Deep in the fiery south, between the Med, the Camargue and the rugged Cévennes, Nîmes has all the ingredients to be a crazy hotbed of football. Flagship club Nîmes Olympique were Eric Cantona’s last employers in France before he threw the ball at the referee and called each member of the FA disciplinary committee, individually, an idiot. It was Nîmes who later sold Cantona to Leeds for under £1 million.
Home of French bullfighting, held in the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in France, Nîmes picked up on football long before the city’s later local rivals, Montpellier. And yet affluent, dynamic Montpellier surpassed Nîmes long ago, co-hosting the World Cup of 1998 and winning the French League in 2012.
During all these years, for 25 long seasons, in fact, Nîmes Olympique, les Crocodiles, were in the second tier and quite often lower. Promotion eventually came in 2018 but crowds at the Stade des Costières, the somewhat functional, municipal stadium opened on the southern outskirts of town in 1989, only occasionally tested its 18,500 capacity the following reasonably successful season.
It was a local student, Henri Monnier, who brought football to Nîmes, after he had spent two years in Liverpool in the late 1800s. He and his mates formed Football Club de Nîmes, and recruited players from the protestant Christian Union. Seeking to expand the club’s horizons, he then merged FC Nîmes with the regional youth sports association, Jeunesse Sportive du Gard, based in Nîmes, and created Sporting Club nîmois in 1901.
Colours of red and white were immediately adopted – like the crocodile logo, it had links to the city’s medieval heraldry rather than Monnier’s affection for Liverpool FC, who only had played in blue until 1896.
Monnier played as club captain then president until 1929. SC Nîmois used any pitch they could find, before settling on the Stade de la Galère on route d’Arles. Back then, the main rivals were L’Olympique de Cette, later called FC Sète, one of the great sides between the wars.
A regional Languedoc championship was set up in 1906-07, won by Cette every year up to 1914 except for a solitary Nîmois victory in 1907-08. Many players would duly fall in the Great War.
Nîmois regrouped in 1919 and moved into the Parc des Sports on rue du Jeu de Mail, now rue Jean-Bouin, north-east of town. The club also joined the Ligue du Sud-est, dominated by Marseille.
Turning professional in 1932, shortly after the transformation of the Parc des Sports into the Stade Jean-Bouin, allowed Nîmes to join the inaugural French national championship. Of its 20 clubs in two divisions, nearly half were clustered in this south-east corner of France, including Nîmes, Sète, Alès and Montpellier.
With salaries and a sunshine lifestyle on offer, Nîmes attracted ageing foreign stars such as Czech international Josef Silny, former Chelsea forward Andy Wilson as player-coach.
The money soon ran out, Nîmes were relegated then dropped out of the second division without even playing a match in 1935-36. After winning the Gard district amateur league in 1936-37, SC Nîmois were no longer.
Sète-born sports journalist and later French FA president Emmanuel Gambardella was the one of the prime movers behind the rapid creation of a new professional club, Nîmes Olympique. Along with Pierre Chabert, who brought in English player-manager Harry Ward from Ramsgate FC, a core of founding members revived the Crocodiles, in their classic red-and-white strip, and moved the new club into the Stade Jean-Bouin.
Gambardella died in 1953, the leading youth cup in France taking his name. His other posthumous honour was the rise of the club he helped found – Olympique’s glory days came in the late 1950s and early 1960s under former Nîmes midfielder Kader Firoud, who led the Crocodiles to three consecutive runners-up spots in the top flight and two appearances in the French Cup final. Firoud returned for further title challenges in the early 1970s.
Only a few supporters who queued around the block for the crucial game with Gazélec Ajaccio in May 2018 will remember the Firoud years – the club now plays in a new stadium, and had just spent 25 years out of the limelight.
Meanwhile, in a bizarre twist, back at the Stade Jean-Bouin, local enthusiasts revived the Sporting Club nîmois in December 2011. Under pressure from its followers in the late 1930s, the club had kept its legality in the district records. Some 75 years later, they now play in the top départemental division of the Gard-Lozère region, level eight of the French football league pyramid. In August 2017, still in the same red-and-white strip of yesteryear, SC Nîmois were also one of around 8,000 clubs to take part in the First Round of the Coupe de France.
Underused Nîmes-Alès-Camargue-Cévennes airport is 11km (seven miles) south of town. A shuttle bus (€6.80, credit cards accepted) leaves the airport after each arrival and takes 25min to reach Nîmes bus station/platform 1 of the train station. It sets off for the airport from the same spot around 2hrs before each flight – check the timetable here.
The stadium is on the way into town. Taxi Grès (+33 6 16 400 902) has a fixed fee of €22 from the airport to town, and would charge around €17 from airport to stadium. Nîmes train and bus stations are a short walk south of the city centre.
Nîmes is served by Tango! buses that run from the walkable historic centre to the outskirts, including the stadium.
Rechargeable tickets are sold from machines at stops and drivers (not the T1). The first costs €1.60, then it’s €1.30 per journey in any direction, valid for 1hr.
There are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the stadium, only a couple of chains on the main road, neither that close to the ground nor convenient for town.
Your best bet might be central Apart’City Confort at boulevard de Bruxelles 1, near the T2 stop for transport to the stadium, four-star lodgings with a 24-hour reception. Its sister operation, Apart’City Nîmes is the closest accommodation to the Stade des Costières at allée de l’Amérique Latine 364.
Convenient for the Arena and the bar zone, the Novotel Atria comprises 119 rooms and a restaurant on boulevard de Prague, while the pretty, independent Hôtel des Tuileries at 22 rue Roussy provides local craft beer and wine in its bar, and a large double bed in each of its 11 rooms. At the other end of rue Roussy on place du Château, the Central Hôtel offers contemporary comfort at affordable prices.
On the other side of the Arena, the 11-room Hôtel de l’Amphithéâtre has been from two hotels dating back some 300 years.
Exiting the train station, the renovated two-star Abalone is pretty much the first thing you see as you head towards town. Doubles here start at €60.
The broad pavements of boulevard Victor Hugo provide ample space for screens and drinkers at the string of bars between rue Corneille and rue Gergonne. Top picks are Bar Le Victor Hugo, which appeals to a smarter clientele, and Bar Joe, which is the unofficial headquarters of the Nîmes supporters’ club, an official ticket sales outlet and a cracking bar in its own right. Round the corner from the Victor Hugo, the Big Ben Bar, tucked down narrow rue Maubet, fills with supporters for important games, when TVs are set outside. Not much in the way of seating but plenty of atmosphere.
About ten minutes east of there, around place Gabriel Péri, another cluster of bars includes O’Flaherty’s, atmospheric and capacious inside and out, and the slightly down-at-heel but football-loving London Tavern. Live music and party nights also fill its agenda.