While most of the recent headlines regarding Ligue 1 focused on big-money signings Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani, a more significant affair went largely unnoticed; the return of FC Nantes after four long and frustrating seasons away from the top flight.
It is more important because while the Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco projects are, with all due respect, about foreign multi-millionaires pumping in incredible amounts of money, Nantes are very much authentic. Their downfall was tragic for the development of French football, but now hope for a bright future looms on the horizon again.
Nantes are one of the most integral clubs in French football culture -- not just due to the eight league titles won between 1965 and 2001, but of a philosophy and an outstanding academy that has produced great players over the decades.
Henri Michel, a lynchpin for the national team as a player in the 70s, and later a coach who inherited Les Bleus from the legendary Michel Hidalgo after the latter had won Euro 84, spent his entire playing career at Nantes. Maxime Bossis and Williame Ayache, two of the best French defenders of their era, were also brought up at Les Canaris.
France's World Cup-winning captain Didier Deschamps joined Nantes' academy at the age of 14 and made his league debut for the club at 16. He later joined Olympique Marseille, and so did Marcel Desailly, who made his first steps at Nantes and played six seasons at the Stade de la Beaujoire.
Claude Makelele is mostly famous for his days at Real Madrid and Chelsea, but it is at Nantes that he learned his trade. He was part of the glorious side that swept all before them on the way to 1995 Ligue 1 title, and so was Christian Karembeu, who moved to Sampdoria that year.
For more than four decades, Nantes stayed loyal to their principles: giving youth a chance and devotion to an eye-pleasing style. Nantes always were about short-passing, attacking football.
The stability and continuity the club enjoyed were extraordinary. Between 1960 and 2001, there were just five different coaches on their bench. First it was Jose Arribas, who stayed for 16 years and built the foundations, winning the league three times. Then came the time of Jean Vincent, the legendary France and Reims striker of the '50s, who spent six seasons at the club and won two titles.
Replacing him, in 1982, was Coco Suaudeau; a home-grown midfielder who played his entire career at Nantes and worked at the academy for a decade before taking charge of the first team. He lived and breathed yellow-green, and his importance to the club's development is impossible to overstate. Suaudeau was there until 1997, taking a break for a couple of years in the late '80s, during which time the famous Croat Ciro Blazevic presided. Finally, Raynald Denoueix, another local and one-club man, who was employed at the academy for 15 years, took Suaudeau's place when he retired and managed to win Nantes last title, against all odds, in 2001.
That was the point when the Nantes story changed dramatically. When Socpresse media group bought the club and installed an outsider, Jean-Luc Gripond, as president, the results were disastrous. The club that had just five coaches in four decades, made 13 coaching changes during the last 11 years. It started with the loyal Denoueix being shown the door just a few months after winning the title, despite enjoying a good run in the Champions League. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse.
In the 2000s, the famous Nantes stability was no more. The philosophy was abandoned, the unique style disappeared, the academy's importance was forgotten, the financial issues were terribly mismanaged, and the club changed hands numerous times.
One of the proudest French teams suddenly became relegation candidates, and in 2007 they did eventually go down, ending the record 44 consecutive years in Ligue 1. The unfortunate signing of Fabien Barthez, who came out of retirement only to become involved in a dreadful row with Nantes fans, was the nadir.
Michel Der Zakarian, a former player, managed to get them back into the top flight at the first attempt, but starting the 2008-09 season with a single point from four games led to his somewhat harsh dismissal. Henri Michel and Jean-Pierre Papin refused the job, so it went to Elie Baup, a very experienced and respected professional, but completely unsuited for what remained of Nantes' self image, and the team were duly relegated again.
This time, it took them much longer to climb back, and there were weeks and months during which it seemed that Nantes were in serious danger of going out of business altogether. The chances of relegation to the third division were especially high in 2011. Fans were starting to lose hope.
There were, however, some positive signs. President Waldemar Kita, who bought the club in 2007, gradually understood the importance of the academy, especially since the return of Nantes iconic former left winger Loic Amisse to take charge of it. A year ago, Kita convinced Der Zakarian to come back, and the Armenian-born specialist stated: "Our task is to return to Ligue 1."
He achieved that goal, even though his brand of football is far removed from that of the glory days. The success was mostly due to Filip Djordjevic, who has played for the club since 2008. The Serbian striker enjoyed an extraordinary season, netting 20 times to account for more than a third of the team's total of 54.
Last Saturday, then, there was a big party at Stade de la Beaujoire, as more than 25,000 fans came to witness the reborn Canaries' debut in Ligue 1, after winning promotion last term. Their opponents were Bastia, and it was only too symbolic that the most celebrated Nantes player of recent times was in goal for the visiting side.
Mickael Landreau, born in the suburbs of Nantes, was a brilliant product of their academy, making his first team debut under Suaudeau at 17-years-old and becoming the team's captain at the tender age of 19. In spite of constant interest from the biggest clubs in Europe, Landreau stayed loyal to Nantes for a decade. At the very soul of the team, he made his voice heard when the club was taken apart by Gripond, accusing him of ruining the team.
He finally left for Paris in 2006, and the very next season Nantes were relegated. Landreau's career wasn't too smooth in the capital either, but he put it back on track at Lille, winning the double in 2011. Having moved to Corsica, he continued to excel, and now Didier Deschamps has recalled him to the French national team.
Landreau was back at Stade de la Beaujoire on Saturday, receiving a standing ovation from the fans. He lost 2-0, with Djordjevic fittingly scoring the opener. Granted, this Nantes team has a very long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same breath as those of Arribas, Vincent, Suaudeau and Denoueix.
The current version likes using long balls, and the fact they only had 33% of possession in the home game speaks volumes about their style. But they got the three points, and that's all that mattered.
The chances of the Canaries surviving in the top flight is unclear. Djordjevic, who only has a year left on his contract, is being targeted by Lyon, and losing the striker would be a major blow. The squad looks thin, but if Kita is patient with Der Zakarian this time, stability may return to Nantes.
They can also be proud of Jordan Veretout, an academy graduate who played an important part when France won the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey last month. He may one day follow the footsteps of Karembeu, Makelele and Jeremy Toulalan.
In their next home fixture, Nantes will welcome the superstars of PSG. A clash between the past and the future of French football, one might say. That might be true. But all over the country, people will support the club of tradition and heritage rather than the nouveau-riche Parisians.