It was difficult to know how to carry on. How could Nantes be expected to concern themselves with something as trivial as football when their teammate had so tragically died in a plane crash just a few days previously? Indeed, the death of Emiliano Sala defined last season for the Ligue 1 club and continues to have an impact at the Stade de la Beaujoire.
Of course, the tale around Sala has taken a dark twist of late with Cardiff City appealing FIFA’s verdict that they must pay the first instalment of the fee agreed for the Argentine striker. But while the memory of Sala will stay in the mind for a long time to come, Nantes are at least making an effort to move on as a football club.
With eight games of the new Ligue 1 season played, Nantes currently sit in third place just two points behind defending champions and perennial superpower Paris Saint-Germain with a 1-0 away win over Lyon underlining the progress they have made in a very short space of time. They’re on course for a very strong season.
The initial signs weren’t so positive. Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked as manager just two weeks before the start of the season following a breakdown in relations between him and club president Waldemar Kita. Former Rennes and Lorient boss Christian Gourcuff was hired from Al-Gharafa in Qatar as something of a short-term fix.
Despite the hastiness of his arrival, Gourcuff, the renowned tactician who has managed every club in the Brittany region and is credited with giving Laurent Koscielny and Andre-Pierre Gignac their start in the game, has managed to get his methods and ideas his across swiftly. “FC Nantes represents a footballing ideology,” he said in an interview given not long after taking the job.
“This club left an indelible impression on people of my generation thanks to the work of Jose Arribas, though I don't remember that period too well… Jean Claude Suaudeau's time mainly. I could mention every generation of this club, that's what's amazing. The philosophy was passed down from generation to generation and that's the mark of club with know-how, with an identity, and that's thanks to the coaches who put it in place.”
Former Manchester United full-back Fabio has been a standout for Nantes over the past few weeks, with fellow Brazilian Andrei Girotto also catching the eye. Kalifa Coulibaly has three goals in eight appearances with Abdoulaye Traore proving himself as an effective anchor in the centre of the pitch. Gourcuff is maximising what he has.
Nantes are eight times French champions and so they boast significant pedigree. It might be unrealistic to expect that they will challenge for the title this season, such is the strength of PSG’s hold on Ligue 1 right now, but with Lyon, Marseille and Monaco all less than vintage teams right now there is an opportunity for Nantes to become a factor at the top end of French football.
Nantes are back in Ligue 1 action tonight when they host sixth-placed Nice at the Stade de la Beaujoire.