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Column: In France, a fundamental principle of league football sacrificed on altar of business

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PARIS - The principle, beautiful in its simplicity, motivates players in open leagues everywhere, be they school kids or hardened pros: Play well enough through the season to finish top or near the top of the division and the end reward will be promotion to bigger and better things.

So the players of Luzenac, an unheralded team from the lush foothills of the jagged French Pyrenees mountains, felt they'd reached the promised land when they secured promotion from the amateur ranks to Ligue 2, the second of France's two professional leagues, last season. They celebrated through the night after a 1-0 win in April that guaranteed their jump out of the Championnat National, the third rung of French football.

"A great moment," recalled goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, a French-American whose French mother met and fell in love with his father, from Providence, Rhode Island, when studying English in the United States. "We put Luzenac on the map."

Well, almost. Winning on the field, it turned out, got Luzenac to the door of Ligue 2 but didn't open it. While the rest of France slumbered through July-August holidays, Luzenac's portly financier and his lawyers spent the summer fighting — so far unsuccessfully — to prove to the league they are worthy of the spot the players earned with sweat, goals and tedious hours crisscrossing France by bus and on commercial flights for games in fishing ports and towns on the unglamorous outer reaches of football.

In shunning Luzenac, French football administrators have hung the fundamental principle that underpins the sport almost everywhere — play well, move up — from a gallows of red tape. First, the club was told its finances weren't in order. After the club knocked back that argument in court, the league ruled that the stadium Luzenac planned to upgrade for use this season doesn't meet required safety standards, even though it is a regular venue for top-flight rugby.

Setting the clock against Luzenac, too, the league kicked off a new season without the club, even as it continues to argue its case in court and arbitration hearings. If Luzenac's next move — asking a court to suspend the league — fails, then its future looks grim.

"It's horrible. Not only is it hard professionally but it's hard for our families," Westberg said this week in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "My kids go into school in two weeks and, I don't know, if all goes bad, then where are we going to go?"

Luzenac's story has touched a nerve in France not simply because the French, like fans everywhere, like seeing Davids stick it to Goliaths but also because it is viewed by many as another ugly example of the business of football, its commercial obsessions, petty rivalries and often haphazard administration ruining the attractive simplicity of the game.

The government, through its junior sports minister, Thierry Braillard, spoke in support of Luzenac. Braillard said Luzenac appears, if belatedly, to have now "ticked all the boxes on finances and infrastructure." He accused the league of hypocrisy and of blocking the accession of amateur teams with "increasingly severe and sometimes rigid" regulations.

Although amateur in status, the club isn't quite the minnow fondly portrayed by French media. Its roots are humble enough: The team was founded in Luzenac, a Pyrenees village of 600 people, in 1936. Luzenac lives off its mines of talc, a mineral used in industry and, perhaps most famously, as talcum powder. For decades, the talc industry was the team's main backer.

"There's always been a very good team," said Luzenac resident and former player and club administrator Henri Lacaze, speaking by phone. "Football has always stuck to the skin of Luzenac, along with the talc mine and factory."

Jerome Ducros, a property developer with a creamy southwest French accent and moustache streaked yellow by his smokes, took over in 2010 with big ambitions to lift the team into Ligue 2. He kept the Luzenac name, but his salaried players live and train in Toulouse, the regional capital where aerospace giant Airbus makes planes.

Westberg, who represented the United States national team at youth level, says their training methods are no less demanding than at French professional teams he played for before signing for Luzenac in 2012. Westberg was persuaded to join by Fabien Barthez, the famously bald goalkeeper in France's World Cup-winning team of 1998 who is lending his clout and expertise to Luzenac as the club's director general.

"I wanted to be there from the ground up," Westberg said. "For soccer players, it's great to be part of a big project and a big story."

How this story will finish isn't clear. If Luzenac isn't admitted to Ligue 2, it could end up in no-man's land, without any championship to play in, because the third division where it finished runner-up last season has also started up again.

Ducros said the saga demonstrates that money, not sporting merit, is king in French football.

"Historically, all amateur teams had the sporting right to aspire to become professional. It's clear that today, that door is closed," he said after another arbitration effort on Wednesday at French Olympic Committee headquarters failed to persuade the league to reverse course.

"It's a very hard situation to live psychologically, but we're all on the field every day, getting prepared," said Westberg. "We really want to be with the club until its last breath, really, because our future depends on it. We really want to play Ligue 2. For now, it's Ligue 2 or nothing."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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