Interview conducted by Ludovic Duchesne and Norman Staron
What would the young Antoine, who arrived in 1983 from Nouméa (capital of New Caledonia, ed) say to today’s Antoine?
Antoine Kombouaré: He simply said ‘well done, I’m happy with what you’re doing, but don’t stop there’.
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You arrived here as a player, today you are here as a manager … Is FC Nantes a club for you?
There is always the same spirit. When I got here, I was 19, I was finding out. And I think I kept that spirit, the game, the game to win. It is true that the media have translated my journey into someone who loves commitment. Yes, but I’ve always liked scoring goals. I was a distraught defender. Even in my playing career, I enjoyed scoring goals.
What has changed is the notoriety of FC Nantes, which have become an “average” club …
A club that got in line. It is clear that between the Nantes I met and the Nantes of today … It is a club that, last season, played the maintenance, in difficulty. Who has fallen twice in Ligue 2. You have to accept it, this economic evidence. But you have to fight. This is what we are doing. Last year we arrived, the club was dying. And, all of us, we have done what is necessary to keep the team in Ligue 1, to save the club. And there today is the place of FC Nantes, to play in the top ten, however to try. And then making a Coupe de France final is the icing on the cake.
Was it your biggest victory, giving color to this club? It was a bit of a suicide mission, many coaches would not accept …
I refused at first, don’t be afraid to say it. And it is true that with the support of my assistants, some people of my family… Finally, faced with this suicide mission, I said to myself ‘with my staff, how can I help my favorite club?’. I told my deputies that we had to try to give everything we had and that if it didn’t work out, we would try to help. And then it worked, it’s our biggest win. With the staff, because I’m not alone, and with the players. Today we are, what we are doing is exceptional.
Blas told me ‘coach, don’t worry, I’ll take the group to the Stade de France’
The iconic player is Ludovic Blas, whom you have completely revived …
I don’t really like reducing it to a player’s performance. It is first of all the club, the identity of the club, which emerges most strongly from this complicated passage. But it’s true that if there’s one player you need to stand out, it’s Ludo. I knew him, I was one of his first coaches at Guingamp. I knew the problem with him and how to try to get him exhibited. He took responsibility. I gave him the armband in the Coupe de France, I never thought about it at that moment. He told me ‘coach, don’t worry, I’ll take the group to the Stade de France’. But he didn’t tell me if we would win (laughs) “.
Antoine Kombouaré congratulates Ludovic Blas, who scored two goals during Nantes-Brest.
You have an image of Fouettard or a soldier, but when you hear the players talking, there is a lot of affection. Randal Kolo Muani said he almost considered you his father …
(He takes a long pause, very moved.) He is human. Of course we talk about commitment, we talk about duels, we talk about winning but these are only human relationships. With my players, it’s a father-son relationship, yes.
Didn’t that happen? What makes you bring this group, in trouble last year, to the Stade de France?
Certainly. There is also a bit of tactics, physics. But it’s transforming players, telling them we love them, that we trust them. Also tell him when things are bad. And move forward together, regardless of the outcome. It can sinter a little, I like it, not a problem. Once we have opened our hearts, we always leave together.
As a coach, you have known a thousand lives. But Nantes, is it perhaps stronger than the one you had known before?
Last year it’s simple, when we arrived there were 14 league games to play. We have won one game out of two. We got 21 points and, despite that, we made it to the play-offs. Sometimes there are crazy bets like that, you don’t have to think too much, you have to start. We have worked, but there is something, the good Lord who is with us, the family, the elderly. As they say in Tahiti, there is the Evil One, the spirit that is there. And then, there is this year which is the continuity of what we have put in place. And the ending, which should reward our work.
Let’s talk about the match, the fans in good standing and Nantes that can win a trophy …
It is the success of everyone, of the staff, there is a lot to work on. And then it’s the success of the players, always. I have fantastic players. We are working to give them confidence, but it is the players who make the effort and score the goals. And be careful, it is also the success of the fans. They managed to compartmentalize. The problems they have with Mr. Kita, they put them aside. When they come, it is to support the team and see FC Nantes win games.
I still haven’t found the formula to beat Nice and Galtier
Did the tide after the victory against Monaco hit you too?
I am very sensitive to people’s emotions, to what people give us. When I see popular jubilation, communion … Let’s do this job for that. I tell them, the players. Earning is one thing, winning trophies is one thing, but when you see a stadium explode, people say ‘thank you’ … We took their troubles away for an hour and a half that they have at home. We have succeeded several times. Against PSG, against Monaco, against Lens.
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The Coupe de France is for you. You earned it as a player, as a manager …
This will be my fifth final. Of the first four we have won three and we have lost one. I like this competition because it is very popular, an amateur club can beat a professional club. I think it’s one of the most watched finals. He makes all footballers dream. When you’ve tasted it, you want to go back and win it, raise the cup.
You will not be favorites there, against a big club that wants to become one of the best in France …
It gives itself the means. Today it is a team with talented players, future players, a powerful shareholder. But that’s the beauty of sport. I told you, in the Coupe de France, it is often the little ones who win against the big ones. We are the little ones. To be honest with you, since I have coached Nantes, I have not yet found the formula to beat this Nice team and especially my friend Christophe Galtier. If we have waited all this time to finally win the final, I will sign immediately.
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Are you already thinking about the message you intend to convey to the player?
It is a week in which we will work calmly, without changing anything, and above all we will enjoy the moment. It is a strong, special moment that must be savored. It just has to be fun, come on Saturday and play a good football match. Don’t play the game first, it comes tense, tense. I do not like. I want it to be a festive game that we play. That we concede goals, yes, but that we score. I sign for a 5-4.
If you win the Coupe de France, do you know that you will not be able to leave Nantes?
We’ll see (smiles). I’m very good. I am not only a happy coach, but also a happy man. I’m at home here.
Antoine Kombouaré, Nantes coach, during Monaco – Nantes, 6 August 2021
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