We continue our countdown of the Greatest French club sides of all time by the wonderful Juliet Jacques.
5. FC Nantes, 1973-1986
One of France’s most successful clubs, FC Nantes were formed a decade after the establishment of Le Championnat, in April 1943. With five teams in Nantes, Mellinot FC manager Marcel Saupin pushed, successfully, for their merger into one club that could become a significant presence.
Saupin became president of the new outfit, recruiting a coach and several players who had left Paris to avoid the wartime Service du travail obligatoire. Saupin’s friendship with Gabriel Hanot helped Nantes join the Groupement des clubs autorisés (replaced in 1944 by the Ligue de Football Professionnel, set up to run France’s top two divisions) and they became professional in July 1945, entering Division 2 Groupe Nord.
Nantes played there until 1962, when the city council decided to devote public funds into Les Canaris to make them, as Saupin dreamed “a great team”. Finishing second in Division 2, Nantes were promoted weeks before Saupin’s death in June 1963 and went on to win seven titles and raise numerous youngsters who would enrich the national team.
In 1965, Nantes won their first Championnat, which they retained the following season. Their coach, Spanish civil war refugee José Arribas (who co-managed France’s disappointing 1966 World Cup side), ignited their proud tradition of jeu à la nantaise – fast, technically adept one-touch football – his team anchored by midfielder Jean-Claude Suaudeau, who would take this heritage to the Champions League semi-final as manager thirty years later.
Runners-up to Saint-Étienne in the league in 1967 and the Coupe de France three years later, Nantes’ period of sustained brilliance began in 1973 with Arribas’s third title. This nantaise had firm foundations: goalkeeper Jean-Paul Bertrand-Demanes, anchor Henri Michel and centre-back Patrice Rio (son of France’s 1934 World Cup forward Roger) all won several Ligues and represented their country in Argentina in 1978, whilst defenders Jean-Claude Osman and Gabriele di Michèle had been at the Stade de la Beaujoire since the Sixties.
In 1976, Arribas left for Marseille, succeeded by Jean Vincent, of Reims’ dazzling Fifties side. Vincent presided over Nantes’ most thrilling team yet, Osman and di Michèle seamlessly replaced by Maxime Bossis and Thierry Tusseau, exhilarating wingers Loïc Amisse and Bruno Baronchelli scoring eleven goals each and offering magnificent service for centre-forward Éric Pécout as they won another title.
Their European Cup campaign proved disappointing, ending in the second round, and Nantes finished second for two consecutive seasons, easing their frustration with their signature performance – the dizzying 4-1 victory over Auxerre in the 1979 Coupe de France final, Pécout hitting a hat-trick. The following season, they made the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final and reclaimed the title, their defence and attack almost unchanged since 1977.
In 1982, Vincent resigned, and Suaudeau took his place. Immediately, Suaudeau won Nantes’ fifth Championnat, retaining the defensive axis and integrating Yugoslav striker Valid Halihodžić and youth graduates Seth Adonkor and José Touré into an exciting attacking line-up. Nantes finished second in 1985 and 1986, but the title and Coupe de France final defeat of 1983 proved this side’s final hurrah. In 1995, Suaudeau, in his second spell in charge, won another title with a dynamic squad, the breath-taking interplay between forwards Loko, Ouédec and Pédros entirely worthy of Nantes’s fifty-year history.
Best XI: Jean-Paul Bertrand-Demanes; Thierry Tusseau, William Ayache, Maxime Bossis, Patrice Rio; Henri Michel, Bruno Baronchelli, Loïc Amisse; Éric Pecout, Gilles Rampillon, José Touré.
Honours: French champions: 1977, 1980, 1983. Coupe de France: 1979.
4. Olympique Lyonnais, 2002-2008
The Bosman ruling, allowing players to move freely on their contract’s expiry, and the abolition of the three foreigners rule in 1996 ended Le Championnat’s Golden Age. As France won the 1998 World Cup and the European Championship two years later, clubs in England, Spain and Italy rushed to sign Clairefontaine academy talent, offering astronomical wages unseen in France since the fall of Bez, Tapie and the other lavish Eighties empires.
France’s traditionally bigger clubs struggled to keep successful teams together – Nantes’ Champions League semi-finalists and Bordeaux’s UEFA Cup finalists of 1996 lost nearly all their key players within a year. Meanwhile, PSG and OM’s failure to reclaim the title despite massive spending left a power vacuum at France’s summit.
Enter Olympique Lyonnais, bought by software entrepreneur Jean-Michel Aulas in 1987. Lyon graced Division 1 from the mid-Fifties, without threatening to win it, until relegation in 1983, and Aulas took over a second tier club saddled by debt, lacking history (with just three Coupe de France triumphs) and with dwindling crowds.
As the Swiss Ramble’s blog explains, Aulas was more patient than Tapie et al, producing a 25-year plan. For 1987-1998, he aimed for promotion and consolidation. He achieved this comfortably: Lyon returned to Division 1 in 1989 and comfortably remained, coming second to Nantes in 1995.
Phase two began when multimedia giants Pathé purchased a stake in 1999, their objective being to ensure European qualification – and income – until 2010. Sure enough, Lyon finished third in 1999 and 2000, then second (again to Nantes) a year later before their first title in 2002 began a spell of dominance that must have surprised even Aulas.
Lyon eventually won seven straight championships, a French record. This achievement rested upon Aulas’s transfer policy, so intelligent that Simon Kuper devoted an entire Soccernomics chapter to it. For ‘bigger’ clubs, especially Nantes, losing star players was disastrous, detrimental to the team and badly received by fans. Cut slack by a crowd not used to success, Aulas made selling integral to his policy, accepting any offer that vastly exceeded a player’s worth, but (unlike Nantes and Auxerre) ensured that they were always sold abroad, taking advantage of the premium on French-raised footballers and preventing opulent L’OM and PSG from catching them.
With the proceeds, Lyon’s transfer panel – comprised of Aulas, sporting director Bernard Lacombe and the current manager – targeted French-based players in their early twenties, such as Éric Abidal or Florent Malouda, who would usually accept modest salaries and generate profits after several strong seasons. Often, they would be replaced before they left, either by new signings, who became more ambitious as Lyon’s turnover grew, or academy products like Hatem Ben Arfa, Loïc Rémy and Karim Benzema.
Aware that attacking players usually cost more than defensive ones, Lyon tended to raise their own strikers and wingers, with self-produced Sidney Govou playing in all seven title-winning campaigns. Finally, Lyon frequently signed Brazilians, aware that their nationality often added millions to their value. Ex-player Marcelo was the club’s Brazil-based agent, attracting defenders Cris and Caçapa and playmaker Juninho Pernambucano, who also starred in all seven championships.
The rest of Ligue 1 did not catch up until 2009, when Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux broke Lyon’s stranglehold on the title. Phase three of Aulas’s plan – to contend for European cups – appeared to begin well as Lyon reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2010, but they have now gone three years without a championship. With Lille’s championship in 2011, PSG’s takeover by a Qatari consortium and OM’s return to contention, it remains to be seen if OL can re-establish themselves as France’s top club, or secure the nation’s second European Cup.
Best XI: Grégory Coupet; Anthony Révellière, Éric Abidal, Cris, Sébastien Squillaci; Michael Essien, Sylvain Wiltord, Vikash Dhorasoo, Juninho Pernambucano, Florent Malouda; Sidney Govou.
Honours: French champions: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008. Coupe de France: 2008. Coupe de la Ligue: 2001.