As romantic football stories go, JS Saint-Pierroise’s run to the last 32 of the French Cup really is fairytale stuff.
The club from Reunion, a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean, miraculously beat Ligue 2 side Niort in the last round, and have made the 6,000-mile trip back to mainland France.
Now, with a spot in the last-16 within their grasp as they face fourth-tier team SAS Epinal on Saturday, with the potential for a lucrative tie against Ligue 1 opposition, this is the story of dreams and devotion for a small club off the coast of Madagascar.
A quick glance at a map shows the distance between JS Saint-Pierroise and SAS Epinal
The Saint-Pierroise squad visited the Vincennes Hippodrome on Monday in Paris
Stadium: Stade Michel Volnay Saint-Pierre, Reunion
League: Reunion Premier League – first place for the past five years
Notable current/former players: Elliot Grandin, Florent Sinama Pongolle, Dimitri Payet
The island of Reunion is an overseas territory which has an area size of 968 square miles and is situated between Madagascar and Mauritius.
As of 2018 it had a population of 865,000 and the island’s capital Saint-Denis – on the north coast – is home to 20 per cent of the population.
However, most importantly for JS Saint-Pierroise, who are based on the south coast, the territory has the same political status as mainland France, and thus the club has been eligible to compete in the Coupe de France.
Having won their domestic Reunion Premier League in each of the last five years, they have built up a devoted following which has followed them 6,000 miles north for their games in previous rounds of this season’s competition.
The island amateurs entered in Round 7 and beat fourth-tier side Jura Sud Foot 1-0, and then overcame fifth-tier club ES Thaon.
Two of the Saint-Pierroise squad pose for a selfie with the Coupe de France this week
The island has an area size of 968 square miles and is situated off the east of Madagascar
But it was in Round 9 when they really grabbed the attention of not just the French sports media, but outlets across Europe.
A 2-1 win away at Niort – who incidentally sacked their manager in the immediate aftermath of the shock upset – means they are down to the final 32 in the pack.
Among their current squad, the majority of which are Reunion natives, is 32-year-old winger Elliot Grandin.
The Frenchman played for Blackpool in the Premier League, and also had stints at Crystal Palace, Shrewsbury Town and Nice. With Saint-Pierroise, he is now at his 12th club.
Elliot Grandin, who is in the current squad, played for Blackpool in the Premier League
Former Liverpool striker Florent Sinama Pongolle returned to the island of his birth to play
And there list of players who have graced the heights of European football doesn’t stop there. Florent Sinama Pongolle, another Reunion native, played for the outfit at the beginning of 2019, before retiring halfway through the year.
The diminutive French striker is best remembered for his time at Liverpool, where he was part of the 2005 Champions League winning squad and scored in that famous win over Olympiacos in the group stages.
Now 35, he returned to his homeland following stints in Russia, USA and Scotland to name but a few.
But their most famous name is in fact former West Ham midfielder and free-kick specialist Dimitri Payet.
Dimitri Payet, who has been capped for France, played for JS Saint-Pierroise as a teenager
The French international, who now plays for Marseille, was born in Saint-Pierre, and played in the youth system for a season at Saint-Pierroise.
He then made his move not just into professional football, but to the other side of the world as he signed with Le Havre at the age of 18.
All that being said, the club in its current form is determined not to linger on the past. Why do so, when they without a doubt the most eye-opening story of the French domestic season so far?
The Saint-Pierroise players celebrate their famous win against Ligue 2 club Niort
Stade Rennes won the Coupe de France last season, beating PSG in the final on penalties
They are very much at the peak of their powers now, and after already stunning two teams in mainland France, Epinal of ‘Championnat National 2’ (in the fourth-tier of French football) know it’ll be no walkover come Saturday lunchtime.
Led by manager Jean-Pierre Bade, himself a former player with Marseille, Nantes and Bordeaux, and supported by a host of remarkably loyal and dedicated fans, Saint-Pierroise are not finished yet.
Who knows? A glamour tie, perhaps even against the wealth and riches of PSG, could await in the last 16. Watch this space.