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Love and romance flourish in France as Valentine's Day comes early for Epinal

Story highlights

  • Epinal of the third tier of French football defeated cup holder Lyon
  • Home side won 4-2 on penalties after tie had finished 3-3 after extra-time
  • Lyon, seven-time league champion and second in Ligue 1, shocked by result
  • Epinal made up of amateur football players and are 19th out of 20 in its division

There are few places in the world which can claim to be more romantic than Paris.

A glance across the River Seine, a walk though the Jardin des Tuileries hand in hand with a loved one, 37 bridges to pause and take a breath at the beauty of an enchanting city.

Artists sitting at every corner beckoning you for a portrait, the music which fills the air, the sheer smell of history which touches every sinew.

There are the book markets which entice you with that precious thought of sipping a coffee at a trendy cafe, while you sit engrossed in a work of literary art.

Tourists flock from around the world to see the Eiffel Tower, to take in the Haussman renovation and to bend down on one knee and ask that question.

There's the Pont Alexandre III bridge, linking Les Invalides where Napoleon is buried, right through to Le Grand Palais and the shopping heaven of the Champs-Elysees.

    Don't forget the Pont Des Arts, allowing you to walk between Louvre and the 6th Arrondissement without the constant noise of traffic. Why not stay a while? Enjoy a fine bottle of wine, a picnic perhaps?

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    Or maybe you'd rather save yourself for a jaunt across the Pont Neuf and steal a kiss?

    This is Paris, the romantic capital of France and perhaps the world.

    But on Sunday January 6 2013, Paris surrendered its crown, or at least for a few hours temporarily.

    Away from the boutiques, the patisseries, the artists of Montmartre, Paris had been eclipsed by a group of men, who have taken the whole notion of romance to a new level.

    Step forward the brave and hardy souls of Epinal.

    In a small and sleepy town in the north-east of the country, around 311 kilometers from the capital, something has stirred.

    There are no candle lit dinners or boutique bistros, instead it is a place known for three things -- the cold, the Epinal print and now, at last, its football team.

    It was here that the romance of the French domestic Cup was realized, not through poetry, painting or drama. This grew out of passion.

    Epinal, a third-tier side, which sits 19th out of 20 teams in its division, had dreamed of this day for many a year although that dream was tempered with more than a hint of apprehension.

    The arrival of cup holder Lyon and its millionaire football players would have left even the most rose tinted of Epinal supporters reaching for a nice bottle of rouge.

    Lyon, the seven-time league champion, a team playing at the pinnacle of European football in the Champions League, arrived at Stade de la Colombière second in the top division.

    After holding a training camp in the luxurious surrounding of Monaco and all the glitz and glamor that goes with it, this game was supposed to ease the team back into the routine following the winter break.

    While Lyon's players have been busy wiping the sweat from their brow and basking in the exotic temperatures of the Principality, Epinal's players were trying to fit the rigors of training into everyday life.

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    Epinal is an amateur team, its players work in all sections of society and train when their jobs allow. It is not the life their opponent endures.

    For once, work took a back seat as the romance of the cup swept across the town and those who live there.

    As the two teams took to the field, the millionaire international footballers of Lyon and the dreamers of Epinal, what chance would the home side have afforded themselves?

    French football has seen fairy tales in the past. Only last season, Quevilly of the third tier reached the final where it was beaten narrowly by Lyon.

    In 2009, Guingamp of the second division, defeated Stade Rennais, while other teams outside the top flight such as Chateauroux, Amiens, Calais and Sedan have all reached the final in recent time.

    "There is always a story every year," French football expert Philipe Auclair told CNN.

    "We had Quevilly last year which was a wonderful story and then in previous years we've had Calais and others.

    "There are a lot more upsets in the French Cup, but this one is absolutely huge."

    Huge indeed. It took the amateurs of Epinal just 13 minutes to move into a two-goal lead thanks to Tristan Boubaya.

    His double strike allowed not just a town, but an entire country to dream.

    This was the day when Epinal allowed France to fall in love with another minnow.

    Like any romance, there are rocky moments. Two of those came within the next seven minutes as Lyon drew level.

    The dream looked like it had died when Lisandro Lopez converted a penalty to leave Epinal's hopes in tatters with just 28 minutes remaining.

    Not since the 18th century had so many printing presses been ready to illustrate the efforts of Epinal.

    Famed for its printing cards of saints, wars and fairy tales, the town was about to receive a new legend to add to the list.

    Step forward Valentin Focki. It was he who scored a precious equalizer with 13 minutes remaining to take the tie into extra-time and eventually came penalties.

    And so it came down to the dreaded spot kicks. Many a man has crumbled under the pressure of trying to beat a goalkeeper from 12-yards.

    Far greater players than those of Epinel have lost their nerve and fallen into the abyss.

    But in Olivier Robin, Epinal had its hero. The goalkeeper ensured his face will be forever remembered on a picture card, saving a penalty to help bring down the might of Lyon.

    Who said romance was dead?

    "It's a really big shock," Damien Comolli, former Director of Football at AS Monaco, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham told CNN.

    "Lyon has been playing very well this season and it's the first really big negative result they've had all season.

    "The league title is almost guaranteed to Paris Saint-Germain and there are only a couple of other trophies for other teams to win.

    "Lyon wanted to win this cup and for them to lose is a huge blow, it's a massive shock.

    "Epinal are part-time and have jobs which allow them to train, they're a small team. Now, the focus on the club will be huge."

    While Epinal's players bask in the limelight of its victory, it's unlikely that the town will rival Paris for romance in the long term.

    The romance of the Coupe de France has been rekindled in a quiet town in the east of the country. For now, let Epinal have its day.

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