FC Nantes is like a wizened journeyman. Though currently something of a boring afterthought, Nantes’ vault is filled with a rich and proud history. Shelves stocked with sixteen trophies, including eight Ligue 1 titles, Nantes are actually one of the most decorated clubs in France. Yet, a proud history does nothing to guarantee a proud future. In the middle of the 2016/17 Ligue 1 season, the club sat in 19th place, flirting with relegation. But the club’s desperate December hire of coach Sérgio Conceição bore more than just mere fruit as he took Nantes all the way to a remarkable 7th place finish. However, with the summer luring Conceição away with an offer he couldn’t refuse, Nantes’ dreams of restoration could be staked on a surprise manager hoping to make a habit out of creating magic from forgotten underdogs.
City of Nantes
With one trophy from the now-defunct Cup of the Alps, you might assume the city of Nantes lies in the cold, southeastern corner of France. But of course, Nantes sits on the Loire River in the northwest, much closer to the Atlantic Ocean than the snow-capped crags of Europe. In fact, from 1992 to 2007, the city’s club was officially “FC Nantes Atlantique.” They also appear to have a supporters’ club cheekily called “Oceane Eleven,” though their blog was last updated in 2012 and appears to be marketed more to those with a thing for scantily clad surfer girls.
Perhaps surprisingly, Nantes is France’s sixth-largest city, with a population of 300,000 (600,000, if including its urban area). Requisite of a very old European city, Nantes features a history that certainly does not want for depth. Signature architecture includes a Gothic cathedral (Nantes Cathedral) and a medieval castle (Castle of the Dukes of Brittany). The people of Nantes were clearly creative types.
FC Nantes’ home sits about 5 km northeast from the city center. “Stade de la Beaujoire – Louis Fonteneau” (“La Beaujoire”), was built for the 1984 Euros and has hosted numerous international soccer (and rugby) games since. In 1998, La Beaujoire (which appears to be a made-up word, according to my regrettable sleuthing skills) was the site of six World Cup games, including Brazil’s 3-2 quarterfinal defeat over Denmark.
In a world of reds, blues, blacks, and whites, the iconoclastic FC Nantes struts onto the field with a highly-visible yellow and green couture. Much like their similarly styled counterparts in Norwich, Nantes are also nicknamed Les Canaris, or “the Canaries.” But the moniker fits for more than one reason. For the wild canary, also known as the Atlantic canary, is evidently known to be a sociable creature, sharing their nests with fellow finches with each pair defending their respective territories. Likewise, and please stay with me in this sweaty stretch, FC Nantes is known for having had its own style of play (literally jeu à la nantaise), a collective approach that combines style and substance. Developed by their Spanish coach José Arribas in the 1960s, this innovation took Les Canaris to unprecedented heights with their first Ligue 1 championship in the 1964/65 season…in only their 2nd year in the top flight.
Until their last championship in 2000/01, the club averaged about two titles per decade. Despite never achieving dynastic status, Nantes did produce an amazing selection of athletes from its youth academy, including Claude Makélélé, Christian Karembeu, and Didier Deschamps, current coach of the French national team. Unfortunately for the club, an inability to sustain their youth conveyor belt as well as a lack of boardroom stability would eventually lead them to relegation for a few years before finally reemerging for good in the 2012/13 season.
Before their relegation after the 2006/07 season, Nantes were in Ligue 1 for 44 consecutive seasons, a record coincidentally tied by PSG’s current run and which will assuredly be shattered, barring any cataclysmic changes in their Qatari owners’ fortunes. Speaking of fortunes, it is amazing how quickly they often change. In the 2012/13 season of Ligue 2, Nantes achieved promotion from their third-place finish, behind second-place Guingamp and champions Monaco. At the time, Monaco were coached by a relatively unknown Claudio Ranieri.
In his second season with Monaco, Ranieri took the Monegasques to 2nd place in Ligue 1. Apparently finishing one place behind the newly minted juggernauts of PSG after just winning promotion was not good enough as Monaco’s owner would not renew Ranieri’s contract. Of course, you probably know the rest of the story. Karma would pay Ranieri back in a big way, even after a disastrous stint with Greece, as he guided pre-season relegation candidates Leicester City to an unbelievable Premier League title in the 2015/16 season—à la Nantes’ own championship of ’65. Meanwhile, money (and smart scouting and good talent development) can afford more than just desserts. Monaco claimed the Ligue 1 crown in the previous season and currently find themselves in record-setting form.
Despite Ranieri’s grand success, he and Leicester could not overcome the euphoric hangover that was their 2016/17 season. Perhaps an unlikely championship drastically accelerates the legendary, wandering coach Béla Guttmann’s aphorism that “the third season is fatal.” At any rate, King Claudio happened to find himself without a team this summer while Nantes happened to find themselves with an empty throne. The wise and happy-go-lucky Ranieri picked Nantes, he says, because he saw “the chance to make something beautiful.”
So far though, Ranieri is still getting settled, grabbing his first three points this past weekend with a 1-0 victory over newly promoted Troyes. To borrow a metaphor from the man himself, here’s hoping Ranieri and Nantes can make music just as beautiful and loud as an Andrea Bocelli serenade of “Nessun Dorma.” In this aria, right at the climax, protagonist Calaf demands the night to vanish so that his moment of glory can arise with the dawn.