French champions PSG are set to face third-division side Les Herbiers in the French Cup final as they look to complete a domestic treble. For star striker Kylian Mbappe, a reunion with a childhood teammate awaits.
On the dirt pitch of the grandly named Stade Leo Lagrange in a banlieue to the east of Paris, the players of local boys football team AS Bondy pose for a prematch photo.
Kneeling at the bottom left of the picture, his arm around his team's goalkeeper, is Rodrigue Bongongui, a Cameroon-born midfielder who has gone on to play for second-division Paris FC and now, Les Herbiers in France's third tier.
At the bottom right is a young boy of about five, grinning cheekily having sneaked onto the team photo. He's too young to play but one suspects he would probably have been good enough – because this is future Paris Saint-Germain superstar and French international Kylian Mbappe.
Fifteen years later, on Tuesday evening, just a few kilometers away in the Stade de France, Bongongui and Mbappe will meet again when French champions PSG face Les Herbiers in the final of the Coupe de France.
It's a classic David versus Goliath cup tie, which has captured the imagination of the French public and examples of the contrast between the two teams have been repeated endlessly:
On the one hand, the amateur team from a village in the Vendee with a population of 16,000. On the other, the super-club from the French capital.
It's a team with an annual budget of around €2 million ($2.37 million) against a club backed by the sovereign wealth of the state of Qatar.
It's a team whose highest-paid player earns €3,000 a month against a team featuring the most expensive footballer in the history of the game – Brazilian superstar Neymar, with an estimated monthly salary of €3 million.
Les Herbiers midfielder Rodrigue Bongongui (bottom left) pictured with PSG star Kylian Mbappe (bottom right) at AS Bondy.
'It is still football and we know how to play'
"I'm going to be frank; we've got zero chance of winning," coach Stephane Masala told French daily Le Parisien. "I've already stopped thinking about the result. The question is how long we can pose PSG a problem? A few seconds? A few minutes? Maybe even an hour? I just want us to face them eye to eye."
Incredibly, Masala has only been in the job for four months since taking over from his friend and former head coach Frederic Reculeau, who was sacked in January. In that time, he has masterminded a cup run which has seen Les Herbiers dispatch division two sides and former French champions AJ Auxerre and RC Lens before beating fellow third-tier outfit Chambly 2-0 in the semifinals.
In preparation for the final, the minnows were invited to stay and train at Clairefontaine, the famous base of the French national team.
"I think I've been staying in Antoine Griezmann's room," joked captain Sebastien Flochon. "It's a dream come true."
Unorthodox team talks
But Les Herbiers have had turn to less orthodox techniques on their route to the final, and some of the coach's methods have raised eyebrows.
Ahead of the quarterfinal against Lens, Masala placed a wooden gym bench in the middle of the dressing room and walked across it, asking his players if they thought it was easy. When they said yes, he asked them if they thought he could walk across the bench if it was placed between two high-rise buildings.
"At first they said no," he recalls. "They said I'd be scared or get vertigo. Then they recognized that it's actually the same task. So I told them that they shouldn't be scared of playing in front of 25,000 fans in Lens either. Because it's still football and we know how to play."
Nevertheless, Masala, who was given the job on an interim basis, admits that that his subsequent success has damaged his relationship with his old friend and colleague Reculeau.
"He's not taken it too well, as I understand," he told Le Parisien. "It's as if we both used to play the lottery together but then, one day, I'm the only one with a winning ticket. If I could do things again, I'd throw away the lottery ticket and keep our friendship."
'Football with a capital F'
Nobody expects Les Herbiers to win the ultimate jackpot in Saint-Denis on Tuesday night, but the expectations are so high that PSG can't really win either.
"They have to win by at least six goals," commented French magazine So Foot, also suggesting giving the amateur side a three-goal head start or playing a youth team.
But coach Unai Emery, who is expected to make way for former Borussia Dortmund and Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel this summer, is still focused on ending his reign in charge with a domestic treble, adding the Coupe de France to the League Cup and the Ligue 1 championship.
"We've prepared for this game like every other game," he told the prematch press conference. "We've analyzed our opponents and done some serious training. The players are very professional and they know it's not a game like any other."
For Kylian Mbappe, the game against his old friend from the banlieue Rodrigue Bongongui will be extra special. The former Monaco striker is still in touch with his former coaches at AS Bondy and last month invited 15 of the club's youth players to PSG's league game against Guingamp at the Parc des Princes.
"In this final we are going to see football with a capital F," said Masala. "Talent and players who are among the best in the world with PSG, and amateurs with a lot of courage and solidarity on the other side of the pitch."
Asked if he had another unique team talk prepared for the Stade de France, he replied: "Yes, it's going to surprise them. It's going to be something they've never heard before in their lives."