Two young players. Both who started their professional career at Nice, both born and raised in southeast France. But nearly opposite in all other ways; or at least, that’s how it appears. Vincent Koziello is the baby-faced blond, the type of guy you would trust to help your grandma cross the road, the boy who graduated high school with full marks. Alexy Bosetti is the tattooed ultra with more than one politically incorrect incident on his record. The dichotomy between the midfielder and the striker seems vast; however, the two could be equally essential to saving les Aiglons and their ambitions for this season.
Ligue 1 has been a PSG-only affair over the last few seasons. Previously, Olympique Marseille, Saint-Étienne and Olympique Lyon had enjoyed international success. But Nice has never been one of the top teams in France. So last season came as something of a surprise, finishing fourth – way above expectations – and securing a place in the Europa League group stage. The success of 2015-16 was down to the clever choices of coach Claude Puel, along with the personal exploits of players like Valère Germain, Jérémy Pied, Nampalys Mendy and, of course, the “revenant” Hatem Ben Arfa.
Then the winds of change blew throughout the summer. Claude Puel, who brought to Nice a different style of play, more offensive and focused on possession, left the sunny French Riviera for Southampton, trying his chances in the Premier League. Several key players left as well: Germain, who had 14 goals for Nice last season, went back to Monaco; Mendy, the promising center-back, moved to Leicester; Pied followed Puel to become a Saint; and the absolute star of last year’s team, Hatem Ben Arfa, took his (probably last) chance to play for a big team and signed a new contract with Paris Saint-Germain. Now, with Ligue 1 just beginning, Nice find themselves in a very different (and indeed difficult) situation.
The transfer window is not yet closed, but the newly arrived do not seem to be at the level of their predecessors. Pre-season matches showed nothing brilliant, apart from a decent 0-0 against Sporting Portugal. Last but not least, hearts are heavy, as the attacks of July 14 certainly compromised the carefreeness of a city that, at this time of the year, still bustles with tourists. One month after the tragedy, Nice chose to wear a commemorative shirt for their first Ligue 1 match, a touching tribute to the victims with the public dressed in white as well.
Now Lucien Favre, most recently coach at Borussia Mönchengladbach, must deal with the lack of certitudes and wealth of challenges. He acknowledges that this will be a year of transition, that his main goal must be to build a team from scratch. And despite their young age, these two men can be the pillars upon which the team is constructed this season.
The younger of the two, Koziello, was born in 1995 in Grasse, a small town in Provence, the perfume capital of the world (please feel free to add your own “scented” or “nosed out” joke here). Physically, he still looks like a boy, at 1.63 m and 60 kilos. From the start he knew that his physique would penalize him, and, in order to succeed, he would need to prove better than his academy teammates. But despite his efforts, AS Cannes, his first team, discarded him because he was “too minute”.
Luckily, Nice bet on him and won; Koziello was one of their best last season. A key man in the dynamic midfield, Puel’s tactics allowed Koziello to showcase his abilities and quality, emphasizing quickness and passing rather than physical play, which cleared all doubts regarding his value as a player.
But, as he recently admitted to France Football, “his counter is back to zero” this season, and must prove his value once more. There remains room for significant improvement, but at just 21 years old, he has time. The talent is there and the attitude is the right one. It’s said that Koziello is normally the last player to leave training, and therefore he’s the one who locks up the changing rooms. He’s there because he’s still concentrating on bodybuilding exercises, trying to overcome the limits of his physique.
No longer the youngest, the midfielder now must take on more responsibilities – but he doesn’t see himself as a leader, or a future captain. Shy and discreet, he doesn’t speak much in the changing rooms, but prefers to look at more experienced players, like Paul Baysse and Mathieu Bodmer.
With his polite smile and his schoolboy face, he reckons one thing has changed for him after last season: he gets recognized in the streets, more and more often. However, when interviewed, Koziello maintains a low profile and is always very humble, as if he were a caricature of understatement.
Flip the coin and you have Bosetti, a 23-year-old center-forward who spent last season on loan (unsuccessfully) to two teams: Tours, in the second division, and Sarpsborg 08, a Norwegian club who cut the loan short in April. In fact, the most remarkable achievement of his career to date was the U20 World Cup win in 2013, alongside France teammates Paul Pogba, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Lucas Digne, and Mario Lemina. His stats are unexceptional: 10 goals in 75 appearances with Les Aiglons between 2012 and 2015.
But Bosetti is so much more than a list of numbers to Nice. He is a born and raised niçois (although it’s better to say nissart, in Nice’s dialect), an ultra who followed the team even while playing in their academy. After he scores, he likes to celebrate by ripping off his shirt and displaying his tattoos. On his shoulder is a massive skull with a knife through his head, the symbol of the Brigade Sud ultras group; an eagle with the words “Mentalità Nissarda” flies across his chest; a portrait of Jacques Médecin, the city’s mayor from 1966-1990, is inked on his forearm.
The gesture cost Bosetti when he tore off his kit in January 2014. Marseille supporters – Nice’s eternal rivals – had been taunting him throughout the match, and the forward responded by displaying his colors after scoring a goal. He couldn’t resist, even though it cost him a one-match suspension. Worse, though, was the time he mimed the collapse of the Furiani terrace in front of Bastia fans, mocking the deaths of 18 of their own in 1992.
For Bosetti, the ultra often wins out over the footballer, which affects his career. It’s likely why Puel sent him on loan last season. His former teammate Éric Bauthéac has said he needs to “calm down” and even his fellow ultras recognize it’s necessary. However, Favre must be hoping that Bosetti’s passion for the team will guide him this season, helping to cover, at least in part, the hole left by Ben Arfa’s departure.
Nice have made the choice to invest in young players this season, meaning they have one of the lowest average ages in Ligue 1. They got off to a fine start in their first match, beating Rennes 1-0 thanks to a header from 17-year-old central defender Malang Sarr. But the season is long and they have Europa League matches to concern themselves with as well. So while both Koziello and Bosetti are young, they’ll be looked to as veterans to guide the squad into a successful season.
Character-wise, these two could hardly be more different. This season, one seeks confirmation of his worth, the other revenge for having been sent away from his beloved team. But both have something to prove. In the end, Koziello and Bosetti are simply two sides of the same coin.