Zimbabwe: Munetsi, Reims, Liquidation, a Bottle of Wine

Senior Sports Editor

MARSHALL MUNETSI and his French club, Stade de Reims, have so much in common they appear to be a perfect match made in heaven.

The Zimbabwean midfield enforcer celebrated his Silver Jubilee on June 22.

His 25th birthday came in the year the French Ligue 1 side are also marking the 25th anniversary of the year they re-acquired their assets, which had been auctioned five years earlier, when they were placed under administration.

Munetsi was born on June 22, 1996 and, five months later, Stade de Reims started building a foundation on which the club stands to this day.

The return of their assets, including trophies and records in November 1996, was key as it set the club back on the path to restore their professional status which they enjoy to this day.

That status had been lost during the dark days of their serious financial challenges, which saw them being relegated by the authorities into the third-tier league in 1991.

Their forced relegation, after their failure to find a buyer to wipe off debts that had exceeded US$10 million, and subsequent liquidation, forced the club to change their name to Stade de Reims Champagne FC.

And, as if bad luck was stalking them, they were forced to play without a logo, for seven years, on their return in 1992, because their logo, which featured a bottle of wine on top of a football, violated a new French law restricting alcohol advertising.

Munetsi was also born in the month and year in which Stade de Reims were celebrating the 40th anniversary of their finest hour, when they came within just 90 minutes of becoming champions of Europe.

On June 13, 1956, the French club took on Real Madrid in the inaugural final of the European Cup, later renamed the UEFA Champions League, at the Parc des Princes, in Paris.

A crowd of 38 239 fans trooped into the stadium, for the first showdown to produce a European club champion, and they were treated to a seven-goal thriller, which the Spanish giants won 4-3.

Alfredo Di Stefano, the legend who even has a training stadium named in his honour at Real Madrid, was one of the scorers with the other goals coming from Jose Rial (a brace) and Marcos Alonso Imaz.

Michel Leblond, Jean Templin and Michel Hidolgo were on target for Stade de Reims.

And, last month, when Munetsi celebrated his Silver Jubilee, his club were also marking the 65th anniversary of that year, when they came tantalisingly close, to transforming themselves into champions of Europe.

Three years after their first appearance, in the final battle for the European club championship, Stade de Reims and Real Madrid met again, in another final showdown, in Stuttgart, Germany, on June 3, 1959.

And, just like in their first meeting, the Spanish giants again triumphed, after winning the game 2-0.

Of course, times have changed for Stade de Reims, whose last, of their six league championships, came in 1962, and they finished in 14th place, out of the 20 teams, in French Ligue 1, last season.

But, exactly two decades after they plunged into the mess of liquidation, the club are in a better shape today, and are standing on a stronger foundation.

And, the weight of history, in a year that reminds the fans of a time when they were good enough to fight for the European championship, will be on the shoulders of Munetsi, and his teammates, this coming season.

They are back in pre-season training and will be under a new manager, Spanish coach, Oscar Garcia, who was unveiled just a day after Munetsi celebrated his 25th anniversary.

He replaced David Guion, whose contract was not renewed, after the club ended at the lower end of the French Ligue 1 table, last season.

After having played in the UEFA Europa League, last season, for the first time since 1963, a 14th place finish, in the league table, represented a step backwards.

The owners chose to bring in Garcia, who has experience managing in the league, after a stint at Saint-Etienne.

"After my short experience at Saint-Etienne, I wanted to come back to Ligue 1, because it's an exciting championship," Garcia tol the media.

"For me, it is at the same level as Germany, just behind England and Spain, even if I had not passed through Saint-Etienne, I would have had the same desire to come here.

"My departure (from Saint-Etienne) had nothing to do with our defeat in the derby against Lyon (5-0). I ran into some problems internally, but I'm happy to have left the team in 6th place.

"I had asked management for recruits in order to change something, we could not only rely on the history of the club, think only of the past and forget about the future.

"It was complicated, the team not speaking 100% (as one), as I am an honest person, I left without asking for a euro."

Garcia will be assisted by long-time deputy, Ruben Martinez Caballero.

Munetsi has now completed 44 Ligue 1 appearances, in the colours of Stade Reims, spread over 2 756 minutes, in which he has scored one league goal and provided two assists.

In February this year, amid reports of interest from the then Premiership club, Sheffield United, English newspaper, The Star, ran a headline in which they described Munetsi as a "giant midfielder, in the mould of Yaya Toure."

Ironically, it was in 1996, when Toure joined the ASEC Mimosas Academy, as a 13-year-old, beginning the journey, which eventually took him to Barcelona and Manchester City.

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