This weekend marked an historic achievement for GFCO (or Gazélec) Ajaccio who remarkably got promoted to Ligue 1 despite spending just 2 seasons ever in Ligue 2. What is even more eye-catching is how the road taken by this small club is in complete contradiction with its more powerful neighbour AC Ajaccio.
Indeed, the biggest of the two Ajaccio clubs is on the brink of going down to National (or Division 3). Despite being the 2nd biggest club of the island (behind the uncontested #1: SC Bastia), ACA find themselves 4th bottom in Ligue 2 just a point and a goal clear of Orléans. This column will not go into too much detail regarding the consequences of a second relegation in as many years (they finished bottom of Ligue 1 last season) for ACA, but a chronological story of the two entities that make football in the Corsican capital.
Football in Ajaccio came to life in 1910 with the birth of AC Ajaccio (ACA), 5 years after their historical rival – Bastia – was founded. The early years in the Corsican capital saw the birth of a couple of other more modest football clubs but the general idea was to already establish competition with Bastia. It worked; as encounters are to this day fierce from the word go with players sometimes refusing to finish the games when refereeing decisions are perceived to have gone in a particular team’s way. But that’s for another entry.
ACA’s other rivalry was with the town’s other club: FC Ajaccio. The encounters were generally one-sided and FC Ajaccio remained too weak to compete with its neighbours. The local bragging rights went to ACA until 1960 when FC Ajaccio had the opportunity to merge with a cooperative club founded by workers of the national electricity company (EDF) called Gazélec Ajaccio, which was founded 4 years prior in 1956.
Thus was born a more viable rival to ACA, the GFCA, the Gazélec FC Ajaccio. In 1961, GFCA gained promotion to the CFA (Championnat de France Amateur) which is the highest non-league division in which they get to play against French football’s finest South-Western clubs’ second strong outfits (Lyon, Monaco, Saint-Etienne). The late 1960s was a roaring success for GFCA as they won 4 CFA titles. Meanwhile, ACA decide to become a professional club in 1965, 30-odd years after professional football was created back in 1932. GFCA are quite happy to be an amateur club and let their neighbours represent Ajaccio on a nationwide scale. A wise choice.
In 1972, ACA enter into deep financial troubles and are in real danger of going bankrupt. Out of desperation, ACA ask their neighbours to merge into one big Ajaccio club. GFCA refuses as it still wishes to remain an amateur football club. This leaves ACA bankrupt, its professional accreditation taken away from them which brings a long period (a bit less than 20 years) of non-league anonymity to the club. During that period ,GFCA play in a higher league than ACA.
Not much happens to either club in the 1980s. GFCA stay in the CFA divisions while ACA remain in the DH (division d’Honneur) divisions. The 1990s is where things change drastically.
For ACA, the nightmare begins to end in 1992 when a 3-men strong team of managers made the statement that they will get ACA back in the top division in 10 years’ time (fittingly, Ajaccio gained promotion to Ligue 1 in 2002, 10 years later). In 6 years, the club manages to go from Promotion d’Honneur (PH, which is the 7th tier) to Ligue 2, back in the professional threshold of French Football in 1998.
Meanwhile, at GFCA, the club becomes ambitious and finally wants to become a professional club. It is via another merger with Olympique Ajaccio (which establishes the club we now know it as Gazélec FC Olympique Ajaccio or GFCO Ajaccio) in 1996 that enables the club to realistically gain professional status via the league.
However, despite finishing 2nd of the 3rd division in 1999, GFCO Ajaccio are denied promotion to Ligue 2 because their neighbours got there first! Indeed there was a rule back in the late 90s that forbade a town of less than 100,000 people to have two professional clubs in the same division (why and how the football authorities came up with such a ridiculous rule is beyond all of us). The whole footballing world was disgraced and GFCO Ajaccio were backed by many league members (including ACA’s dear friends Bastia). The rule has now been scratched but GFCO Ajaccio were unfairly denied access to Ligue 2 basically because ACA got promoted a year before. (This piece of historical irony does not add any kind of fuel to the rivalry between the two Ajaccio clubs but is more of a damning testament of French administration rigidity at its finest.)
Onto the 2000s decade. ACA get promoted to the top division in 2002 (as planned) and stay there for 4 seasons. It rekindles its rivalry at the very top with Bastia but in truth they remained a lower-half/relegation fodder until relegation hits the club in 2006. Ajaccio have to wait five years to gain another promotion to the top tier in 2011 before finishing bottom last May. Fastforward to the modern day and they may very well find themselves back in the 3rd division for the first time since 1998 if they don’t beat Arles-Avignon (who are already relegated) on Friday evening.
Meanwhile, GFCO Ajaccio finally received its professional status in 2012 and was it is finally given the right to play in the second division for the first time in its history. Things did not go well for the club as they finished bottom of Ligue 2 in 2013, but two back-to-back promotions sees the club on the eve of its first ever season in France’s top division.
Looking back at both clubs’ history, it does look like the traditional Ajaccio club (ACA) has gone through quite a few periods of mismanagement (the premature decision to become professional, the failed merger, 20 years playing in the lower league doldrums) compared to its more modest brother. This answers a rather antiquated notion that ACA is Ajaccio’s more stable and financially sound club and begs the following question: with such acute management skills throughout GFCO Ajaccio’s (short) history and top-draw decisions (not wanting to merge with ACA, taking the leap to professional football at the right time), is it that improbable that the club with the smallest Ligue 1 budget ever (4.5M€) might survive and surprise most next season in the top tier?