OGC Nice: From Ligue 1 strugglers to Champions League challengers

    Story highlights

    • In 2014 Nice were battling relegation
    • Club of verge of Champions League qualification

    (CNN)Jean-Pierre Rivère looks like a film star. Elegantly dressed and with silver hair, he wouldn't look out of place at the Cannes Film Festival.

    But you won't find the Frenchman on the red carpet in the French Riviera. Instead, he's just along the coast in Nice where, as president of the city's Ligue 1 club, Rivère has been a key actor in the team's remarkable transformation.
      In 2014, Rivère watched on as his club avoided relegation from the French top flight on the final day of the season.
      Less than three years later, Rivère's youthful side -- complemented with a smattering of experience -- is on the brink of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in 57 years.
      He estimates a place in the group stages could earn Nice more than 50% of its entire annual budget, but Rivere admits, as has been the case throughout his ownership, he won't be getting carried away even if they do get past the qualifying stage.
      "It will be very hard to reach the group stage. But if we make it, it will be like winning the jackpot for us," he tells CNN at Nice's club shop.
      "We have a €45 million ($50 million) budget. If we make it to Champions League's group stage, we will get at least €25-30 million ($28-33 million), which is huge for us.
      "However, as we will only know by the end of August and the transfer markets closes end of August, and as we are financially prudent, we will reckon on Europa League and base our budget on this competition.
      "Champions League would be a great bonus for our club, but it is very uncertain for the moment."
      Reaching the Champions League group stages would be like hitting the "jackpot" for Nice, says Rivère.

      Laying the foundations

      Rivère insists "there's no particular secret" to Nice's recent success.
      "I believe we are a club with talented people. I am blessed to be surrounded by top-quality teams, which makes it possible for me to be very comfortable. We have people who work so well together.
      "We have a goal for our project and we stick to it. With football, everything goes so fast -- in one direction or the other -- so what really matters to me is the stability of a project."
      Nice's rise may have been rapid, but laying the foundations for the club's newly found success certainly wasn't.
      Having made his money in real estate on the French Riviera, Rivère took over at Nice in 2011, at which time the club had again only escaped relegation in the season's final fixture.
      Nice was "facing financial problems, sports problems, reputation problems," says Rivère.
      Two years later, Nice would move into the new 35,000-capacity Allianz Riviera -- a host venue for Euro 2016 -- and could begin to look forward to a brighter future.
      Later that same year, 80% of the club was acquired by a group of Chinese and American investors, headed up by Alex Zheng, president of hotels group Plateno, with Rivère retaining the other 20%.
      This season, the club's third-place finish in Ligue 1 has seen it qualify for the third Champions League qualifying round, the penultimate knockout phase.
      Nice's Allianz Riviera stadium, seen here in use at Euro 2016 for England vs. Iceland.

      Player recruitment

      On the pitch, manager Lucien Favre has found the ideal blend of youthful exuberance and wily experience to turn the club's fortunes around.
      The solid foundation in defense provided by former Bayern Munich center-back Dante, added to the attacking flair of Mario Balotelli and Jean Michael Seri has seen Nice record their highest league finish since 1975-76.
      Favre has even managed to tame the volatile Balotelli -- Rivère describes the Italian as a "good guy, a nice guy" -- with the Italian's 15 league goals proving crucial in the club's hunt for European football.
      But Nice's €45 million ($50 million) yearly budget is dwarfed by that of rivals Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Marseille, meaning Favre and Rivère have had to find other ways to ensure the club punches above its weight.
      "When you are a club like ours, with our current financial capacities, you can't hire top players," Rivère says with resignation.
      "So we have to make risky bets -- which turned out to be successful so far -- where we hire players who are talented but may be in a rough period of their career, and we try to make them enjoy football again, because we are a like a family business."
      Balotelli fits this player profile perfectly, as does the talented but frustratingly inconsistent winger Hatem Ben-Arfa.
      The Frenchman moved to Nice in 2015 following a difficult period in England and, thanks to glowing performances, was bought by PSG after just one season on the Riviera.
      But taking "risky bets" on the likes of Balotelli is just one part of the club's player recruitment policy, with Rivère and Favre -- who has reportedly attracted interest from Borussia Dortmund -- also placing an emphasis on promoting academy players into the first team.
      In a sport that demands immediate success and rarely affords youngsters the time to flourish at the highest level, no less than 10 of Nice's current squad plied their trade in the club's youth ranks and Rivère is convinced the rewards of this approach far outweigh the risks.
      "We've had to build a project," he says. "It was not easy, because the project was based on young players. We said: 'Ok, we will change the DNA of the club in terms of the playing style.'
      "We believed we had to become a club that plays quality football. You don't have to be afraid, when you give young players their first opportunity to play, to lose points.
      "The next season, these are points you will no longer lose. Those young players will help the team win. So I believe there is no particular secret. It is all about working as hard as possible, just like a business, in many areas."
      Nice's Ivorian midfielder Jean Michael Seri celebrates after scoring against AS Nancy Lorraine.

      Star player

      With so many youngsters thriving in a successful team, several of Nice's stars have naturally drawn admiring glances from Europe's biggest clubs.
      Seri has become one of the club's jewels after arriving from Portuguese club Paços de Ferreira as a rough diamond two years ago.
      The Ivory Coast international is reportedly a target for Arsenal and Tottenham, while last month he revealed his desire to one day play for Barcelona.
      Seri's influence on Nice this season shouldn't be underestimated -- in the season's penultimate match, the 25-year-old last week recorded 181 touches during his side's clash against Angers, the most of any Ligue 1 player in the past 10 seasons.
      Though Seri and Nice compliment each other nicely, Rivère is resigned to losing his star player if the right offer comes along.
      "Seri has become extremely strong since he joined us," Rivère says. "He confirmed his great talent. We don't want to let him go.
      "We've set a €40 million ($44.8 million) clause. If someone offers €40 million, we will perhaps have to accept it, but he really wants to stay and we want him to stay too. He is such a good player and a crucial element of the team."
      With the season now over, Rivère has time to reflect on the progress he and Nice have made.
      Keeping hold of the club's prized possessions will be difficult, although Rivère believes Nice's growing status no longer means they will be feeding off scraps in the transfer market.
      "We keep growing, but we don't forget the core values -- those of a homely club," he says. "And I think players enjoy working here. You can see it on the pitch.
      "I think now players don't look at OGC Nice the way they used to. After finishing fourth last season, third this season, we see that players feel like coming.
      "Beyond the pleasant quality of life in Nice, the sunny weather of the region, players feel like working here. So I hope we have a competitive team next season."