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How Zinedine Zidane is aiming to propel his local side up the French football leagues

Matthew Riding

One of the greatest footballers of his generation finds himself trying to save a fourth division football team from percolating in the depths of the French league ladder. Matthew Riding reports from Rodez on former French captain Zinedine Zidane’s plans to propel his wife’s football team, Le RAF, back up the football league.

Zinedine Zidane 300x225 How Zinedine Zidane is aiming to propel his local side up the French football leagues

Zinedine Zidane

The town of Rodez in the south west of France, is probably most famous for its grand cathedral and abundant brasseries. Away from the church’s bell-ringers and the sweet and savoury crepes, however, lies a fascinating story of how the three-time Ballons d’Or winner has a burning desire to see glory return to the town’s struggling football team, Rodez Aveyron FC.

Aside from his work as Real Madrid’s assistant manager, Zizou is known to spend a lot of his post-playing days in this proud region of France and his involvement with the club will only strengthen his affinity and bond to the area.

When presented to the world’s media on his arrival to Stade Paul Lignon – Rodez’s modest 6,000 capacity stadium – twitching with excitement and eagerness to speak of his plans, the former galactico revealed how he was drawn in to Rodez’s ambitions:

“I come from the streets, a difficult neighbourhood. I have never forgotten my roots. I love this region and spending time here and I feel at home.

“Some people came to see me about their ambitions for Rodez football club and it seemed interesting. Things needed to be done and I wanted to help out.”

One of those people who met with Zidane was former ‘Le RAF’ player Gregory Ursule, who after many phone calls and discussions with Zizou, speaks of how Zinedine became part of the club:

“Zinedine’s decision was influenced by the fact his wife and her family are from Averyon and he’s always appreciated the quality of life you can find here. He’s always been aware of our football club.”

Thirty-six-year-old Ursule – a fixture at the club since 2004 – was hugely influential in attracting Zidane to the club and it was perhaps his focus and unwavering enthusiasm that enticed Zizou to become part of the four-year project to propel Rodez back up the French football ladder.

“I’m involved in the same General Manager training programme as Zinedine at the French University centre for sports law and management in Limoges and when I pitched my idea for the programme to Zinedine, he decided to become a shareholder. This all happened in October 2012 and the shareholding was finalized on 14th January 2013”, said Ursule.

“Discussions were in full swing and after this I went to see him (Zidane) at Real Madrid with some shareholders and partners at the club and we visited the facilities. Zinedine had invited us to share his personal box to watch the Copa Del Rey quarter-final between Celta Vigo and Real Madrid.”

Although currently in the fourth tier of French football, Rodez have had their moments. Between 1988-1993, Le RAF reached the second level of the league ladder, competing on an equal-footing with the likes of Olympique Lyonnais and Bordeaux, and although aware it will take persistence and investment to return to the glory days, Ligue 2 is exactly where Zidane wants the club to be.

Along with the other shareholders – including former Leeds United man Olivier Dacourt – Zidane will invest in the club and support local sport projects in a bid to unite the town to push the club forward.

Ursule – who has played for the likes of Ajaccio and names Jean Tigana as his sporting hero – speaks feverishly about Zidane’s involvement: “Last weekend, Zinedine came here for a ZZ RAF Party and which was held at the Rodez amphitheatre in a room full of 2,000 spectators. We put on a five-a-side match full of legendary names in football. There was Zinedine, Dacourt, Eric Carrière, Frederic Déhu, Anthony Bancarel, Johnny Ecker, Sylvain N’diaye and Teddy Richert. We put on a show for the crowd and the next day the charity association “Un maillot pour la vie” (A Jersey For Life) was invited for the kick-off of a match between RAF and Beziers.”

Despite the glamour and publicity Zidane’s arrival inevitably brings, Ursule is adamant that the Le RAF won’t lose its core values and ethos and maintains the club is building for a sustainable and fruitful future.

“Of course, the club will benefit in terms of publicity, so it’s true that the club image will be highly favourable for us. But what we’re not seeking to do is completely change the club’s philosophy.

“We’re a local club, and we want to depend on the people who live here and continue contributing to the region, bringing it to life and putting on sport events every two weeks. If this can help motivate the team to achieve big things and if the RAF can enjoy experiences with people like Zinedine Zidane and the other shareholders, it certainly will be a boost, but of course yes, in terms of media coverage this allows us to get in the spotlight.”

With a population of around 24,000, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking the club’s dream of reaching Ligue 2 is an unrealistic one, but Zidane, Ursule and the shareholders are determined to put Le RAF back on the map and bring joy to the hustling streets of the isolated traditional town.

Ursule added:  “Zinedine’s dream is that the Le RAF can make it into Ligue 2 one day. I think that day is a long way away – and he does as well – but we must always have goals and dreams. Zinedine plans to invest more and more in the club, especially in a human way through his presence, advice and every-day overseeing.”

After ending last season in 8th position in the Championnat de France amateur, France’s fourth tier, many challenges lay ahead for Le RAF, but with Zidane’s presence and Ursule’s enthusiasm and passion for the club, Rodez’s profile is only going to grow and although the likes of PSG and Monaco are currently a million miles away in terms of status and wealth, Le RAF may one day share Zidane’s experiences of playing in the world’s greatest arenas and entertaining the vastest crowds.

With special thanks to Imane Mahlous and Janelle Alexander.

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