The Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes is a stadium I have long wanted to visit because on the telly it looks a bit different to your run of the mill English footie ground and certainly a cut above the diet of Portman and Layer Roads I grew up on, as lovely as Portman Road still is and the much-lamented Layer Road was. Having missed out on tickets to see FC Nantes at home to Paris St Germain due to cost and lack of decisiveness, the opportunity to see the Breton club at home in the Europa League to Olimpiakos just five days later was not to be passed up. To add further to the mix, historically FC Nantes is one of France’s most successful football clubs, with eight league titles and four Coupes de France to their name. But until Nantes won the Coupe de France this year (1-0 versus Nice) they hadn’t won either of the major French trophies since 2001, which co-incidentally was the last time I was in Brittany. Nantes’ return to European football and mine to Brittany seems serendipitous therefore.
Tickets for concerts and large sports events across France can usually be bought at the larger supermarkets but having had no luck at a branch of Super U on Monday, that evening my wife Paulene went on-line and acquired a couple of the last few tickets available from the club website. Feeling flush after a recent cash windfall we also booked a hotel for the night, although we are actually staying at a campsite about an hour and a half’s drive north of Nantes. Not surprisingly, being on holiday we don’t have a printer with us, but the hotel has kindly printed our tickets off for us. Our hotel is just a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the Stade de la Beaujoire across a small municipal park. The stadium and hotel are also conveniently situated at the end of Ligne 1 of the city’s tram network and the twenty-minute trip into town is a bargain at one euro seventy.
It’s been a warm but cloudy day with an ever-present threat of heavy showers, but thankfully we’ve avoided those and as had happened a week ago at Rennes, I had been in the club shop adding to my collection of petits fanions (pennants) and fridge magnets when the heavens had opened. Now, at a bit after seven-thirty we queue to be patted down before entering the stadium. I can’t help feeling that the security guy checking me out has decided I don’t look much of a threat and having tapped me about the arms a bit he looks bored and lets me through; it’s either that or my excited smile made him think I might enjoy a more thorough search a bit too much. Either way, he wishes me ‘bon match’ and Paulene and I head for Access 02 of the Tribune Presidentielle, but not before we have met Riri the Nantes club mascot. Nantes play in all yellow and are known as the Canaries, so as an Ipswich Town supporter it requires mental strength to be photographed with their mascot, but overcome with the spirit of liberte, egalite and fraternite I throw myself into the occasion and feel all the better for it. But I am protected by my yellow 1970’s Town away shirt.
Like most of the bigger stadiums in France, Stade Beaujoire is a genuine piece of architecture, not just a feat of engineering, a box or a collection of individual stands clad in sheet metal. Set into a gentle slope, its undulating roof arching above the two-tiered lateral stands and the two single tier ends, Beaujoire is an elegant essay in concrete and steel which seems bigger inside than out. Our seats are at the side of the pitch but behind the goal line, nevertheless the view is excellent, aided by the stadium’s bowl-shaped floor plan.
People get to big matches early in France and make use of the many stalls providing food and drink that surround the stadium. Equally, the stadium is full before the nine o’clock Coupe d’envoi (kick-off) and with good reason because the prelude to the match includes a stirring anthem, which supporters sing whilst twirling their scarves a la Leeds United fans of the 1970’s; I had wondered, given that it is a warm September evening, why the club shop was doing such a roaring trade in scarves. Most impressive however, and possibly the most impressive thing I have ever seen at a football match is the raising of a huge tifo at the Tribune Loire end of the ground depicting Anne the fifteenth century Duchess of Britanny (a local heroine for resisting Brittany’s annexation by France) wearing a Nantes scarf and flanked by a pair of jousting knights. Beneath the tifo in Gothic script and in Latin it reads “It is better to die than to be disgraced”, which seems to be going a bit far, even for a Europa League fixture.
Less than an hour before kick-off the death of Queen Elizabeth II had been announced and most of the ground observes a minutes’ silence, although at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium there was never any likelihood of this happening given the levels of excitement, as witnessed by the ceaseless noise, flag waving and glow of flares. I am sure many would say “Bloody French ‘ooligans”, but I don’t.
As the match begins it is Nantes who get first go with ball, aiming it at the goal through the drifting smoke at the Tribune Loire end of the stadium. Nantes are in all yellow whilst Olimpiakos wear red and white striped shirts with red shorts and socks. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” (Come On Yellows) sings the crowd and then the Tribune Loire calls out “Allez Nantaises” and the Tribune Erdes at the far end of the ground echoes the shout. Nantes have started at a fast pace and with the first promising looking attack it seems that everyone in the ground but for the couple of hundred Olimpiakos fans, is up on their feet and bawling encouragement. Everywhere is just noise, it is absolutely thrilling. “Allez, Allez, Allez” rings out to the tune of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
On the field, Nantes are in truth struggling to get through the Greek defence. In midfield Pedro Chirivalla is busy, but most attacks go through Ludovic Blas and Evann Guessand on the right, although the tactic of getting crosses into the lone forward Mustapha Mohamed isn’t coming close to creating a goal, only corners. Blas is set up twice, only to blast the ball hopelessly high and wide. Whilst the football isn’t always the best, the spectacle however is; but a little over half-way through the first half even the Tribune Loire has started to quieten down just a little. In front of us, a lone drummer with a massive bass drum tries to raise the crowd in the Tribune Erde and Tribune Presidentielle once more; he is wearing a Nantes kit over the top of what looks like silk pyjama bottoms; his face is smeared with green face paint and on his head he is wearing a lurid, long green wig. Between rhythmic drum beats he claps his hands and sings “Allez Nantes”. A middle-aged man to our right answers the call with a mad passion which belies his age, but mostly people just clap along almost out of politeness.
