LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

OGC Nice

Le Gym fit to rejoin the French elite at long last

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Based at the new-build Allianz Riviera since 2013-14, OGC Nice have attracted two waves of foreign ownership to push the club back among the elite. Qualifying for Europe, even the Champions League, for the first time in well over a decade, Nice left behind 85 years of history at the city-centre Stade du Ray. There, OGC fans cheered the red-and-blacks to four titles and three French Cups, all but one picked up in the 1950s.

The Allianz Riviera staged four matches for Euro 2016, Nice regaining the recognition its long footballing tradition deserves. Having missed out on the World Cups of 1938 (to Antibes) and 1998 (to Montpellier), this fiery coastal metropolis close to Monaco is now back in the same bracket at Marseille and Lyon.

A founder member of the French professional league in 1932, Nice were formed as a sports club in 1904 and a football one four years thereafter. Olympique Gymnaste Club de Nice, nicknamed ‘Le Gym’, went through a couple of mutations either side of World War I, swapping their original blue-and-black shirts for red-and-black ones.

Quickly established was a rivalry with then strong AS Cannes and, soon afterwards, a base at the Stade du Ray.

With players such as French-Algerian forward Abdelaziz Ben Tifour and Swedish World Cup star Lennart Samuelsson, Nice pipped Lille to a surprise title, decided on games won, in 1951.

Former Boca star Luis Carniglia then helped Nice defend their title, overcoming league runners-up Bordeaux in the cup final to win their first double. Ben Tifour and Carniglia scored either side of half-time in a 5-2 win.

Buying Just Fontaine from USM Casablanca, Nice won another cup in 1954 and league title in 1956, under Carniglia, now coach. Fontaine and Carniglia went on to make their names elsewhere, Fontaine for Stade de Reims (and France, for whom he scored a record 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup), Carniglia managing the great Real Madrid.

With stalwart Luxembourger Victor Nurenberg, Nice won a last league title in 1959. In Europe, Nice were twice knocked out by Di Stéfano’s Real Madrid in the European Cup, once after a memorable 3-2 win at the Stade du Ray and equally memorable Nurenberg hat-trick.

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 Monaco, Marseille and later Montpellier, Nice floundered for most of the modern era, decades only enlightened by an improbable run against mainly lower-league opposition to the cup final in 1997. A shoot-out win over Guingamp led to another short European campaign.

With former Monaco midfielder Claude Puel in charge from 2012, Nice enjoyed a storming last half of the season to claim fourth place in 2013. Goals from Argentine-Croat Darío Cvitanich then dried up and a long-awaited return to Europe was marked by an ignominious exit to Apollon Limassol.

Better was to come in 2016. Now backed by a Chinese-American consortium, Nice led the league for four months. Despite the sale of the stellar Hatem Ben Arfa, incoming coach Lucien Favre and Italian international striker Mario Balotelli had been persuaded to help transform these sleeping giants into potential French title winners. Balotelli’s brace against Marseille, then Monaco, pushed OGC to the top of the Ligue 1 table for the first time since 2003.

In the end, Nice tailed off behind a resurgent Monaco and a star-studded PSG but third place ensured Champions League qualification. Held to a 1-1 draw by Ajax at the Allianz Riviera, Nice put in a sensational performance in Amsterdam, without Balotelli, to level the tie at 3-3 and win on away goals. At Nice since the age of 15, goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale was key to OGC’s success, as he had been for most of the previous 2016-17  campaign. Two late red cards did little to help the Nice cause at Napoli in the play-off round, and not even the arrival of Dutch World Cup star Wesley Sneijder could reverse the tie at the Allianz Riviera.

Injuries to Balotelli and Cardinale, and the departure of Sneijder, saw the promising 2017-18 season fizzle out by the spring. Another exciting arrival in the shape of coach Patrick Vieira promised much for 2018-19 but the real changes the following close season, when UK petro-billionaire Jim Ratcliffe stepped in as majority owner. 

Already a major investor in international cycling, and a tax exile in neighbouring Monaco, Ratcliffe saw huge potential in Nice despite average gates at the Allianz Riviera falling below 20,000. The academy, meanwhile, continues to produce players of real quality, Nice-born defender Malang Sarr a case in point.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Venue for Euro 2016, the Allianz Riviera was opened in September 2013. The original plan, back in 2002, was for an expansion of the Stade du Ray, home of the OGC from its inauguration in 1927.

Before then, the club had been based at Les Baumette, in the west of town just in from the seafront. Originally known as the Stade Saint-Maurice because of its surrounding location north of the city centre, the Stade du Ray saw a 3,000-capacity main stand built in 1948.

Crowds of around 20,000 gathered during the club’s golden era of the 1950s, though by the 1990s the Stade du Ray was in need of serious modernisation.

With Nice overlooked as World Cup venue for 1998, its local politicians successfully lobbied for hosting rights for Euro 2016.

Given the condition and limitations of the Stade du Ray, in 2006 an out-of-town new-build was slated for Saint-Isidore north-west of town. Created by Jean-Michel Wilmotte and costing some €245 million, the Allianz Riviera put Nice back on the football map.

