Is it Nice or is it Nice?

Winter in England means the realisation that West Ham aren’t going to challenge for any honours as normally by the time the yellow ball comes out on the 1st November they are out of the Carling Cup and have already given up the hope of a European spot. So I need to look further afield for my excitement, to foreign leagues where I could swap my allegences at the drop of a hat depending on who plays the best football, or who wears the best kit! With temperatures dropping swifter than MS Katona’s morals, and West Ham going on another long winless streak I needed some overseas action.

I needed to arrange a trip down to our French office to give them an update on affairs from London SE1, and with temperatures reaching boiling point back in the office in London a trip down to Nice was long overdue and would be the perfect tonic. As luck would have it I managed to pick a weekend where I could combine a decent bit of work, a new ground and of course some winter sunshine.

The Cote d’Azur is one of the most beautiful areas of Europe when the sun is shining, and shine it does for most of the year.  It is hard to believe it is so close in terms of flying time to London, and on a clear late Autumn day the views from the airplane on the 90 minute flight were spectacular with the Alps already dusted with a good covering of snow and the almost turquoise waters of the Med sparkling in the sunshine as we came down to land. 

Bird strike.  Not a word you hear every day but apparently it is a very worrying thing for airplanes, and of course pilots.  Now airplane engines can cope with a bird or two being sucked into the engine now and again, but it is still heard of that airports need to be shut due to a migration of birds that could prove a danger to planes.  As we skimmed the surface of the sea on our approach into Nice we disturbed a group (is it a flock if they are not flying?) of birds who were sunbathing on the small beach at the end of the runway, and we sent them skywards.  Unfortunately one did appear to be a bit slow on the ground and met his maker in a flurry of feathers, yet the plane continued without a care in the world, touching down without a bump.  So what exactly is bird strike?  Had I just been witness to it?  Should I report the incident to the CAA?

Without further incident I battered my way past the old English people who were demanding their trolley carts to transport them a hundred yards to the passport control.  Does flying have this magical effect to reduce their ability to walk or are they just being awkward?  Either way they are a pain in the arse and whilst I am on the subject why should they push in in front of everyone else in the passport queue?  Being lazy is not a disability, nor is being fat if we are on the subject!

My plan was to catch a bus up to a small village called La Colle de la Loup, some 10 miles outside Nice where I was staying in an old monestary so I could shed my baggage.  Problem number one was that the bus stop had no timetable so I had no idea whether I was going to wait 2 minutes or an hour, knowing that it would be a Sunday service.  With the sun beating down straight into my eyes it also meant I could not keep looking in the direction where the bus would be coming from.  Fortunately it was only a short wait, and for my €1 I boarded and tried to work out where I needed to alight.  I cannot imagine life without Google Maps on my phone ever again, as it came to the rescue, plotting my journey and showing exactly where my hotel was. 

The village of La Colle de la Loup is a stunning village high in the hills above the city, with narrow cobbled streets lined with tall medieval buildings.  It is not really on the tourist trail and so I got a few “Nowt here for you” stares as I wandered the lanes to the hotel.  The L’Abbaye was certainly impressive, being transformed from a 15th century monestry into a trendy boutique style hotel and very good restaurant.  However, I was on a mission so within 30 minutes I was back on the bus heading into Nice.

I had been to Nice a couple of times before, and its wide palm tree lined boulevards reminded me of Miami (not that I have ever been to Miami but I did use to watch Miami Vice regularly).  I wandered along the promenande and took the opportunity to pop down onto the beach and read my book for half an hour.  Temperatures were topping the Twenty three degrees mark, some fifteen degrees hotter than London.  I rang CMF to gloat and she answered in hushed tones that she was actually in church (a brownie thing and not through choice).  I took the opportunity to embarrass her more my giving her a task for the day – to compile a list of places and scenarios where she wanted to commit sin.  I could imagine her going bright red not only with embarrassment of the service being interrupted by the phone, but by her task at hand.  Never one to disappoint I was sure she would spend the rest of the religious hour deep on thought.

