So often at the forefront of the modern French game, FC Nantes have been rewarded with regular titles throughout their post-war history.
The club where 1998 World Cup winners Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly and Christian Karembeu were formed, Nantes themselves were founded during the Nazi occupation of France, in 1943.
Adopting the yellow and green of co-founder Jean Le Guillou’s horse-racing stable, Les Canaris came up through the ranks to gain promotion to the top flight in 1963, shortly before the death of Le Guillou’s fellow co-founder Marcel Saupin.
The club duly renovated and expanded their Stade Malakoff, renamed after Saupin, while on the pitch Basque coach José Arribas adopted a swift, technical 4-2-4 system, instilling a collective team spirit he had found early on at Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.
Incoming players Jean-Claude Suaudeau, Robert Budzynski, Philippe Gondet and Jacky Simon, all blessed with a finely honed football intelligence, successfully carried out these tactics to take two consecutive titles in 1965 and 1966. ‘Nantes style’ was the watchword.
The team broke up, making little progress in Europe, Henri Michel stepping up to provide defensive midfield duties for some 15 seasons. With more tactical progression, to a 4-3-3, Nantes kept in the running as ‘Coco’ Suaudeau and Budzynski moved into coaching, management and recruitment.
Further titles arrived in 1973 and 1977, under the evergreen Arribas, followed by one under Jean Vincent in 1980. Suaudeau took over first-team coaching duties in 1982, winning the title in his first season, goals coming from the prolific Bosnian Vahid Halihodzic and mercurial French international José Touré.
Touré was a product of the development academy set up by Arribas in 1978, La Jonelière, on the opposite bank of the river Erdre to the new stadium the club would move into after Euro 84, La Beaujoire.
A handful of the classic French team who won Euro 84 and, a generation later, the 1998 World Cup, passed through Nantes early in their careers, including Maxime Bossis, Deschamps, Desailly and Christian Karembeu.
Few, though, stayed there. While Marseille, St-Étienne and Monaco were making European finals, Nantes managed two runs, to be beaten at the semi- and quarter-final stages.
Nantes products Patrice Loko, Nicolas Ouédec and cult figure Japhet N’Doram helped Suaudeau to another title in 1995 but were soon attracted elsewhere. With his talented young charges always out the door, Suaudeau quit leaving his former team-mate (and long-term Nantes man) Raynald Denoueix as coach.
Mickaël Landreau and Olivier Monterrubio, La Jonelière men both, led Nantes to their last title in 2001 – Manchester United, Bayern Munich and PSV Eindhoven were among the opponents in the subsequent inconsistent Champions League campaign.
Much since has not only been inconsistent but mismanaged – the brusque dismissal of Robert Budzynski after 35 years’ service, protests by fans, poor form and, inevitably, in 2007, relegation.
Promotion was followed by immediate relegation then, in 2013, promotion once more.
Built for Euro 84, the Stade de la Beaujoire-Louis Fonteneau is one of the most distinctive stadiums in the French game.
When built, it was criticised for its location – beyond the ring road north of Nantes – and lack of atmosphere compared to its predecessor, the Stade Marcel Saupin, right on the Loire not five minutes’ walk from Nantes station.
Used as a rugby ground before FC Nantes was founded, the originally named Stade Malakoff on the quay of the same name was a classic city-centre ground with stands right up to the pitch.
It was here that the great title-winning Nantes side of the 1960s and 1970s attracted capacity crowds to the Stade Marcel Saupin, renamed after the club’s main founder who died on the eve of the Canaries’ debut in the top flight in 1963.
Its location was both its charm and its coffin. Capacity – 25,000, 29,000 at a real squeeze – could not be expanded. Euro 84 gave France a first chance to show off its stadiums for the first time since 1938. Nantes’ would be the only completely new venue of the seven used for the tournament.
The Marcel Saupin was partly demolished in 2006 and today is used for reserve matches.
Given the red light in 1982, the new Stade de la Beaujoire took 16 months to build at a cost of FF100 million, half borne by the state.
Its design, by Berdje Agopyan, was groundbreaking for the time, the stadium’s curving roof a world away from the old-school Saupin. Agopyan and team went on to create more daring sporting arenas, the Multisports Palace of Paris-Bercy and a skating complex in Strasbourg but the Beaujoire was created when most French stadia were still crammed into city centres.
Even today, the stadium (renamed Beaujoire-Louis Fonteneau after a long-term club president) still echoes this sense of wide open space.
An initial capacity of 52,000, 32,000 seated, was reduced to 38,000 all-seated for France 98.
Home fans have always gathered in the Tribune Loire behind the goal, another group later in the Tribune Erdre opposite. The Jules Verne and Océane stands, divided into two tiers, overlook the sidelines.
Away supporters are allocated a corner between the Erdre and Océane stands.
The Beaujoire has its own tram stop, a terminus of one branch of the No.1 line. Ranzay, the terminus of the other branch, is also close. Trams take around 15mins from the Gare SNCF Nord stop to either branch, and there are trams to either terminus every 6-12mins.
There are more than 100 outlets that distribute tickets around north-west France, most notably supermarkets in the Leclerc group e-leclerc.com such as Atout Sud, Océane and Atlantis. In Nantes itself, this is Leclerc Paridis (14 route de Paris) by Haluchère tramstop near the stadium.
At the stadium, the club shop (Mon 2pm-7pm, Wed, Fri, Sat 10am-1pm, 2pm-7pm) also sells tickets.
On match days, ticket offices at the stadium open for business, with a €3 surcharge on each ticket. The club also has an online service.
Prices ranges from around €20 to €50, depending on the opposition. The cheapest seats are in the (home) Loire and Erdre behind the goals, the most family-friendly in the Océane and priciest in the Jules Verne.
Training tops, umbrellas and natty pompom hats in bright yellow and green are stocked at the club shop (Mon 2pm-7pm, Wed, Fri, Sat 10am-1pm, 2pm-7pm) by the main entrance at the stadium. There’s also a shirt-printing service.
The most popular meeting place is Bar La Beaujoire (1 rue de la Petite Baratte), by Haluchère tramstop, an easy hop to the stadium. Set on a prominent corner, it shows TV matches. Many locals park their cars at La Belle Équipe, an upscale restaurant on the other side of the river, part of La Jonelière training complex. It has a bar area (‘zinc’) too and a riverside location. It’s about 1.5km from the Beaujoire, across the ring road. Reservations recommended for match days.
At the stadium, the Restaurant du Stade overlooking the pitch opens to the public on weekday lunchtimes, and operates reservation-only at weekends.