From philosophy class to top of the league? Nice’s new coach Farioli eyes first place in France

Unbeaten in six games so far Nice has secured away wins against defending champion Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco.

Francesco Farioli
Nice's head coach Francesco Farioli gives instructions during the French League One soccer match between Paris Saint Germain and Nice at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.Michel Euler (AP)

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Ten years ago Francesco Farioli was finishing his philosophy degree at an Italian university. Now he’s coaching Nice, an ambitious French side where the team’s captain is five years older than him.

Farioli’s path in soccer has been an unusual one and he never had a playing career of his own. But on Sunday the 34-year-old Italian coach has the chance to put Nice on top of the French league when it hosts Brest. A win will guarantee first spot for Nice.

Nice, which has been bankrolled by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe since 2019, is unbeaten in six games this season, securing away wins at defending champion Paris Saint-Germain and title contender Monaco.

Farioli’s making a name for himself, but his obscure path into soccer started at Florence university, where the philosophy student received the grade of 105 out of 110.

There, he wrote a thesis that was far removed from the norm called “Filosofia del Gioco. L’estetica del calcio e il ruolo del portiere” (Philosophy of the Game. The aesthetics of football and the role of the goalkeeper).

Goalkeepers have a unique wider vision of play and also have more time to observe what’s happening on the field than other players, who are squeezed for time on the ball and run more.

The position fascinated famed French author Albert Camus. He was a keen goalkeeper in his youth, which later earned him the mocking scorn of fellow literary great and friend Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus’ works dealt with themes of irrationality and absurdity, and he insisted that what he knew about human nature came about through studying soccer.

Farioli was a fast-learning student of the game.

It was while working as a goalkeeping coach at the Aspire Academy in Qatar that Farioli, who was continuing to write trenchant analytical pieces on his personal website, received a surprise phone call in late 2017 from an up-and-coming Italian coach called Roberto De Zerbi.

De Zerbi is now a highly rated coach with Brighton, which is third in the Premier League and De Zerbi’s remarkable transformation of that side has seen him linked with moves to bigger clubs.

When De Zerbi coached Serie A newcomers Benevento he recruited Farioli, who then worked alongside him at Sassuolo as goalkeeper coach.

De Zerbi’s tactical influence rubbed off on Farioli last season when he coached Turkish side Alanyaspor, before joining Nice as a surprise choice this summer on a two-year deal.

Midfielder Arnaud Lusamba, who played under Farioli at Alanyaspor, told So Foot magazine’s website recently that the team would watch videos of Brighton’s matches during away trips to study De Zerbi’s tactics.

Some of those have carried over into Nice’s style of play.

The two central defenders, the 39-year-old captain Dante and Jean-Clair Todibo, stay very close to each other to draw opposing forward players in, and so free up space behind for Nice to launch its own attacks.

“It’s what I’ve been asking (of my players) from the outset, to pay attention to the small details,” Farioli said. “We’ve improved a lot in certain areas of play. But we also have room for improvement in quite a few ways, such as finding solutions in a more fluid and dynamic way.”

The team’s transitional play worked to perfection against PSG, which was opened up with two lighting-fast counter-attacks when Nice won 3-2 two weeks ago. Strikers Terem Moffi and Gaetan Laborde combined well and scored in that game, offering a glimpse of a promising partnership.

Speaking after the PSG win, Farioli was quick to deflect praise.

“I would like to point out that, even though I’m the one who receives the praise, the result was the fruit of the labor of everyone inside the club,” he said, praising the club’s passionate fans. “They welcomed us back in an incredible way at 4:30 in the morning after our victory in Paris.”

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