The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: C - Grégory Coupet

Despite being one of the most successful goalkeepers in French history and pulling off perhaps the greatest save ever, the Lyon legend was underappreciated in his time

The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: C - Grégory Coupet
Grégory Coupet in training with France in 2007, near the end of his career | Photo: Franck Fife/Getty Images

Looking back, it is probably fair to say that Grégory Coupet was a victim of circumstance.

Although undoubtedly one of the better goalkeepers of his generation, shoring up a defence which won seven straight French titles, he was chronically underused at international level due to the presence of Fabien Barthez.

And, despite that unprecedented spell of domestic dominance, Olympique Lyonnais' name is no longer the first one thinks of when Ligue Un is brought up.

PSG's more recent reign of terror, punctuated by up-and-coming Monaco's assault on the title, are the orders of the day, and Lyon are yesterday's news. 

With Alexandre Lacazette off to Arsenal, it is unlikely that Les Gones will find their way back to the top of the pile in the next couple of seasons at least. Perhaps, then, it is time to finally appreciate the career of a man who did as much as any other to drag them to the summit at the turn of the century.

Early years at Saint-Étienne

To look at Coupet, it would not necessarily be obvious that he was a goalkeeper. Standing at just 5'10", he did not exactly dominate the penalty area, and his long, banded-back hair combined with this to give him more the appearance of a South American midfield enforcer, snapping at heels rather than punching at crosses.

This was an issue which he confronted in his early teens. Growing up in the picturesque southern commune of Le Puy-en-Velay, it was noticed that Coupet wasn't growing at the same rate as the other boys.

For a youngster who had taken a shine to goalkeeping from an early age, this was a problem, and he undertook extra physical training in an effort to compensate for his slight stature.

But, it was probably this extra training which helped Coupet win his first professional contract as a youngster. Competing for a scholarship run by Saint-Étienne legend Jean Castenada, the teenager won the competition and signed for the club soon after.

He spent three and a half seasons at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, but it wasn't until he made the surprise decision to move to local rivals Lyon midway through the 1996/97 season that Coupet's career really took off.

Steady improvement at Lyon

Coming in as a replacement for the veteran Pascal Olmeta, Coupet made the number one spot his own almost immediately with the previous long-serving custodian having moved to Espanyol.

In his first season at the club, Lyon finished eighth, and actually had the poorest defensive record in the top twelve.

The following year brought a significant improvement. Lyon hopped two places up the league table, and conceded 13 goals fewer. In 1998/99, they and Coupet improved again, climbing a further three spots and knocking seven more off the 'goals against' column.

Despite this constant development, Olympique Lyonnais exited the 20th Century as they had entered it upon their inception in 1950 - with zero division one titles to their name.

Glory on the horizon

But the coming years were a fresh start for Lyon as much as for everybody else. The next two seasons brought some tantalisingly close tastes of glory as they finished as runners-up twice in a row. A seven-point gap in 2000 was cut to four in 2001, and the people of Lyon could begin to feel that fate was turning their way.

If they needed any reassuring that they were in safe hands, they were given a timely reminder in the 2001/02 Champions League.

Their European campaign didn't get very far. Drawn with Barcelona and eventual finalists Bayer Leverkusen, they didn't make it out of the group stage.

What their campaign did bring, was a moment of true footballing magic, as in the cauldron of the Camp Nou, Coupet pulled off what many have suggested - quiet at the back please, Mr Banks - was the finest piece of goalkeeping of all time.

The greatest double save ever?

A stray pass back from midfield left Brazilian centre-half Caçapa in a difficult spot, facing back towards his own goal with compatriot Rivaldo - who scored 17 goals and won the World Cup that season - trying to harry him into a mistake.

Caçapa obliged, sealing the envelope on his entry to the Own Goals Hall of Fame with a precise lob over Coupet, which the backpedalling keeper could not handle.

Despite the situation, Coupet used his head and quickly came up with a solution - to use his head. He darted back towards his goalline and pulled out a diving header of which Robin van Persie would have been proud, straining his neck and just managing to divert the ball back onto his crossbar.

The danger was not gone. Coupet was on his back inside the goal, and the ball was dropping down to Rivaldo, who had followed it in and was already rising to meet it at the line of the six-yard box to nod in a simple rebound.

His header was a good one, hard and low towards the bottom left. But Coupet, reacting as though stuck with a cattle prod, moved absurdly quickly to scramble across, stop the shot, and parry it clear to prevent a second rebound.

Barça won the match 2-0, and Rivaldo eventually had the last laugh with a late penalty, but there was no doubting who had ensured his place in the history books that night.

Unappreciated and ignored by France

That Coupet and Lyon won their first ever Ligue Un title that season speaks for itself. That they went on to win seven consecutive championships speaks for itself as well, and that Coupet was named France's Goalkeeper of the Year in four of those seasons, one would think, should do the same.

Yet, despite these efforts, it was never quite enough for France manager Raymond Domenech

As long as Barthez was at Manchester United, it seemed as though he would be Domenech's first choice, but that did not change when he moved to Marseille in 2003.

When Barthez was handed a six-month suspension in 2005 for spitting at a referee, it seemed as though Coupet finally had the chance to make his mark at international level.

He deputised well, and was regularly rotated with Barthez in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup as Domenech kept his cards close to his chest on who would get the nod. 

Despite a - not unreasonable - media campaign for the French Goalkeeper of the Year to represent France at the World Cup, it was Barthez who started. Coupet, understandably feeling hard done by, almost left the camp midway through the tournament, but returned to watch from the bench.

Winding down a career of success

To his credit, Coupet continued at his consistent best and went on to win two more league titles with Lyon, as well as a French Cup. 

In 2007, he injured his cruciate ligament, and was never quite the same again. He came back to pass his 500th career appearance for Lyon, but with Rémy Vercoutre excelling in his absence, left the following year for pastures new.

Atlético Madrid was the destination, but it was never somewhere Coupet managed to really call home. A single season spent in rotation with Leo Franco was enough for him, and he returned to France to spend the final two years of his career with a newly resurgent PSG.

35 international caps wasn't enough for a man who spent the majority of his career at the very top of his profession, and his isn't a name that gets brought up often in discussions of goalkeeping greats.

But, for one September night in Catalonia, Grégory Coupet was the best in the world.

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This is the third instalment of a weekly series, 'The A-Z of Forgotten Football Heroes'. Catch up with last week's entry for B, on Jean-Marc Bosman, here.


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