The Tour de France is not the only French sporting event where the leaders don yellow jerseys. The same colour scheme has also brought luck to the footballers of Nantes, who broke clear of the peloton in the final stages of this season and duly rolled over the finishing line to claim their eighth League title.
“It’s incredible that we were fighting against relegation last season and now find ourselves champions,” said Nantes’ Argentinian sweeper Nestor Fabbri after his side clinched the title with one game to go by beating relegated Saint-Etienne 1-0.
“Although we had to scrap for results and be strong mentally in the final weeks of the season, we deserved the title because of the high-quality football we produced for most of the season.
“We were a little disappointed to be knocked out of the semi-finals of the French Cup and League Cup, but it shows how far we have progressed this season that we were close to the Treble. This team can go far and will definitely not be out of place in the Champions League.”
Some critics, though, beg to differ. They argue Nantes were merely the best of an average bunch, that they owed their title more to the inadequacies of big-name rivals such as Olympique Lyon, Bordeaux, Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Marseille. They have a point.
When Nantes last won the championship, in 1994-95, they started the campaign with a 32-match unbeaten run and lost only once all season. This term they were beaten no fewer than eight times, including home and away defeats by Lyon and a 5-0 hammering at home to Bordeaux. Hardly all-conquering stuff.
However, to label Nantes champions by default is not fair either. They showed great character to get their act together after slumping to 15th in the table in early October, they won the most games, had the best attack and were the most attractive team in thecountry by some distance.
ver since innovative coach Jose Arribas arrived at the club in the late 1950s,Nantes have stood for attacking flair and superior teamwork; their success this season was based on the same principles. No long aimless balls thumped forward, no playing the percentages. Football a la nantais means rapid-fire short passes, intelligent support play and using the entire width of the field. It is not an economic way of playing; it is a game based on perpetual motion and demands that its exponents are in top-class physical condition. But when the players are in sync and Nantes are buzzing, it’s a guaranteed spectacle.
“The essence of our game is movement,” says former Nantes player and coach Jean-Claude ‘Coco’ Suaudeau, a veteran of almost four decades at the club and who guided them to the League title in 1983 and 1995.
“This controlled movement allows us to think better, to see things quicker. This is the platform which allows us to anticipate, to be ahead of the game.”
In the attacking third especially, Nantes look for ball-players rather than athletes, and of their current side no one better exemplifies the brand than twin midfield creators Eric Carriere and Stephane Ziani. Although small and somewhat lightweight, both are tremendously mobile, imaginative and technically assured, and whether linking in central midfield or with each taking a wide position – Carriere on the right and Ziani on the left – they have formed the heart and soul of their team’s championship challenge this season.
As well as football for the purists, the other core component of Nantes’ philosophy is the priority they place in the development of young talent. In this sphere, the Canaris have few peers, producing over the past 30 years such French international stars as Maxime Bossis, Jose Toure, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Patrice Loko, Christian Karembeu, Claude Makelele and a whole host of others.
Of course, this faith in youth has its roots in necessity; Nantes’ finances have always been more building society account than overflowing war chest. As recently as 1992, they were almost declared bankrupt with debts of œ6million.
Nonetheless, Nantes have proved themselves to be masters of talent-spottingand nurturing footballing potential. The facilities at their youth academy – sited alongside the first-team La Joneliere training complex to the north of town – are second to none, including accommodation for 40 youngsters and an integrated education programme. Nantes certainly reap full value from a youth scheme with an annual budget of œ1.7m – an estimated œ20,000 per youngster per year.
This season, no fewer than 14 of their championship- winning squad were reared at La Joneliere, and any club that can produce such brilliant youngsters as keeper Mickael Landreau, Cameroon midfielder Salomon Olembe and forwards Olivier Monterrubio, Marama Vahirua – who scored the title-clinching goal against Saint-Etienne – and Hassan Ahamada can only be applauded.
“Some claim Nantes only bring on a certain type of player, that the Nantes style is so hard to imitate that it is difficult for them to adapt if they move to another club,” says Deschamps, who arrived at the club as a 13-year-old and went on to captain them before leaving for Marseille in 1989.
“But I don’t believe in the idea of a stereotypical Nantes player. They allow the natural qualities of their youngsters to flourish and introduce you to tactical matters. I had a fabulous education. I owe them everything.”
It is an indisputable fact that each chapter of Nantes’ enduring success – they are the only French side to have won League titles in every decade since the 1960s – has been driven by exceptional cropsof home-grown talent. But every side needs a shot of experience, and the Nantes management have never been afraid to go prospecting abroad in a bid to give their team an added dimension.
In the 1970s, there was Argentinian libero Angel Bargas; the following decade his fellow countrymen Enzo Trossero and Jorge Burruchaga starred in midfield, while Bosnian striker Vahid Halilhodzic – now coach at Lille – supplied the goals; and in the 1990s it was the turn of feline Chad international Japhet N’Doram to grace their attack.
This season, too, imports have played an important part in spicing up the youthful Nantes mix. Fabbri was a huge stabilising influence at the back, while Romanian front man Viorel Moldovan proved to be the answer to their prayers.
Too often in recent times, Nantes’ classic approach work was let down by poor finishing. Not with Moldovan.
So where now for Nantes? With the Champions League just around the corner, the onus is on their owners, the French media group Socpresse, to finance appropriate team strengthening.
The initial signs have been promising, with the recent signings of powerful Bastia front-runner Pierre-Yves Andre and Sedan’s outstanding left-sided midfielder Olivier Quint. French Under-21 midfielder Sebastien Piocelle should return from a loan spell at Bastia and, according to Nantes general manager Robert Budzinski, they are also likely to recruit an experienced defender.
Yet the most pressing concern for Canaris fans is whether their club can buck the trend of the last 20 yearsand stem the constant flow of young stars towards more financially endowed clubs both at home and abroad. Within two years of their last League title in 1995, key men Karembeu, Loko, Nicolas Ouedec, Makelele, Reynald Pedros and N’Doram had all found alternative employment.
With the likes of Landreau, Carriere, Ziani, Olembe,Monterrubio, midfielder Mathieu Berson and forward Frederic Da Rocha all much in demand, a similar haemorrhage could be imminent.
Maybe that is why coach Reynald Denoueix seemed surprisingly downbeat amid all the title-winning celebrations. But such is life at Nantes. Talent comes, talent goes.