The flame of really noisy support is rekindled however, just before the half-hour Nantes win a free-kick on the right. “Lo-lo, lo-lo-lo, lo-lo, Allez les Jaunes” is the theme once more and although the free-kick comes to nought the momentum is retained and four minutes later Blas’s through ball confounds the Greek defence and Mustapha Mohamed runs on to place the ball coolly and firmly into the far corner of the goal beyond the Olimpiakos goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik. The roar from the crowd is immense and Nantes lead 1-0.
Only a second Nantes goal can feed the desire of the home crowd, but it is Olimpiakos who now get to have their first shot on goal as a neat passing move ends with an overlap on the right and a shot that goes both high and wide of the Nantes goal from only about 10 metres out. The be-wigged drummer makes a second tour of the area at the front of the stand, but the first half soon ends, unusually with no additional time being played.
Over half-time Paulene and I stay in our seats whilst many in the crowd drift out to the buvettes for food and drink. We reflect on the first half and agree that this is possibly the most fantastic atmosphere we have ever experienced at a football match and that on tonight’s showing the Nantes supporters are probably even more passionate than those of Marseille or St Etienne.
The game resumes at a minute past ten as the moon rises above the Tribune Oceane opposite. “Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Nantaises” sings the crowd to the tune of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Olimpiakos appear either to have been given a stiff talking to at half-time or they have simply decided to attack rather than just defend. Five minutes in and the Greeks win their first corner of the match. The ball arcs across to the far post and Nantes ‘keeper Alban Lafont moves to punch the ball away but completely misses it, instead the ball strikes defender Samuel Moutassamy and drops feebly and apologetically into the goal net. It is such a poor goal no one seems to believe it, not even the Olimpiakos players who can barely bring themselves to celebrate, making do with a few mutual pats on the back. Over in the corner of the stadium between the Erdre and Oceane Tribunes the travelling supporters are doing more than enough cheering and dancing for everyone.
The Olimpiakos goal gives them a lift and the balance of play evens out in the second half, but Olimpiakos are also much more combative and to prove the point Panagiotis Retsos is the first player to be booked, for a foul on Nantes’ Ignatius Ganago. From the resultant free-kick on the right, Ludovic Blas is set up for a third time, but he boots his shot hopelessly high and wide again. With a third of the match gone Nantes win a corner from which Andrei Girotto flashes a header just wide of the goal. Minutes later Olimpiakos win a corner, but Alban Lafont succeeds this time in punching the ball away.
With twenty minutes left, Nantes make a couple of substitutions and quickly win a corner after a cross from Moses Simon, who has replaced Ganago, is met with a header from the other substitute Moussa Sissoko which Vaclik tips over the cross bar. “Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez, Nantes Allez” sing the crowd to the Triumphal March form Verdi’s Aida as they hold their scarves aloft all around the ground, a spectacle sadly no longer seen in England. The sense of the crowd willing the team to score is palpable, but Nantes are not significantly threatening the Olimpiakos goal. When Nicolas Pallois strides forward in the eightieth minute to launch a shot from at least 30 metres, which travels a respectably small distance over the bar, it is as if he had simply got fed up with his team-mates’ patient passing and had decided to take matters into his own hands.
A minute after Pallois’ effort, Nantes at last break speedily down their right and the ball is crossed low before being laid back to the incoming Guessand who strikes a spectacular rising shot into the roof of the goal net. It looks the perfect goal, the sort worthy of winning any match. The Nantes players celebrate wildly as does the whole stadium, with the exception of one tiny quadrant in the corner where the Greek fans sit. The scoreboard registers the second Nantes goal, and the players walk back to kick-off again, but the Olimpiakos players are whinging to the referee who has a hand to his ear. We wait. The referee then draws a square in the air and points to patch of grass level with the Olimpiakos penalty box and the scoreboard confirms that VAR says the goal is annulled for an earlier hors-jeu (offside).
The feeling of disappointment subsides surprisingly quickly and soon we are distracted by some pushing and shoving on the touchline. The ball has gone out of play and runs to the Olimpiakos coach who seems to hold it out for Nicolas Pallois to take, but then turns away; Pallois gives him a little shove for his trouble and then anyone nearby joins in with the melee and those further away catch a tram to come and join in. The referee possibly cautions Pallois and the Olimpiakos coach, but it’s hard to say for sure. Sadly, it’s the last real action of the half and all hope is to be squashed into four minutes of time added on or the more poetic sounding time additionelle.
Additional time begins, two minutes in and Blas and Oleg Reabciuk are both booked after the former fouls the latter and the latter gets upset. A minute remains of added time; Nantes again attack down the right, Ludovic Blas crosses the ball and the sizeable figure of Evann Guessand hurls himself at the ball. Spectacularly, Guessand scores with what is arguably the best type of goal, a diving header. The rest is near mayhem, with Stade de La Beaujoire erupting into scenes of unbridled joy and pride in the team and being Nantoises. All around me people are just deliriously happy, whilst some have a look on their faces of vindication, as if to say it’s taken nearly twenty years, but Nantes are back like they knew they would be.
With the final whistle no one wants to leave. I don’t think I have ever been to a game where so few people, if any, have left before the end. The Nantes players gather in front of the Tribune Loire to salute and commune with the Ultras groups who have ceaselessly chanted, sung, shouted and waved their banners and flags throughout the match. Riri the canary mascot runs across the pitch arms outstretched as if trying to take off and joins in with the players’ celebrations. We, along with everyone else, wait for the players to break away from their love-in with the ultras and do a lap of honour to the rest of the stadium. As the players head back towards the tunnel we leave, joining the flood tide of happy, smiling people. This has been a truly fantastic night.