The Strange Story of the Team Without a Goalkeeper

by | Jul 24, 2021

The 1981/82 season hadn’t been a particularly bad one for Girondins de Bordeaux. Their run in the UEFA Cup had come to an early end against SV Hamburg and they still hadn’t lifted a major trophy since their 1950 Ligue Un title, but they were on course for another place in Europe, and within the city there was a feeling that manager Aimé Jacquet was building something special. The France national team that would reach the semi-final of the 1982 World Cup would be built with this team as its chassis. Gerard Soler, the only player to score against England that summer, led the attack, alongside seasoned international Bernard Lacombe. Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana, 50% of France’s ‘carré magique’, were in their midfield. Marius Tresor sat in their defence.

Girondins de Bordeaux – ‘Girondins’ is an informal name for people from the area, which comes from a loosely knit political faction during the French Revolution which was largely based around the city – had seen their fortunes rise following the arrival of Claude Bez as the club’s president, in 1978. With a moustache as expansive as his waist-line, Bez was almost stereotypically ‘larger than life’, but he was delivering results, and at a club which had been starved of success – their only other major trophy in more than 70 years of trying was a Coupe de France, won in 1941 – that trumped everything else. At the end of the 1980/81 season, they’d finished in third place in the table.

Bordeaux started their 1981/82 season with a narrow 3-2 win against local rivals Nantes in Le Derby de l’Atlantique, a late Tresor goal rescuing a win after they’d been pegged back from a two goal lead, and by the following April, things were going swimmingly. They were within touching distance of the top of the table, and a 2-0 win away to PSG at the start of the month had guaranteed them at least fourth place and a place in the following year’s UEFA Cup.

A week later, though, the wheels started to fall off their season. At home against Lens, a Teitur Þórðarson goal seven minutes from time secured a surprise win for a team that was struggling to avoid relegation, and a further defeat against Brest ended any theoretical chance they may have had of winning the league. That ended up going, for the fourth time, to Monaco. And then, in their penultimate match of the season, everything unravelled. Bordeaux lost a bad tempered match at Auxerre 2-0, and at the end of the match Dragan Pantelic was involved in an incident that would come to have coniderable ramifications for the Yugoslavian goalkeeper.

Versions of events are, of course, disputed. According to Pantelic, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, standing behind the referee was kicked in the back of the leg. Whatever happened, there was then an altercation between Pantelic and one of the linesmen, which turned into a full-blown fight. The French Football Federation acted with considerable haste, and immediately banned Pantelic for a year.

Claude Bez was furious. Dragan Pantelic was an extremely experienced goalkeeper, a Yugoslav international who had signed for Bordeaux the previous summer after ten years with Radnicki Nis, and who’d become the national team’s goalkeeper, even scoring two penalty kicks for this country. The day before the final match of the season, he was at Aimé Jacquet’s office to inform the manager that Bordeaux would be protesting the decision in the starkest way possible on the last day of the season, by refusing to play a goalkeeper at all.

Bordeaux’s UEFA Cup place might have been safe and the match might not be the most consequential of the season for either of its competitors, but it was also the return match of Le Derby de l’Atlantique, a return trip to Nantes to play a team a couple of places below them. It might not have mattered in terms of the league table, but it did matter in terms of people’s emotions.
Journalists at Bordeaux’s training round the day before the match received a considerable surprise when they were handed a team sheet by Aimé Jacquet which contained thirteen players, none of which were goalkeepers. Jacquet wouldn’t comment, but Bez did:

It is in solidarity with Dragan Pantelic, suspended for a year, while he is innocent of the facts that he is accused of, that the players and the Bordeaux leaders have decided to play in Nantes without a real goalkeeper. The goalkeeper jersey will be worn by a player, in this case Alain Giresse. We do not want to steal the show, nor to take thirty goals, but we want to win.

He also stated that the club’s share of the proceeds from the match would be donated to the Fondation de France and to the Commission for the Protection against Drugs.

