This article is part of Get Football’s European Player and Coach of the Season series, as we countdown our ranked top 12 in both categories to name the winners ahead of the Champions League final at the end of the month. Read every profile and see the full ranking right here.
Antoine Kombouaré was brought in towards the end of last season to extinguish the flames of a crisis that had engulfed Nantes. The ‘firefighter’ not only fulfilled his job description, by keeping the Breton club in Ligue 1, but has gone above and beyond, sparking the flames of an unexpected cup success, the memory of which is unlikely to diminish in the memories of Les Canaris fans any time soon.
But that’s about the extent to which Kombouaré can be pigeon-holed as a firefighter, a title which not only doesn’t suit him, but does an injustice to the person he is and the work he does. He isn’t a Tony Pulis at West Brom, a Sam Allardyce at Everton or a Nigel Pearson at Watford type appointment, he never could be. He has too much heart and commitment to be compared to such names, whose nomadic existence in English football in recent years engendered a sense of apathy.
That commitment doesn’t necessarily solely derive from an emotional attachment to the club from his playing days. Kombouaré began his playing career at the Breton side in 1983 and went on to make 177 appearances, but his commitment transcends football entirely. “For him, compared to everything else in life, football is secondary,” explained one of his former players Lucas Deaux (33) to Nice Matin. Dijon midfielder Deaux, who played under the New-Caledonian at Guingamp added, “In an end of season meeting which lasted 45 minutes, we only spent five talking about football.” Unlike most manager-player relationships, one gets the impression that the dynamic under Kombouaré is more personal than professional; his duty of care to his players outweighs any kind of professional obligation.
That care touchingly manifested itself prior to the side’s Coupe de France final against OGC Nice, and provided an aperture into Kombouaré’s ontological understanding of what his job truly entails. Speaking in an interview with Eurosport, Kombouaré broke down when told that 23-year-old striker Randal Kolo-Muani considers him almost as a father. Having regained his composure, he said, “We talk about commitment, we talk about duels, about winning but above all, these are relationships. What I’ve always said to my players is that these are father-son relationships.”
In such a milieu, Nantes’ youthful squad has thrived, surpassing any expectations that anyone, internal or external, had of a side that had only just scraped Ligue 1 survival months earlier. Only the loan signings of Wylan Cyprien (27) and Willem Geubbels (20) added to last season’s squad.
Under Kombouaré’s tutelage and buoyed by his unwavering father-like support, many within the group have gone on to have the best season of their careers. Kolo-Muani’s 12 Ligue 1 goals is the highest he has managed in his young career, Ludovic Blas (24) has hit double figures for consecutive years and Moses Simon (26) has registered a personal best number of assists in a league season. As a unit, they have all contributed towards Nantes’ highest goal-scoring tally in a Ligue 1 campaign since they won the competition back in 2000/01, setting them on their way to their highest points-scoring season in Ligue 1 since 2003/04.
That achievement may finally see Kombouaré rid himself of an unfair ‘defensive coach’ tag that he has shouldered for the vast majority of his coaching career. “It’s nonsense,” said Deaux in relation to the way that Komobuaré’s supposedly defensive style is perceived. “He was attentive to the way that we conceded goals, to our attitude, but he didn’t spend his time hammering home: “You have to concede fewer goals.”” Yet concede fewer goals they have. Defender Andrei Girotto (30) has also chipped in with six Ligue 1 goals of his own, but it is his defensive efforts which will be remembered this season, as Nantes edge towards achieving their best defensive record since the 2018/19 season, when they also conceded 48 goals.
Yet his caring nature is only an element of a more holistic man-management style. “He’s a leader of men by his presence, by his charisma. He has a character and an aura.” Yet this facet of the well-travelled manager has been largely concealed, constrained to the training fields and rarely exhibited to the wider public. The reason for that is rather simple. He isn’t some Jose Mourinho-esque semi-demagogue, populist figure. He is too philosophically oriented towards the collective, too eager not to detract from the achievements of his players on the pitch, to allow himself the spotlight. And that’s the crux of what makes Kombouaré special. It is never about him.
The narrative following their 1-0 Coupe de France final victory could so easily have been construed as some sort of redemption arc following his harsh dismissal by PSG at the beginning of the club’s Qatari ownership. But the shoe simply doesn’t fit. For Kombouaré, this was never about redemption, it was about bringing success and joy to a club, a fan base and a group of players for which he holds great affection. Thanks to him, the once-great behemoths of the French game will return to Europe. It will be the first time that the former Champions League semi-finalists will play in European competition since the defeat to Czech side Slovan Liberec in the Intertoto Cup in 2004.
Bringing stability to this inherently volatile club may not be Kombouaré’s lasting legacy; it is simply outside of his sphere of influence. However, in writing this beautiful cup story, he has created a moment in time that will be forever cherished by the club’s fans and its players. Whatever happens next, Kombouaré’s legacy at Nantes is assured, and it is one that will transcend football, becoming something even more holistic and nourishing in a time where managerial reigns can feel so transitory and emotionless.