Thierry Henry's Monaco woes highlighted by Vahid Halilhodzic's stunning return to Nantes
Thierry Henry's return to Monaco has made a lot of headlines around the world, but in recent weeks there was another emotional comeback by a great former striker in France, which -- while lacking in global attention -- could turn out to be more significant.
While former Arsenal superstar Henry is still winless in five matches as a manager, suffering an especially humiliating 4-0 home thrashing at the hands of Club Brugge in the Champions League on Tuesday, Vahid Halilhodzic is flourishing at Nantes. With three Ligue 1 wins in a row, he's taken the Canaries from the relegation zone to 10th place. Add the League Cup triumph at high-flying Montpellier, and Nantes are counting 14 goals in four fixtures.
They are playing confident football with magnificent attacking flair, and the Argentine striker Emiliano Sala just can't stop scoring. He found the net seven times in those four matches, including a hat trick in the 4-0 win over Toulouse on Halilhodzic's home debut. Overall, he has 10 Ligue 1 goals to his name. Kylian Mbappe is just one goal ahead of him at the top of the scoring charts. In fact, no Nantes striker had had such a superb start to any season since ... Halilhodzic himself in 1984.
That is the most important part of the phenomenal script. Halilhodzic is a legend at Nantes, arguably the most successful foreigner to wear the yellow-and-green shirt. Not for nothing was the Bosnian elected by fans into the best-ever XI when the club celebrated their 75th anniversary in April.
Yugoslavia didn't release players abroad before their 28th birthday at the time, and that is why Halilhodzic wasn't allowed to join Nantes until 1981. Ageing, carrying an injury and struggling to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings during his first season in France, he was heavily criticised, but he eventually became the best striker in France. He was the top scorer with 27 goals when Nantes ran away with the title in 1982-83, and bettered his personal record to 28 goals in 1984-85 when the Canaries finished as runners-up. Overall, Halilhodzic netted 111 times in 192 appearances. Fans loved him and teammates adored him.
"Vahid was the best footballer I played with. He was able to do everything," former France defender Patrice Rio once said. Such was the excitement that club president Louis Fonteneau offered him a contract for life. Halilhodzic refused, demanding impossible wages on purpose to scupper the deal and explaining his desire to return home in 1986 in order to spend time with his terminally ill father.
Just a few weeks later, though, he signed for Paris Saint-Germain, who made an offer that was "impossible to refuse," according to the striker himself. For the Nantes faithful, that was a bitter pill to swallow, and that is probably the reason why Halilhodzic wasn't accepted with open arms when he wanted to return as a coach.
At the outset of the 1990s, he repeatedly voiced his willingness to join the technical staff of the legendary Nantes coach Jean-Claude Suaudeau, but to no avail. Eventually, Halilhodzic made a name for himself after taking over at Lille and leading the modest club from the depths of the second division to Champions League qualification.
The decision to join Nantes' regional rivals Rennes in 2002, and then to take over at PSG in 2003, wasn't too popular with the Canaries' fans either, and Halilhodzic didn't return to France after failing in the capital. Instead, he mostly specialised in coaching national teams, helping three of them to qualify for World Cups but coaching only one at the tournament.
That one time was a very successful adventure, as Algeria reached the round of 16 in 2014 and narrowly lost to Germany in extra-time, but the other two experiences were painful. Ivory Coast sacked Halilhodzic just four months before the 2010 World Cup, and Japan controversially threw him out this April, preventing him from going to Russia in the summer. That was especially traumatic, and could have spelled the end of the 66-year-old's career.
Lucky for him, Nantes thought otherwise, and the time was right for the belated homecoming. More than 32 years after leaving Stade de la Beaujoire, the great striker was finally back as the man to rescue the Canaries from a crisis, replacing Miguel Cardoso in October.
But while veteran fans were understandably nostalgic, the decision wasn't accepted by all the supporters, and there are two reasons behind that.
First, Nantes fans are extremely angry with owner Waldemar Kita, who has changed 14 coaches since taking over 11 years ago, never giving them time to settle. "The tension between supporters and management is at its peak," Maxime Thomas, local supporter and editor of a Nantes fans' website, told ESPN FC. "Cardoso only arrived in the summer and promised to play attractive football. A lot of fans were disappointed when he was fired and demanded Kita to leave the club."
Second, Halilhodzic was considered a defensive-minded coach. That image goes back to his glory days at Lille, when organisation and discipline were more important than style. "For long decades in the 20th century, Nantes were associated with the beautiful game -- jeu a la nantaise -- and people want to see it again," Ouest-France journalist Pierre-Hakim Ouggourni told ESPN FC. "They were afraid it won't be possible with Halilhodzic. After a boring season with Claudio Ranieri in 2017-18, they didn't want to witness the same attitude again."
And yet, fond memories aren't so easily erased, and the club's former idol was received as a hero. "As a player, Vahid symbolises the era when Nantes won by playing well," 20 Minutes reporter David Phelippeau told ESPN FC. Could he possibly bring the excitement back? Early results suggest so, and -- unlike the inexperienced Henry -- Halilhodzic has produced an immediate turnaround.
"You see that I am not a defensive coach. I am a former striker. A lot of bulls--- had been written about me. One day, I will put all of it in a book, and it will be a huge bestseller," Halilhodzic joked last Sunday after dismantling Guingamp 5-0 to the delight of the crowd.
Training sessions are harder now, but the players have responded very well and seem to enjoy the change. "Cardoso based his management on the intellectual aspect, and his tactics were not easy to understand," Thomas said. "Vahid is more pragmatic, he wants warriors on the pitch."
Bigger tests await, though, and one of the spiciest is coming up on Sunday when Nantes travel to Rennes for a hotly anticipated derby. The Canaries haven't beaten their bitter rivals since 2013, and that was their only win over Rennes in the last 13 years. If Halilhodzic manages to take three points from his former club, the revolution would definitely be underway. The spirit of the 1980s could be back for one of the France's most historically important clubs.