The Rise and Rise of Gazelec Ajaccio
This December, a quick glance at the league tables in the top divisions in Europe paints a somewhat surprising picture. Leicester City, bottom of the Premier League at Christmas last year sit at the summit. Watford, promoted from the Championship are in seventh, ahead of Merseyside rivals Everton & Liverpool.
In Germany, Hertha Berlin sit in third during the winter break. In France – no stranger to a few shocks here and there – it is promoted Angers who occupy the same spot. Caen, promoted the season before are one spot behind them, having been in the top three for much of the campaign. Lyon, Marseille and Lille are nowhere to be seen. But there is one story that trumps them all. In terms of budgets, punching far above their weight, and for their constant resistance to submitting to the norm, the story of Gazelec Ajaccio is one that deserves to be told.
We’ve been here before – Steve Wyss of FFW wrote a superb article that charts their exploits in Ligue 2 last season. What stands out was that despite Steve’s assertion that playing in the second tier represented a strong achievement and that to even be in the running for promotion was something incredible – back then he reckoned that Gazelec wouldn’t be able to survive in the top tier, going even as far as saying they would struggle to get 20 points.
He wasn’t the only one of course. Several pundits, websites and journalists saw Gazelec as an easy pick for going straight down this summer. And in mid-October, the prediction looked nigh-on nailed. For Gazelec were rooted to the bottom of the Ligue 1 table. Three draws (Troyes on the opening day, Rennes and Toulouse) and seven defeats seemed to vindicate the early-season sceptics.
But look deep into Gazelec’s background, and you begin to awe at their incredible ascent to top-division football. Playing at the tiny Stade Ange Casanova, doubled in size to 5,000 for this season, they were made to fork out a number of infrastructure changes to equip the side and stadium for Ligue 1 football or else. You see, the LFP get a bit touchy about that.
After a whirlwind summer to get ready for the team to face star opposition in Paris, Marseille and Lyon, and also welcome them to Corsica, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the occasion would overawe a side with an annual budget of no more than €13.5 million (£10 million). Compare that with the likes of the defending champions, whose season budget is rumoured to almost top €500 million. Gazelec’s budget is almost half of that of the next lowest budget in Ligue 1, Angers.
When the Corsicans began life in the top division, they would find it difficult, quickly occupying the relegation zone. Sure, Gazelec weren’t awful. They faced the likes of PSG, Monaco, Lille and Saint-Etienne in their early fixtures, and a number of determined performances saw them lose by no more than one or two goals. But the league table doesn’t lie. On October 17, they were dead last.
What’s happened since has been nothing short of a miracle. With every short run of form, everyone was filled with the anticipation of an eventual collapse. There wasn’t one.
For Gazelec Ajaccio, despite their obvious limitations (financially, team quality and infrastructure) continue to punch far above their weight. They were punching last season, in Ligue 2 – a side with the smallest budget then (£3million; €4 million) and smallest stadium. But this season is something else.
Ajaccio is full of hot-blooded and devoted football fans. To have a team in Ligue 1 and impressing means a lot. But for so long, that team has been AC Ajaccio, who graced Ligue 1 for three seasons since 2011 and were relegated in 2014. They were usually the team to contest the raucous Corsica Derby against SC Bastia, from the island’s north. Not Gazelec, who have often been cast as an afterthought, having languished no higher than the third division until 2012.
When Gazelec faced Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes, it looked on paper like a David vs Goliath cup game, the type you’d see in the third round of the FA Cup. Here was a team that had a budget 35 times that of their opponents. Here were the champions against a bunch of misfits. Gazelec did superbly to limit PSG to a surprisingly average 2-0 victory.
Since October, that team of ‘misfits’ have grown into one of the most cohesive units in France. The experience of Ligue 1 stalwarts David Ducourtioux, Kader Mangane and Jeremie Brechet (ex Lyon and Inter) have injected steel into the side, as well as offering mental assistance for their inexperienced colleagues. Shining lights have emerged too in Mohamed Larbi, a 28-year-old journeyman, who before joining Gazelec in 2013 was in the lower echelons of French football. His superb performances in midfield have brought six goals – becoming the team’s top scorer in the process.