Wilmotte, who had worked on airports in Korea and contemporary art galleries in Beijing, knew a thing or two about light. Here, on the edge of the Préalpes d’Azur Natural Park, the arena sits in the green surroundings of Eco-Valley, 4,000 solar panels generating energy, the recyclable translucent roofing letting in natural light but allowing the sound to reverberate around a stadium of relatively modest 36,000 capacity. 

Certainly, the famous Viking thunder clap was in full roar here when Iceland overcame England 2-1, the fourth and most dramatic of the four games staged at the Allianz Riviera for Euro 2016.

As at the Stade du Ray, the home end is the Populaire Sud by the main road. Away fans are allocated the north-east corner of the opposite goal, Tribune du Ray, by the sideline Tribune Garibaldi, sectors C1-3, access gate C. The press box is in Tribune Ségurane opposite Garibaldi.

getting there

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

The Allianz Riviera now has its own stop on new tram line 3 from each terminal of the airport. On match nights, however, from 2hrs before kick-off, services leave Jean-Médecin in town every 12mins, bound for Saint-Isidore and stopping at Stade. After the final whistle, every 4mins for up to 1hr, services set off from Stade back to Jean-Médecin. After an hour, they resume their normal route down to the airport.

From the airport to the match as kick-off approaches, board tram 2 to Grand Arénas and change onto line 3 there. A taxi should be around €35.

Alternatively, special bus 95 sets off every 15mins from Lycée Masséna east of the city centre, passing Gambetta/Promenade parallel to the sea. Journey time to the stadium is 50mins-1hr. Special lines 9 and 10 also run from Jean-Médecin, journey time 1hr 15mins (!).

A pleasant, cheap and relatively speedy way from town is the little Provence train from quaint Nice-Sud station (near place Général-de-Gaulle) to St Isidore (€1.80, pay on board, journey time 10-15mins). Usually they run every 30-45mins, but more are laid on for match nights. From St Isidore station, walk down the steep stone stairs to the Brasserie Les 4 Coins below, then straight down avenue Verola past the Kyriad hotel – turn left for the stadium. It’s an easy 10-15min stroll.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Tickets are distributed online from the club and main agencies such as TicketmasterFnac and Carrefour. The main stadium ticket office behind gate G by Accès Sud usually opens during the week (Wed, Fri, Sat 10am-6pm) but check first – billetterie@ogcnice.com, +33 4 93 84 05 43 (Mon-Fri 9am-6pm). On match days, windows open 2-3hrs before kick-off. Availability is rarely a problem.

For an average league fixture, prices are set at €15 behind each goal (Populaire Sud or Ray), €10 charged for women or under-25s, €6 for under-11s. In the pricier sideline Ségurane or Garibaldi, it’s €31 (€25/€16) for the cheapest seats, €51 (€44/€26) the most expensive. Prices rise for the visits of Olympique Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

OGC Nice Store (Mon-Fri 10am-1pm, 2pm-7pm) occupies a prominent corner of place Masséna (No.4) behind the Fontaine du Soleil in town. There’s also a match-day store at the parvis Sud-Est near the Memphis restaurant at the stadium, open 3hrs before kick-off.

Note the T-shirts and scarves bearing the motto M’En Bati, Sieu Nissart! (‘I don’t care, I’m from Nice’) local slang and La Fabuleuse Décennie ’70, a beautifully conceived coffee-table book documenting OGC in the 1970s. The third kit for 2019-20 honours, for some reason, Sampdoria, while everything else is solid red and black.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Strolling down from St-Isidore station, Brasserie Les 4 Coins (436 avenue Sainte-Marguérite) is a corner bar with a betting shop attached. It’s pretty featureless inside, unless you’re focused on the odds shown on several screens, but the terrace is a pleasant spot for a pre-match beer. It’s an easy 10min walk from here to the stadium, straight down avenue Verola then hang a left.

Behind the Tribune du Ray, the Café des Aiglons is part of the Musée National du Sport but with its own entrance, to the left as you go through the main doors. It’s a museum in its own right, dedicated to OGC Nice, a red-and-black treasure trove of shirts, scarves and match tickets through the ages, a jukebox of terrace songs, splashes from sports papers and rarities – the match ball from the Nice-Real Madrid game in 1960, for example. A bar in one corner serves standard beer and wine, and sometimes players make personal appearances.

Around the ground, near the club shop, the family-friendly Memphis Nice is done out like an American diner, serving Samuel Adams and Liberty Anchor Ale along with Desperados and Heineken on draught. At some tables, you can pour your own. The upstairs floor leads to a raised outdoor terrace in the shadow of the stadium – though you may struggle to reach it after devouring the three-deck house Memphis burger.

Hospitality outlets within the stadium include the Carlsberg-branded Pub 1904 here on the Garibaldi side and the upscale Brasserie des Aiglons over in the Ségurane. All reservation/invite-only.

Local fans still gather at OGC Nice bars around the old Stade du Ray, such as La Virgule (place Alexandre Médécin/avenue Walkanaer) and L’Olympic (1 avenue Ernest-Lairolle).