FC Nantes 2 Olimpiakos 1

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.

FC Sete 0 Stade Bordelais 1

The town of Sète is a fabulous seaport, fishing port and resort in Languedoc, it nestles by the sea where a rocky outcrop meets a saltwater lake. It has trawlers and its own network of canals and narrow streets, which give it the character of a cross between Venice, Naples and Lowestoft with a bit of North Africa thrown in thanks to its ferry links to Morocco. It has a population according to Wikipedia of about forty three thousand. Of all the places I have ever been I think Sète is one of my favourite towns anywhere.

FC Sète were early members of the French professional football league, winning the title in both 1934 and 1939 and the Coupe de France (French FA Cup) in 1930 and 1934, being the first club to win ‘the double’ in France. After 1960 the club declined and then, having been in Ligue 2 as recently as 2006, were relegated to the regional leagues in 2009 due to financial problems. But promotion to the second amateur tier (CFA2) in 2013 was followed by promotion to the top amateur tier in 2015. The club remains at the amateur, fourth level of French league football, which is now known as League National 2 and is divided imto four regionally based leagues with sixteen clubs in each.

So far this season Sète have won just one of their four games but are undefeated; their opponents today are Stade Bordelais from Bordeaux20170909_173047.jpg near the Atlantic coast, some 380 kilometres away by road; they have won one and lost two of their four games so far. Kick-off is at six pm and we arrive about a half an hour beforehand, parking in the spacious gravel topped car park at the side of the Stade Louis Michel, although other spectators prefer to park in the road outside. Entry to the stadium costs €6 and we buy our tickets from the aptly porthole-shaped guichets 20170909_173102.jpgoutside the one gate into the ground. Just inside the gate a cardboard box propped on a chair provides a supply of the free eight-page, A4 sized programme ‘La Journal des Verts et Blancs’. Also today there is a separate team photo and fixture list on offer.

The Stade Louis  Michel was opened in 1990, but its pre-fabricated concrete panels somehow make it look older, but in a good way; 20170909_173348.jpgthe brutal angular concrete of the main stand, the Tribune Presidentielle, could be from the 1960’s or 1970’s, channeling the inspiration perhaps of Auguste Perret or even Le Corbusier. The concrete panels on the back of the stand are lightly decorated and sit above wide windows; a pair of curving staircases run up to the first floor around the main entrance, 20170909_175009.jpgabove which is a fret-cut dolphin, the symbol of the town and the club. The stand runs perhaps half the length of the pitch either side of the halfway line and holds about twelve hundred spectators, as well as club offices and changing rooms. Opposite the main stand a large bank of open, 20170909_173643.jpg‘temporary’ seating runs the length of the pitch, it is built up on an intricate lattice IMG_20170909_223051_287.jpgof steel supports. Behind both goals are well tended grass banks; there is a scoreboard at the end that backs onto the carpark.

There is now not long to wait until kick-off and the teams line up; 20170909_175652.jpgSète in green and white hooped shirts with black shorts and socks, Stade Bordelais with black shirts with white shorts and socks. There is a ‘ceremonial’ kick-off before the real one, taken by a youmg woman with a green and white scarf draped around her shoulders.  Eventually, referree Monsieur Guillaume Janin gives the signal for the game to start in earnest.

Its a grey, overcast afternoon, but not a cold one and the game quickly settles down with both teams enjoying attacking bursts in turn. The visiting team perhaps look slightly more accomplished, a bit more knowing, particularly at the back where their number four is the only player to have a tattooed forearm. He has long, lank hair and a beard and looks like he might have ridden into town on a Harley-Davidson rather than travelled over from Bordeaux with the rest of the team. The Bordelais number two is a 20170913_130330.jpgman mountain with a wide shock of bleached hair on the top of his head, and thighs the size of other men’s waists.

There’s not much of a crowd here today, three or four hundred perhaps and I count just eleven people on each of the grassy banks behind the goals and about the same number looking lost amongst the expanse of empty seats opposite. A few spectators stand and peer through the metal fence below the main stand, but most are up in the plastic, backless seats where we sit in the company of greyhaired men, idle players, club volunteers, wags and their children. A man in front of us wearing double denim reminds me of a petit Yosser Hughes, not that Yosser Hughes ever wore double denim.