I headed off for lunch in the Old Town, taking in a few of the sites along the way.  I was determined to have a big steak and some beer, and eventually found a decent restaurant opposite the cathedral.  The Maitre D’e took my order and questioned whether I really wanted a “large beer”.  “But monsieur it is a litre”.  “Oui j’comprenez” I answered in my best French “Je suis Anglais”…”D’accord” was the knowing reply and the litre of beer, which cost the same amount as my meal duly arrived.

After my lunch I wandered the back streets for an hour and noticed the amount of youngsters that seemed to be simply sitting around.  It was also noticable that they had absolutely no respect for social behaviour.  During the course of the afternoon I saw them throw litter, shout and scream at each other, play loud music on public transport and generally be a nuisance to all around.  It is no wonder we read on a regular basis about issues riots involving students in France as it appears that no one has the balls to stand up to them. 

My main focus of the afternoon though was to watch the football.  French football has been dominated for nearly a decade by one team – Olympique Lyonnais. Title challengers come and go on a regular basis, running them close for a few weeks before disappearing back into mid table. Some of the clubs such as Marseille and Paris Saint Germain in theory have the infrastructure in place to compete off the pitch, with impressive commercial operations but they simply cannot attract the players that Lyon can. Every so often a surprise team will make a play. A few seasons ago Monaco came close to the title, finishing in second place but managed to put together an impressive run in the Champions League the following season in reaching the final of the richest club game in the world, losing to Mourhinio’s Porto. Two seasons ago Toulouse surprised everyone in finishing runners up before dropping back into the pack, and last season Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux did enough to finish in second place and appeared to have carried on their form into the Champions League this season.

So after a third of the season it came as no surprise to see Lyon on top of the league again, but close behind them came a few surprise packages. Rennes had returned to the top flight in recent years but had always been seen as a mid table team at best. Le Mans had been promoted last year but also had found life easier than most, and then you had OSC Nice.  The club were one of the strongest teams in France during the 1950’s, winning the championship in 1951, 1952, 1956 and 1959 in a legendary period for the club that also saw two French Cup victories. Since the last championship in 1959 they have only won one more honour – the 1997 French Cup.

Coming into their home game with Nantes in mid November the team could hit the lofty heights of third place in the Ligue, their highest position for nearly five years. Nantes had only just returned to the top league after a season in hell, and hadn’t yet managed to fire on all seasons despite some expensive pre-season signings including ex-Werder Bremen striker Ivan Klasnic.

The Stade de Ray is located in the north of the city, and has its own stop on the new tramway some 15 minutes from the old town.  It is very basic with temporary seating surrounds the pitch on three sides, and provides no more than an adequate viewing experience. It does have the advantage of being located close to the city centre – although plans have been drawn up for a new stadium in the Lindostiere region of the city, although recent corruption scandals in the past few seasons have caused these plans to be put on hold.  The hardcore Nice fans are located in the narrow Tribune behind the south end and generate a real atmosphere despite the open conditions. Away fans, and French football doesn’t have many, are located along the side of the pitch in the north east section. Facilities are very basic and not what you would expect from such a high profile and glamorous city as Nice.

OSC Nice 2 Nantes 1 – Sunday 16th November 2008 5pm – Stade de Ray

2-1 to Nice

2-1 to Nice

After negotiating my way into the Press Tribune I sat high up in the main stand which at least offered me some cover if the rain did start to fall.  The view with the purple sky in the background was certainly impressive, and took my eyes off the game for the first few minutes which wasn’t hard as it wasn’t high on quality.

Nantes drew first blood in the 8th minute when N’daw powered home a free kick from twenty five yards with a shot that barely rose above the ground all of the way but gave the Nice keeper no chance at all. The goal spurred on Nice who flew into every tackle and chased every lost ball. Some of the challenges left a lot to be desired yet the two Nantes players who were booked in the next few minutes were for complaining about the treatment being metered out on them. Sometimes there is no justice in life and a few minutes later when the away team decided to fight fire with fire the referee gave a free kick out on the right hand side. The free kick was expertly delivered for Nice’s African striker Bamogo to head home unhindered. The Nice fans in the south stand went wild. Their support throughout the whole game was magnificent but when the goal went in it was like being transported back to Upton Park in the 1970’s with a huge surge on the terrace only being stopped by the perimeter fences.

