the same voice," said Hautbois.
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; Vincent Tong-Cuong, the finance director, left; and the role of Damian Comolli, the sports director formerly at Tottenham Hotspur, was reduced. "The calm climate around the club has helped the results," Comolli told Le 10 Sport. "The way we work now is much simpler and there is good communication."
Caiazzo did make one move this summer: bringing in Dominique Rocheteau, who along with Michel Platini and Santini, formed part of the Saint-Etienne team of the 1970s, as his boardroom vice chairman, to provide a link to the club's heyday.
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.