Stage for the Euro 2016 qualifying draw and home to the Allianz Riviera built to co-host the tournament, Nice is set on re-establishing itself at the forefront of the French game. Ignored for the 1938 and 1998 World Cups in favour of Antibes and Montpellier, Nice witnessed four games at the Euro 2016 finals, most notably Iceland’s shock 2-1 win over England.
Flagship club OGC Nice achieved their strongest league finish for four decades in 2016-17, six decades after a string of championship wins and subsequent mediocrity. This was followed by the memorable defeat of Ajax in the subsequent Champions League qualifying rounds of 2017-18, and the club’s first European games in spring since Real Madrid, Puskás, Di Stéfano and all, were the opponents in 1960.
Behind the scenes, the Chinese-American consortium who backed the 2016-17 success have given way to UK petro-billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, now majority owner in OGC and a tax exile in Monaco next door.
Though the modern French game first developed in Paris and on the Channel coast, the south of France was also an early pioneer and has traditionally produced some of her most notable players. Zinedine Zidane, current OGC coach Patrick Vieira, Eric Cantona and Jean Tigana all started their careers by the Mediterranean. Unlike the rest of the rugby-blighted south, Nice and the south-east have always been firmly football-focused.
Close to North Africa and the Basque Country, the area has also been a melting pot for international talent. Just Fontaine, scorer of a record number of goals at a single World Cup finals, made the journey from Casablanca to OGC Nice, dominant in the 1950s. A founding member of the French league in 1932-33, ‘le Gym’ quickly developed rivalries with Marseille and, in particular, Cannes – their clashes known as the Derby de la Côte d’Azur.
Cannes would later fade, leaving Nice to challenge the big northern clubs of Stade de Reims and Lille. The prolific Fontaine moved from Nice to Reims in 1956, though Nice still beat a strong Rangers side in the European Cup of 1956-57. The great Real Madrid stopped the Eaglets’ progress, as they did again in 1960.
The next great European night at the Stade du Ray was the 3-0 win over Barcelona in the UEFA Cup of 1973-74, players such as Marc Molitor and Dominique Baratelli also taking the Aiglons to a runners-up league spot in 1976.
Left in the shadow of Marseille, Monaco and later Montpellier, Nice won the cup in 1997 but suffered a series of relegations. Though the atmosphere at the venerable, city-centre Stade du Ray remained fiery, the football pages of Nice-Matin devoured and discussed in the surrounding cafés all day, populist Nice was out of step with the 21st century.
The move to the Allianz Riviera, north-west of the city at Saint-Isidore by the A8 motorway known as ‘La Provençale’, came early in the 2013-14 season. Nice-born city mayor Christian Estrosi, a prime mover behind the project, had promised a practical solution for the old Stade du Ray. Seven thousand fans bade farewell to its home end, the Tribune Populaire Sud, by walking en masse from place Masséna for its last match, against Montpellier in September 2013.
Fourth place under Claude Puel was followed by mid-table one in 2013-14 and a weak showing in the Europa League – but this was the Eaglets’ first European campaign for 15 years. A heroic extra-time defeat that February to moneyed Monaco by a ten-man OGCN in the French Cup only served to bolster considerable local pride.
A powerful one-season showing from ex-Newcastle star Hatem Ben Arfa pushed OGC close to a Champions League spot in 2016. With the takeover by a Chinese-American consortium, Nice had the clout to attract Mario Balatelli from Milan and tactical wizard Lucien Favre, the coach who had transformed Mönchengladbach.
A debut Champions League campaign saw two memorable nights at the Allianz Riviera for the visits of Ajax and Napoli. Patrick Vieira was also convinced to abandon his lucrative post in New York to start his European coaching career in Nice, in 2018. A year later, the UK’s richest man, petro-mogul Jim Ratcliffe, expanded his cycling-focused sports empire to take over OGC.
Back in the top bracket, OGC may still lag behind the likes of PSG and Lyon but the city is still imbued with a grass-roots football culture, red-and-black scarves in Nice bars declaring ‘Allez Nissa La Bella’ (‘Go Beautiful Nice’). It’s not a spirit Ratcliffe will see much of around Monaco – while AS Cannes, alma mater of Zidane and Vieira, take on Nice reserves in the fifth-tier National 3.
The Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur is 6.5km (four miles) south-west of the city. Easyjet uses terminal 2, British Airways and Ryanair terminal 1, a free shuttle linking the two. Tram No.2 (blue) sets off from Terminals 1 and 2 towards town every 20min (40min Sun). It takes 25-30min to reach city-centre hubs Jean-Médecin or Garibaldi on red line No.1, linking with Gare Thiers/Nice-Ville, the main train station.
