When people think of the South of France, they think of the beaches, the sparkling blue waters and the warm climate. Football in the French Riviera often gets overlooked, but I made sure I gave it a chance.
OGC Nice are one of the two top-flight teams on the Cote d'Azur (the other being rivals AS Monaco). Formed in 1904, they were one of the founding members of the French first division. The club has had its share of success - with four league titles and three cups - however, their last major win came way back in 1997. At present, Les Aigons (the Eaglets), as they are nicknamed, are back on the rise, being regular competitors for a spot in Europe.
The view from my seat, as players from both teams line up before kick-off.
When I visited, Les Aigons were hosting relegation threatened Auxerre, in a late Friday night kick-off. I was not sure what to expect in terms of atmosphere however, I was excited to watch Kasper Schmeichel (one of my favorite goalkeepers) and I could not turn down the 10 Euro student tickets. When I reached the Allianz Riviera, about 2 hours before kick-off, I could not see any sign of the Nice Ultras, however, I did see some pre-match activities outside the stadium. There were plenty of carnival style booths, with games like teqball, foot-tennis, robo-keeper and foot-darts. Mixed in between them were food stands selling hot dogs and burgers. I know it is not quite the same, but it reminded me of an American tailgate, where people gather ahead of game time to grill up some food and play backyard games.
When I entered the club shop for my customary scarf, I was in for a pleasant surprise – the 2020-21 OGC Nice shirt was on clearance for Euros 30 (and they even had my size). A team kit for this price tag was a no-brainer for me so I left the boutique with my hands full.
Having no one to play teqball, or foot-tennis with outside the stadium, I decided to head in and see if there was anything interesting going on in there. When I walked in, the Auxerre players were doing their pitch inspection – unfortunately I could not recognize any of them. A few minutes later, the Nice goalkeepers, including Schmeichel, came out to warm up. My seats were pitch-side, at one end of the Ségurane stand, so I was able to watch Schmeichel’s full warm-up from about fifteen feet away – it was great! I met some teenagers from Denmark, who were trying to gain Schmeichel’s attention with a massive Danish flag. One of them was eager to talk to me so I chatted up whatever I knew about Danish football and learnt a little bit about Brøndby (his team).
As we got closer to game time, the Populaire Sud, which seats the Nice ultras, began to fill up and it was packed in time for kick-off. The Auxerre supporters sat in the opposite corner while the other stands were partially filled.
Prior to kick-off, there were still plenty of pre-game festivities in store for us: Swiss International Yordon Lotombo was making his 100th appearance for les Aigons so he was presented with flowers and a framed shirt to commemorate the event. Then, Nice’s mascot - Mèfi the eagle - flew around inside the stadium, to the applause of everyone in attendance (I do not think animals should be trained like this for human entertainment).
The first half started out as an end-to-end affair, but Nice gradually established possessional dominance. The visitors, however, were content with sitting back and hitting Nice on the counter.
Supporters in the Populaire Sud holding up their scarves and singing Nissa la Bella - the unofficial anthem of the city of Nice.
In the 36th minute, Auxerre broke the deadlock, against the run of play, and I had front-row seats to watch the crazy wing play that led to the goal. Matthis Abline checked back to receive a pass from his center back, but seeing Dante follow him he let the ball roll and ran in behind. He then outmuscled the veteran center back – completely ruining him – before cutting it back to Gauthier Hein who finished through the legs of Schmeichel. It was quite an embarrassing goal for Nice to concede, right in front of the Ultras Populaire Sud, and Dante and Schmeichel were made to look silly.
Six minutes later, Nice were awarded a penalty for a blatant shirt tug on Khéphren Thuram and Les Aiglons had the opportunity to make their dominance count. Gaëtan Laborde stepped up to take it and he smashed it straight down the middle. Unfortunately for him Auxerre’s netminder, Ionuț Radu, held his ground and made a fantastic reactionary save.
Nice continued to push for an equalizer and they eventually succeeded in the dying seconds of the first half. Jordan Lotomba got a yard on his man before whipping in a cross that found Laborde, unmarked by the penalty spot. This time the Frenchman did not faulter as he found the back of the net with a diving header.
Despite the turbulent first half, the Ultras Populaire Sud maintained their loud support for les Aigons. The fans were more reserved in my section and in most other parts of the ground (‘mere spectators’ as I would call them). In fact, there was a pair of Auxerre fans sitting right behind me, unopposed. So, with the help of a Nice faithful, that the Danish guys introduced me to, I moved away from my pitch side seat and got in with the Ultras Populaire Sud for the second half.
My view amidst the standing crowd in the Populaire Sud Tribune, as Auxerre's Ionuț Radu takes a goal kick.
I decided to stand towards the edge of the Populaire Sud tribune where the vocal casuals merged with the ultras. The place wreaked of cigarette smoke and alcohol, but I knew it was better than being a ‘mere spectator.’
Nice were on the attack for pretty much the entirety of the second half. In the 59th minute, they came close to scoring after a lovely interchange of passes, but Hicham Boudaoui’s drive was denied by a spectacular fingertip save from Radu.
Auxerre were hanging on by a thread but no matter what les Aigons did they could not find the elusive winner. In the last few minutes, it felt like the hosts had at least a dozen corners and half as many free kicks, but the net in front of us simply would not bulge.
At this point the group of supporters immediately next to me were quite drunk. Whenever we tried to ‘huddle’ and jump together (in conjunction with the rest of the stand), they would lose balance, and everyone would go down like dominoes – it was a good time. However, I did feel the energy in the Populaire Sud was waning a little bit and a timely last-minute goal could have changed all of that. Unfortunately for the Nice hardcore and I, that goal did not come, and I did not get to experience the limbs at the Allianz Riviera.
Sitting high up in the terraces can be great to see the tactical side of the game but I enjoyed the rare opportunity of sitting pitch-side as I got a real feel for the intensity of the action. It is mind-blowing how fast, strong and powerful these players are. When up close, you can see how effective even the smallest body-feint or drop of the shoulder can be, to get past your opponent. Anyways, Auxerre managed to score off their only shot on target and walk away with a crucial point. On the other hand, OGC Nice will be disappointed with the result, but they did manage to extend their unbeaten run under head coach Didier Digard to nine games.