Lille reject English way to threaten French elite
They might boast wealthy co-owners but, four points clear in the race for the title, Les Dogues' rise is a triumph for long-term planning
Wednesday 23 March 2011
A huddle of supporters are waiting outside the training ground, hoping for a glimpse of their heroes. Pini Zahavi, the football "super-agent" who helped mastermind Roman Abramovich's Chelsea takeover, is waiting inside the offices for an audience with Frédéric Paquet, one of the club's two general managers. Waiting has become a way of life at LOSC Lille Métropole, the northernmost club in France's First Division, but it seems the patience is about to be rewarded.
Fifty-seven years after their last league title and 56 years after their last French Cup triumph, Lille are chasing a domestic Double. Next month Les Dogues ("the mastiffs") face Nice in the semi-finals of the French Cup, while they are four points clear at the top of Ligue 1 with 10 matches remaining.
LOSC – their former name was Lille Olympique Sporting Club – are on the move in every sense. Four years ago they took up residence in one of Europe's best appointed training grounds and from the summer of 2012 they will play at the Grand Stade Lille Métropole, a state-of-the-art 50,000-capacity arena currently under construction.
The club's main shareholder, the film producer Michel Seydoux, is not short of a euro or two, but this is not a story of success à l'anglaise, courtesy of a wealthy owner throwing his millions around. Lille's is a triumph of stability, good management and municipal co-operation.
Seydoux arrived in 2001, became president in 2002 and majority shareholder in 2004. A Parisian who visits once a week and attends all home matches, he has numerous business interests, including a restaurant in the capital. The other significant shareholder is Isidore Partouche, whose leisure group owns a string of casinos.
The new stadium, where 650 builders have been working since construction started a year ago, is central to Seydoux's plans. Lille initially had intended to redevelop the Stade Grimonprez-Jooris, which they left in 2004, but the project never get off the ground. For the last seven years they have played at the 18,000-capacity Stadium Lille Métropole, where an athletics track makes it hard to generate any atmosphere.
That should not be a problem at the Grand Stade, which will host one of the 2016 European Championship semi-finals. The stadium will have a retractable roof – a first in France – which can be used in bad weather and can be transformed at short notice into a 36,000-capacity indoor arena, the biggest in the country. One half of the playing surface will be laid on a platform which can be moved across the stadium to sit on top of the other, after which a giant screen can be erected to separate the empty end (containing the pitch) from what becomes an indoor venue. The stadium will be used for concerts, exhibitions and other sporting events.
The cost to LOSC? Rien du tout. The stadium is being built by the local authority, who will rent it out to the club. All revenue from ticket sales and commercial activity at Lille's matches – merchandising, food and drink, plus 7,000 places for corporate hospitality – will go to the club. Rudi Garcia, the team manager, says that moving to the stadium will swell Lille's annual budget from ¤60m (£52m) to ¤80m (£70m).
Moving to a stadium with a capacity nearly three times that of their current home might appear ambitious, but Lille were heartened by two league matches against Lyons which they played 130 miles away in Paris at the 80,000-seat Stade de France. It was filled both times, as it has been for some of Lille's Champions League matches.
"It will be a first for Europe," Paquet, the general manager, said of the move. "I don't think any club has gone from a stadium with an 18,000 capacity to one with a 50,000 capacity. We know it won't be easy, but we're expecting gates to average between 37,000 and 40,000.
"Lille has a population of one million and four million people live within a 50km [31 mile] radius. We know that to fill the stadium we need to have a good and successful team. That's what we're putting together. We're assembling a team capable of winning matches and winning trophies."
With the ground sorted, the club have been able to concentrate on other areas. They spent ¤20m (£17m) – all generated from their own resources – on a training ground at the Domaine de Luchin, which used to be a farm. The site is home to Lille's first-team squad, their youth academy and the club offices. The buildings have all been rebuilt or renovated, with an area of woodland converted into training pitches.
Lille's playing budget has also risen steadily. Lyons and Marseilles will remain the country's biggest spenders, but once the move to the new stadium is completed Lille expect to match Paris St-Germain, currently third in the French rich list. Lens, just 15 miles away, were traditionally Lille's biggest rivals, but now they see the likes of Lyons and Marseilles as their main competitors.
"We've always tried to set ourselves realistic targets," Paquet said. "If we're one of the top two or three clubs in France then we should be getting into the Champions League or the Europa League every year. We know that the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona are on another planet and that getting on a par with them is unrealistic at the moment, but we aim to become part of that group at the next level down in Europe."
Lille have qualified for the Champions League group stage three times in the last nine years and have failed to play in Europe only three times in that period. Continuity has been a key. Since 2002 they have had only two managers, Claude Puel, who left for Lyons three years ago, and Garcia, his successor.
Garcia has largely worked with the players he inherited, though two recent arrivals have helped his team become this season's leading scorers in France. Moussa Sow, a 25-year-old Senegalese signed from Rennes, and Gervinho, a 23-year-old Ivorian recruited from Le Mans, have scored 31 league goals between them in the current campaign.
Nevertheless, there could be changes ahead. Adil Rami, a central defender and mainstay of Laurent Blanc's France team, is moving to Valencia, while the Belgian Eden Hazard, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder, has attracted the interest of many, including Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Paquet said the club were determined to maintain the strength of their squad, even if some players leave. What if someone like Hazard moved for a fee of, say, ¤25m (£22m)? "More than that," Paquet said with a smile, before adding: "What's important to us in signing players is not the figure, but whether it's the right price. We try to buy well and sell well. Today the biggest transfer fee we have ever paid was for Gervinho, who cost ¤6m [£5.2m]. We are changing dimension, however, and perhaps we will exceed that in the future."
Garcia could also become a target for other clubs, although he insists he is happy at Lille, where he spent six years as a player in the 1980s. "It's a completely different club today," he said. "I remember how we always struggled to find proper pitches for training. Now the facilities are superb. We made the semi-finals of the French Cup in my time, but we were generally in the bottom half of the table. Now this is a club with legitimate European ambitions."
The manager, whose Spanish grandparents settled in France after fleeing the Franco regime, does not rule out a future move abroad. "I think the club recruited me because they wanted to go as high as they possibly could and I think it's important in life that you don't set any limit to your ambitions," he said. "There are other countries that interest me, like Spain and England, though I've always said that before you even think about going to work elsewhere you need to win something here in France."
Garcia is taking nothing for granted this season. "We've been accustomed in the past to being one of the group chasing the leaders and now we're the team everyone else is trying to catch," he said. "It's certainly easier to chase than to lead. Above all, there's much less media interest.
"But we certainly enjoy being where we are. The squad have been working together for two and a half years and understand how we want them to play. They have more confidence and more self-belief."
Les Dogues of war trio who have put glory within Lille's grasp
The 20-year-old is one of the most talented youngsters in European football and has been hailed as the best player in France this season. As well as perfect footwork he has the football brain to play in midfield and the pace to play wide. Hazard is the best of a promising generation of Belgian players and a target for Arsenal.
The top scorer in Ligue 1 so far this season with 19 goals, Sow has made a big impression in his first year at Lille. The 25-year-old striker, who plays international football for Senegal, joined from Rennes on a free transfer last summer. He is equipped with pace on the turn and both ruthlessness and agility when in front of goal.
Impressed many in last year's World Cup for Ivory Coast. He is a 23-year-old forward with the speed, technical ability and imagination to play up front or on the wing. Has scored 12 league goals this season. Joined from Le Mans in July 2009 and, like Hazard, has been linked with a move to Arsenal.
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