Fourth place, Ligue 1
By Daniel Rubens
One of France’s older clubs, Olympique Gymnaste Club Nice Côte d'Azur — typically shortened to OGC Nice, or just Nice — has been through a lengthy down period over the past few decades. But, thanks to a hot streak in recent weeks, Les Aiglons (the Eagles) have climbed back into the upper reaches of the table for the first time in a few years, and they are
The club was originally founded in 1904 with a primary focus on gymnastics and athletics events, although there was an amateur footballing side as well. It split into two a few years later, with the new portion developing a football team as well, and the two teams merged in 1910. Over the next few decades, the club went through a few slight changes while competing in a Southeast regional league under the French Football Federation (FFF), developing rivalries with local nearby opponents Marseille and Cannes (still the club’s biggest rival) along the way.
In 1930, the FFF voted in favor of professionalism in French football, and Nice were one of the founding members of the national league. They were relegated in just their second season, however, and remained in the second tier until World War II put a temporary halt on professional football in France (though the club continued to field an amateur side).
After the war, the club regained professional status and went back into the second flight before earning promotion to the top tier in 1947-48. Les Aiglons finished in the top 10 in their first two seasons back in the league before taking the league by storm in 1950-51, with four French internationals and a pair of Argentines helping the club to the top of the Ligue 1 table, winning the championship by virtue of having more wins than Lille, whom they finished level on points with.
This was the beginning of the club’s best period by far, and what a time it was for Nice. The club followed up its first title season in spectacular fashion, defending their trophy by a point over Bordeaux, whom they also beat in the Coupe de France final by a 5-3 margin to complete the double. While the club would stumble in the league over the next few years, they won another French Cup in 1954 before returning to the league winner’s circle in 1955-56, which they did again in 1958-59.
Each of the last two trophies earned Nice a spot in the new European Cup, and Les Aiglons found
But it wasn’t to be. Reims and Saint-Etienne would overtake Nice over the ensuing two decades, and the club has not returned to Europe’s elite competition since 1959-60. Over the 1960s, Nice would return to the middle of the pack in the French football scheme, getting relegated twice and bouncing back up both times before a pair of second-place finishes in the 1970s. Once more, though, the club quickly fell back into mediocrity and went through a series of relegations and promotions that lasted into the late 1990s.
Back in the top flight in 1997, Nice pulled off a major surprise by winning the Coupe de France, beating Guingamp on penalties. The positivity didn’t last long, though, as Nice were relegated mere days after winning the trophy. They spent the next five years in the second division before another promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2001-02, although it almost didn’t happen, as Les Aiglons very nearly failed to qualify for the top flight economically, although they were able to retain their place by selling a few players.
Surprisingly, despite being forced into selling some important pieces, Nice’s return to the top flight was successful, as they finished 10th in their first season back in Ligue 1. They had three top-half finishes in the late 2000s and narrowly avoided relegation a few times before returning to European football with a fourth-place season in 2012-13. The following campaign was a miserable one, however, as their time in the Europa League lasted just two games in the qualifying round and they finished 17th in the league, narrowly avoiding the drop once more.
Last season, Nice were back to their usual mid-table selves, coming in 11th after an uneven campaign. There wasn’t a ton of optimism heading into this season, as the club sold captain Didier Digard, exciting young left back Jordan Amavi, and a handful of other impressive young players. However, one vital signing and a breakout season from a loanee have turned Nice into a surprising contender in Ligue 1.
This season, Les Aiglons have turned into a dangerous attacking outfit, in large part thanks to those two new additions. The permanent signing is one of the most polarizing figures in European football. Hatem Ben Arfa has had a seriously controversial career, complete with multiple well-publicized disagreements with teammates and managers alike. A poor spell in England with Newcastle and Hull seemed to have his career at a standstill, but Ben Arfa has reinvigorated it this year in his first season with Nice. The mercurial attacker has played in 29 of 33 league games for Nice, scoring
The other key addition is a much less renowned player. Valere Germain spent his whole career with Monaco before joining Nice this season on loan. He has been outstanding this year, with 10 goals and six assists while playing in every Ligue 1 game for Nice. He and Ben Arfa have meshed brilliantly together, something that hasn’t always happened for Ben Arfa, and Germain’s presence has been massive for the side.
Now, Nice are on the precipice of a Champions League position, and they have a chance to move into one this weekend. While they’ll certainly have a difficult time at Lyon, who sit in second, two points ahead of Nice, Les Aiglons are on a good run having won four of five games. There are a couple more tough games on the docket for the club, but a win against Lyon would give Nice the confidence of holding onto the Champions League position they would sit in. The race in France is by no means over, but Nice are in the thick of it, and they can take the edge in it with a win at Lyon. Given where the club was just a short time ago, that would represent a major achievement for Nice.