If you’re going straight from the airport to the stadium, then new tram No.3 (green) runs to direct Stade, 8 stops from the Grand Arénas, the transfer point for line No.2 immediately after the airport. Note that on match nights, the No.3 is diverted and leaves from Jean-Médecin. Services stop leaving from the airport 2hrs before kick-off and start up again 1hr after the final whistle.
You can buy tickets at both terminals, or from machines at tram stops (single €1.50, day pass €5, ten-journey multi €10), credit cards accepted, coins only if cash. Single tickets for Lignes d’Azur tram and services are valid for an onward journey with changes (no return journeys), total validity 74min.
Taxis Nice (+33 610 821 171) charge around €35 from airport to town or stadium.
Near the Allianz Riviera, four-star Servotel should provide the Servella family ample reward for 65 years’ work in the business, guests taking advantage of the newly convenient location, outdoor pool and revamped Le Joseph restaurant. Diagonally opposite across avenue Vérola, two-star Kyriad Nice Stade is a handy chain with weekend deals.
In town, seafront four-star Beau Rivage offers contemporary style with timeless class – plus the longest private beach on the Riviera. Nearby Le Méridien basks in its prestigious address of 1 promenade des Anglais, the pricier of its 300-plus rooms offering sea views. It has pools indoor and out, a rooftop restaurant and a private beach, too. Modernised, waterfront Hôtel Suisse is nearer the bars and restaurants of Vieux-Nice.
Close to place Masséna still close to the sea, the old-school Aston La Scala offers guests a rooftop pool and restaurant, and 24hr room service. By Garibaldi, the once staid Hôtel Genève is now the Hôtel Le G, if you please, its 16 rooms taking their trendy decorative inspiration from the Café des Chineurs around which this revamped three-star is now based. Near Jean-Médecin tram stop on rue Emma et Philippe Tiranty, the Hôtel du Petit Louvre is cheap, comfortable and convenient, featured on generic booking sites. In-room WiFi is a plus.
Further up Jean-Médecin and close to the station, the Hôtel 64 Nice provides a more boutiquey stay than the more down-at-heel competition nearby. Close by, where avenue Thiers meets rue d’Angleterre, the Hôtel de Berne (+33 4 83 66 20 57), the Antares, the Trocadéro and the Bristol all provide a bed and shelter to budget-conscious rail travellers. Further down rue de Belgique, the Interlaken is similarly modest despite outside appearances to the contrary.
The other side of the station, the former Mirabeau is now the Annexe, a handy three-star on avenue Malaussena, also close to the Libération tram stop. Also nearby is the quaint Provence rail station, with a direct, picturesque service to Saint-Isidore a short walk from the stadium.
Bars line cours Saleya and streets nearby in Vieux-Nice, particularly rue Droite and rue de la Préfecture. Expat-friendly venues include the King’s Pub, Wayne’s and, on rue Droite, the Snug & Cellar and Paddy’s Pub at No.40.
Best of the bunch, though, is the prominent Akathor, slap on cours Saleya, with a genuine pub vibe, terrace, live music and big-screen sport. A few doors along, also just tucked in from the waterfront, Les 3 Diables is where to go partying. A few doors in the other direction, Ma Nolan’s is Irish pub by rote but there’s TV sport and the terrace overlooks near permanent Nice bustle. There’s another branch overlooking the water at the Old Port. Just up from there on rue Cassini, Beer District offers 16 global brews on tap, 50 by the bottle. Matches shown, too.
On the promenade, Sports 11 is a US-style sports bar-cum-cocktail spot decked out in images and equipment from football, tennis and Formula One.
At the very top of rue Droite where it meets rues Collet and St-François, family-run Le Sauveur is a classic OGCN hang-out, named after the grandfather of the current owner, Sauveur Papa, a mad supporter of Le Gym in the club’s classic era. Among the OGC Nice paraphernalia are messages in praise of the historic region of Savoy and the pan bagnat, a tuna bap, which are to Provence what pasties are to Cornwall.
Right by the Allianz Riviera, the Musée National du Sport (Tue-Sun 11am-5pm Oct-Apr, 10am-6pm May-Sept, €6 for either temp or perm exhibs, €8 for both, free 1st Sun/mth Oct-Apr) has been imaginatively put together, the exhibits behind glass themed by the kinds of challenges that only sport can generate, one-on-one, against yourself, as a team or pushing beyond limits. Nearly half of the 43,000 artefacts in the permanent collections are posters.
The Café des Aiglons (no entrance fee) doubles up as an OGC museum in its own right, with classic re-runs of Nice action from the 1950s, shirts down the ages, classic splashes from the sports press and a jukebox of club songs. Most is self-explanatory although English documentation is sparse.