Gazélec Ajaccio have always found themselves overshadowed amongst the palm trees and beaches of Corsica.
Previously seen as the island’s third team behind local rivals AC Ajaccio and SC Bastia, their status as small-time outsiders is evident when one observes their stadium, the quaint and quirky Stade Ange-Casanova, a concrete-laden, old-fashioned rectangle of a home that couldn’t have been built in any other decade than the 1960s.
Due to extensive renovations, last season saw the stadium’s capacity reduced to a measly 2,885, by far the lowest in Ligue 2, a number that for many mirrored the club’s place in France’s second-highest division.
ut for the past few years Gazélec have been on a mission to prove the naysayers wrong, and it is one that has seen them overtake their most fierce rivals to set up a season with the big boys, an achievement that not even the most enthusiastic pundit could have predicted when they were languishing in the fourth tier just six seasons ago.
Formed in 1910, Gazélec have had a long yet unspectacular history. After quietly pottering around the lower divisions for the vast majority of their life, the club rose to national prominence in 2012, the year in which they finally made it to the second tier of French football for the first time in their history, whilst simultaneously embarking on a remarkable run in the Coupe de France.
Several brilliant performances saw them rocket through the competition and into the semi-finals, knocking out the likes of Toulouse and Montpellier in the process (the latter club would go on to win the Ligue 1 title that season).
They met their match in the penultimate round, however, and were comfortably thrashed 4-0 by eventual cup winners Olympique Lyonnais.
Undeterred by their elimination, Gazélec’s cup heroics seemed to instill a sense of hope and purpose into the tiny island club. Almost exactly six years ago, at the start of the 2009-10 season, they were starting life in the Championnat de France Amateur, the fourth tier of French football, with many predicting that they would have a solid yet unspectacular season.
Instead, they went on to narrowly miss out on promotion after finishing in second place, just two points behind winners Gap at the end of an extremely close campaign.
They then went one better the following year and topped the table at the end of an even more impressive season, one in which they racked up a huge 102 points, picking up 20 wins in the process.
The third tier brought even more joy for the Corsicans, as, undeterred by many having written off their chances of success, they held their own in the Championnat National to earn themselves a third-place finish and a spot in Ligue 2 for the first time in their history, baffling pundits in the process.
(Gazélec actually would have topped the table if it weren’t for a fight that broke out between players and supporters during a game against Beauvais, which resulted in the club being deducted four points.)
Unsurprisingly, life in the second tier proved to be no walk in the park. Gazélec struggled immensely, finishing bottom of the table with just six victories from 38 games and 17 points behind 17th-place Laval, who finished just outside of the relegation zone.
This would prove to be just a mere setback, however, and another impressive showing in the Championnat National – once again they finished in third place, although this time they ended the campaign 10 points clear of their nearest challengers – sent them back up to Ligue 2 after just one season away.
Based on their previous showing in the 2012/13 season, it is unsurprising that pundits wrote them off completely. Almost everybody predicted that they would be relegated once again, whilst the majority of those predictions had them lying bottom of the pile.
However, in true Gazélec fashion, last year proved to be the best of the lot. Their home record was superb, with 13 of their 18 victories coming at Stade Ange-Casanova, no doubt a result of the homely feel of what is a very classic stadium with an intimate and raucous atmosphere thanks to the club’s small but dedicated fan base.
Throughout an excellent campaign, Gazélec did exactly what every side, especially a newly promoted one, needs to do if they are to find success: work like a team, in every sense of the word.
Whilst no player scored more than eight goals (Tunisian midfielder Mohamed Larbi, arguably their most impressive performer, finished top of the pile) 14 different players found the back of the net during the course of the campaign, with goals spread evenly across a forward line that bagged themselves a total of 24.
Those may be slightly unspectacular statistics, but they tell a story in themselves. Lacking the skill, not to mention the financial clout, of many other Ligue 2 sides, they brought their individual strengths together to make themselves a formidable opponent, one that lost only two games in the final half of the season, helping to guide them to a second-place finish.
They were also able to sign several experienced players ahead of the start of the campaign, and each signing played an incredibly important role as the side continued their climb up the table.
Thirty-five-year-old defender Jérémie Bréchet, signed from Bordeaux on a free transfer, was one of those. The former Olympique Lyonnais, Sochaux and PSV centre-back proved to be an excellent signing, and in his first (and so far only) season in Ligue 2 he helped guide Gazélec to 14 clean sheets in his 28 league appearances.
Just in front of him, offering vital protection to the back four, was David Ducourtioux, the 37-year-old former Valenciennes defensive midfielder, who made 35 appearances during the course of the season, the highest of any Gazélec outfield player.
Both veterans have remained with the club over the summer and will no doubt play incredibly important roles throughout the forthcoming season.
Manager Thierry Laurey, who has been at the club since February 2013 and has successfully guided them to two promotions since taking over, has also done well to strengthen his squad during this summer, ahead of what is sure to be an extremely tough season in the top flight.
Cameroonian striker Jacques Zoua – who spent last year on loan with Kayseri Erciyesspor in Turkey, where he scored eight goals – has joined on a free from Bundesliga outfit Hamburg, whilst they have also managed to pick up Dutch central midfielder Damjan Đoković, who looked solid for Livorno during his time on loan with the Serie B side last season.
Highly-rated 21-year-old Guinean left-back Issiaga Sylla will also feature for the club after joining on loan from Toulouse in a move that will no doubt benefit both parties immensely.
Unsurprisingly, French football pundits have once again predicted doom and gloom for Gazélec, claiming that they will fail to handle the big boys of Ligue 1. Their meteoric rise from the fourth tier has been truly spectacular, but there is a feeling that a ceiling has well and truly been reached.
Life in the top flight is certainly going to be incredibly tough and will push everyone involved with the club to the very limit. However, there is no doubt that it is set to be one hell of a ride, and one that Gazélec, just like in seasons past, cannot wait to sink their teeth into.