It was only at this point did I notice the fences. They surrounded all four stands, some of which were higher than others but they were still surrounding the ground, hampering the view of the fans in the lower tiers and giving the impression that no one can be trusted. I cannot remember when stadiums in the UK had fences although it was only just over twenty years ago that they were taken down. It has certainly led to a much changed atmosphere in the stadiums in the UK, and whilst many will argue that all seater stadiums have killed the atmosphere, I would not go back to the cage like stadiums that are seen in some of Europe today which label the fans as animals before a ball has been kicked.

You could see why Lyon had dominated the game for so long. Whilst both Nice and Nantes were going all out for the win with the game poised at 1-1 the technical ability was lacking. Passes went astray, players ran into other players and there was a general ignorance of the offside law. I saw an opportunity for my beloved Hammers to make a success of their season by asking for a transfer to the French Ligue 1.

Chances were thin on the ground and the home fans took to winding up the Nantes goalkeeper by throwing firecrackers at him every time he took a goal keeper. The third time it happened he stopped and threw his arms up in disgust that neither the officials nor the stewards seem to be interested in stopping it. The referee however did give him a yellow card for time wasting and warned him not to re-offend, much to the home fans delight!

Not to be outdone the handful of Nantes fans that were positioned on the Tribune decided to strip off and wave their shirts around. Now whilst the temperatures had peaked at a very nice 23 degrees earlier in the day, they were now decidedly chilly. Their humour only lasted a few more minutes when a ball was played over the heads of their defenders and the impressive Mouloungui held his nerve to finish from just inside the penalty area to secure the points for Nice and take them to third place in the table.

I headed out of the press tribune when the 4th official put up the board, and managed to squeeze on a tram that took me back to the bus station. If Nice can be compared to a Miss World contestant then the bus station is the ugly veruca on the winners foot. Why do stations have to attract the scum of the earth? I only had a fifteen minute wait but in that time it seemed the whole of the dregs of society had come out to play like some strange warped Gaelic version of Thirty Days of Night.

Still once on board my bus I was back into the countryside within an hour and wandering through the haunting village of La Colle de al Loup, with its silence medieval archways and stonewalls on my way to the L’Abbeya and my “cell of monks”….A prayer before bedtime maybe, although I had little to confess, unlike CMF with her list of sin!

About the Stade de Ray – Capacity 18,500
The stadium is very basic – temporary seating surrounds the pitch on three sides, and provide a more than adequate viewing experience. It does have the advantage of being located close to the city centre – although plans have been drawn up for a new stadium in the Lindostiere region of the city, although recent corruption scandals in the past few seasons have caused these plans to be put on hold.

In terms of a viewing experience, avoid the stands behind the goal which do not offer particularly good views due to the presence of the fencing. The hardcore Nice fans are located in the narrow Tribune behind the south end and generate a real atmosphere despite the open conditions. Away fans, and French football doesn’t have many, are located along the side of the pitch in the north east section. Facilities are very basic and not what you would expect from such a high profile and glamorous city as Nice.

Getting a ticket
With average attendances struggling to break the 11,000 mark, tickets are easy to get hold of on the day of the game. The cheapest tickets in the stadium are in the temporary open air stands behind the goals which cost €8. A seat in the only covered area of the stadium will cost €30 to €40 depending on the opponents. Tickets can be purchased in advance by phoning the club on +39 8 92 70 21 06 or by email on Tickets can also be purchased from the club shop in Rue Lepante in the city centre. The club’s online ticket shop is run by Digitix and allows you not only to pay via paypal but also allows you to print your tickets off from home.

How to get there ?
The Stadium is located to the north of the Vieux port and within a 15 minute walk of the main station. Exit the station onto Avenue Thiers and turn left. At the junction with Avenue Malausséna, turn left and head north. This will become Avenue Bomiglione after a few hundred yards, and in turn Avenue du Ray after another two hundred yards. The stadium is on your left hand side. Pubic transport options to the stadium are via the Bus Ligne d’Azure on lines number 1 and 18 which run from the centre of the old town. The new tramway has recently open and runs directly from the old town to a stop at Le Ray that is only a few minutes walk from the stadium. It is a 10 minute journey from the old town and tickets are either €1 for a single or €4 for a day long travel pass. Remember to validate your ticket in the machines on board.

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