The form table paints a superb picture. Gazelec picked up their first ever Ligue 1 win against high-fliers Nice, securing a 3-1 victory. They followed that with three further wins, also edging past Willy Sagnol’s Bordeaux in the process. The Stade Ange-Casanova might be small, but it is an intimidating place to play.
Thierry Laurey’s side were superb at the back, and cunning in the final third. Short on individual quality, they get the better of more esteemed sides with intelligent passages of play, covering for the defence and running all over the pitch. The team is more determined, more confident and more dangerous for opponents with each passing game.
They were unbeaten in eight games – the longest sequence in Ligue 1 by a mile, taking PSG out of the equation – when they faced Marseille at the Stade Velodrome. On paper, it was a mismatch. In reality, it wasn’t so as Laurey’s men gained a superb 1-1 draw. Had it not been for an incorrectly disallowed goal, they might have gained a famous victory. seven games unbeaten became eight.
Their next game was at home to Lyon. OL needed a win to relieve the pressure on beleaguered coach Hubert Fournier. Once more, it looked to be an easy three points to get their season back on track. Not so, as Mohamed Larbi’s superb double condemned OL to a seventh defeat of the campaign, the same that GFCA had in October – and still have.
Of the last nine games, the side has an impressive six wins and three draws, the second best run of form in the league. They’ve put in performances which have belied their small stature. On paper, you can put money, wages, experience and any other factor into the equation. In reality, it is 11 against 11 – and it’s that same mindset that has propelled the Corsicans up the table.
It is to the credit of club president Olivier Miniconi who has overseen Gazelec’s incredible rise. The owner of a few bakeries on the Corsican island, he is no stranger to the benefits of hard work and determination, having transmitted that to his players and management staff. “Everyone already sees us as dead last”, he was quoted as saying in August. By Christmas, his side had shown time and again that they can rough it up with the big boys.
They have collected only one point fewer than Olympique de Marseille, two fewer than Lyon. They only sit seven points off a Champions League place. That last statistic is a bit misleading, given the cluttered state of the Ligue 1 table – they are after all, also only five points clear of the drop.
No matter. To say that they’ve achieved it on a shoestring budget is a bit of an understatement. Multiple sources in France state that the average salary is no more than a couple of thousand a month. Every transfer fee that behemoths Paris have paid since 2012 and the flexing of Qatari muscles is worth more than Gazelec’s entire club operation for a given year. To put it another way, Thiago Silva’s annual salary could pay for Gazelec’s operations this year, and STILL leave a little over.
It is refreshing to see a side that, despite the riches of promotion, have refused to splurge and to gamble on their fortunes. They have not spent a penny on transfer fees to prepare for life in Ligue 1. They’d be the first to tell you that they are favourites for the drop.
In the footballing world we live in today, with astronomical fees, corruption, third party investment companies and absurd salaries, Gazelec are the embodiment of the notion that you can achieve success without the excess. For the neutrals, they are a team worthy of your support. They are a team that deserves commendation. It is a side full of players with – as Miniconi put it – ‘hardworking players with an impeccable mindset’. You won’t see any Ferraris or Lamborghinis in the carpark here.
The likes of Leicester are being feted as the overachievement story of the year, but compare them with this side, and there remains a chasm bigger than some of GFCA’s counterparts in Ligue 1, what with Leicester’s multi-million-pound TV deal and significant matchday income and sponsorship. The Foxes deserve plaudits – but let’s face it, they’re no Gazelec.
Le Gaz are the story of the season, thriving in adversity and existing in a world of modern football that is typically alien to the way they do things. The next six months brings with it its own challenges. But the possibility of confirming Ligue 1 status is within reach for Thierry Laurey’s men. Long may the fairytale continue.