The first real scoring opportunity falls to Stade Bordelais after seventeen minutes as a ball over the top of the Sète defence puts their number nine through on goal with just the goalkeeper between him and glory.  But he must have been dazzled by the dayglo yellow kit of the bald and bearded goalkeeper, who makes a startling, even dazzling save from close range.

It’s only a quarter past six, but the floodlights are coming on; every now and then there is a metallic rattle and rush behind us as a passenger or freight train speeds by on the track between Montpellier and Perpignan, which is just the other side of the road behind the Tribune Presidentialle. Sète win their first corner of the match and I am surprised to hear rythmic clapping rise from the ‘posh’ seats at the centre of the stand, but Sete has no Ultras so someone has to get behind the team; it’s a lesson that would be well learned by many club owners and officials in England.

It’s now half-past six and a ball forward is headed down to the feet of the Bordelais number ten; he feints one way and then the other to shake off the defender and shoots past the luminous Sète goalkeeper to give the away team the lead. Before the game resumes the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper is given timeout by the referree to throw a ball back to a bunch of children who have been playing their own game on the grassy slope behind his goal.

It’s six-thirty seven by the scoreboard clock and Sète win another corner to elicit more rythmic clapping from the centre of the stand; sadly it doesn’t produce an equalising goal only spiky, bitter shouts of disappointment. In the final minute of the half Séte’ s number five is booked for a trip, which leads to a Stade Bordelais free-kick within striking distance of the goal, but the opportunity is spurned.

I can’t deny I’ve been looking forward to half-time as I nimbly nip down the stairs to the buvette, 20170909_173408.jpgFC Sete.jpgwhich is close by at the corner of the stand where we are sat. The reason for my eagerness is that Sète is the home of the tielle, a small, spicy, calamari and tomato pie, with a bread like case. I love a tielle, and I love that they are specific to Sete, and are served at the football ground as a half-time snack. I only wish there were English clubs that served local delicacies. Middlesbrough has its parmo, but I can’t think of any others. Do Southend United serve jellied eels or plates of winkles? Do West Ham United serve pie and mash? Do Newcastle United serve stotties? Did the McDonald’s in Anfield’s Kop serve lobscouse in a bun? I need to know. Sadly, I don’t think my town Ipswich even has a local dish. Many English clubs don’t even serve a local beer; Greene King doesn’t count because it is a national chain with all the blandness that entails.

Having eaten my tielle (€3) with relish, by which I don’t mean some sort of pickle, but rather enthusiasm, I wash it down with a small beer (€2) and I treat my wife to a bottle of cold water (€1).

Reflecting my sense of tielle induced well-being, sunshine floods the stadium some time after the start of the second half. I look out across the pitch to the backdrop of the tree covered rocky outcrop that is Mont St Clair and all is right with the world, except that Sete are still losing; they substitute their number ten for number fifteen, but their opponents counter ny swapping thier number eleven for a thirteen.

Sète don’t look particularly like scoring, despite the change in personnel, and Stade Bordelais almost double their woe as a corner kick is headed firmly but deftly against the far post from an unlikely distance by a player whose shirt number I didn’t quite catch. The Stade Bordelais number nine is very quick and slaloms between two or three Sète players before being outnumbered. Sète’s eight becomes a fourteen. There are twenty minutes left and a free-kick to Sète is saved at full stretch by the Stade Bordelais goalkeeper. Sète’s eleven is replaced by their thirteen, a player and father of a little girl who calls and waves to him as he warms up in front of the stand, and he waves back. But undaunted by familial pleasantness Stade Bordelais replace their number seven by number fourteen. Stade Bordelais’ number nine breaks free down the left; he gets behind the Sète defence and delivers a low cross which is perfectly placed to meet the incoming run of the number ten who, from a position near the penalty spot, embarrasses himself with a shot which misses the goal in two directions. Two minutes later ten’s failure is compounded as his time under the unforgiving glare of the floodlights is terminated and he is replaced by twelve. There are still ten minutes left, but the final act of any note sees Sète’s number nine head the ball past the post from a corner. Stade Bordelais’ defenders hold firm to win the game. No one is a match for their huge full-back, their very own, very mobile rocky outcrop.

It’s not been the best game I’ve ever seen, but it’s been an oddly calm, measured one. Was anyone booked? I don’t recall. Stade Bordelais have won with greater guile and knowledge and strength, but Sète will always have their tielle, although they’ve run out of them in the buvette today.

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