Tensions mounted further before the game, when the team sheets were handed in. Bordeaux had listed captain Alain Giresse, who stood at not quite 5’4″ tall, as their goalkeeper – with Bez having reportedly said to Giresse, “You’re the captain – you do it” – and the Nantes players were affronted that not only were Bordeaux not selecting a goalkeeper, but were selecting the smallest player in their team to wear the shirt. Furthermore, despite the goalkeeper’s shirt, Giresse would be playing as a ‘fly’ goalkeeper, outfield as much as anywhere else.

A crowd of just over 21,500 turned up to Stade Marcel Saupin for the match. To put that into context, Nantes’ average home crowd that season was just over 13,500, while Bordeaux’s was just over 16,000. Within four minutes, Nantes were two goals up, with Giresse having been almost in position the first, scored by Gilles Rampillon, and nowhere to be seen for the second, scored by Vahid Halilhodzic. Marius Tresor kept guard near the goal line, but scoring goals wasn’t quite as easy as one might have expected, for Nantes. Offsides were thrown up in the air, with attacking players frequently getting caught out by the numbers of defenders between them and the goal.

For all this, though, not having anyone in goal didn’t turn out to be some accidental tactical masterstroke. By the half hour mark, Jose Toure and Thierry Tousseau had doubled the Nantes lead, and when the fifth goal sailed in after 58 minutes, with Giresse standing on the edge of the penalty area looking somewhat lost, it was decided to make a very necessary change.

Tresor took over as goalkeeper and, after the rocky start of conceding within a couple of minutes, kept a clean sheet for the last half hour, quite possibly with Nantes players taking their foot off the pedal a little against fellow professionals who were ultimately being humiliated by the actions of their club’s owner. The match finished as a 6-0 win for Nantes. Bordeaux finished the season in fourth place in the table, a point behind Sochaux, six points behind Saint-Étienne, and seven behind the champions, Monaco. Nantes finished in sixth place, missing out on a place in Europe.

After the match, long-serving defender Patrice Rio said, “Under such circumstances, we were not having fun at all. We continued to play our game but it was a parody of football”, while goalkeeper Jean-Paul Betrand-Demanes was a little more succinct: “This match was a farce.” With the benefit of time, Alain Giresse has been able to be sanguine about it all: “Few players will be able to say that they have worn all of a team’s shirts from the start of the match.”

As French club and international football both grew throughout the first half of the 1980s, though, Bordeaux were a juggernaut that could not be stopped. They won Ligue Un in 1984 and 1985. The won the Coupe de France in 1986. They did the double in 1987. Meanwhile, Claude Bez was becoming locked in a rivalry with the similarly ambitious Bernard Tapie of Olympique Marseille, but Bordeaux’s pursuit of OM became the foundations of the club’s fall from grace.

In January, Bez said of Tapie: “Mr. Tapie is cancer for football. This man, everything he touches, he rots. Before him it was clean.” Soon after, he claimed to have arranged prostitutes for referees for European Cup matches, and in October of the same year, cases of overcharging fraud relating to the refurbishment of the club’s training ground came to light, leading to the tax authorities claiming several million Francs in unpaid bills from the club. With fraud charges pending, Marseille clearly in the ascendency, and his behaviour starting to border on the erratic, Claude Bez left the presidency of the Girondins in November 1990.

For the club, the fallout from all of this was disastrous. Functionally insolvent, they were relegated from Ligue Un in 1992. Bordeaux did bounce back, though. Promoted back at the first attempt, they reached the UEFA Cup final in 1996, before losing over two legs to Bayern Munich. Bez wouldn’t live to see them win the league again, though. He died from a heart attack in January 1999, at the age of 59. Girondins de Bordeaux lifted the Ligue Un title for the first time in 12 years at the end of that season.

In this century, they’ve won a league which has been dominated by two clubs – PSG & Lyon, both of whom have won it seven times each since 2002 – once, in 2009. Earlier this year, after their American owners confirming that they would no longer be funding the club and the collapse of the Mediapro television contract, Girondins de Bordeaux were put into administration.

Plus ça change.