Take Ipswich Town; then halve their budget, double their achievements, and you come up with Lille. The rise and rise of the French club is simply incredible, not to say incomprehensible. Stuck at the bottom of France's second division this time three years ago, little Lille have somehow dragged themselves up the greasy pole and are now preparing to take their Champions' League bow against Manchester United on Tuesday.
Who said romance was dead in football? The northern club of Lille, who may yet meet Les Garçons de Tracteurs in the latter stages of the Uefa Cup, have not won any silverware since 1955; they have never spent more than £1 million on a transfer; their most famous trainee is still the former French goalkeeper Bernard Lama; they play in the type of dilapidated old stadium that you might have found in our lower divisions five years ago; and yet they finished third in last year's French championship before defeating Parma in August's final qualifier to reach the Champions' League proper.
Much like Ipswich, Lille rely mostly on their home-grown players, such as Djezon Boutoille, Benoit Cheyrou and Christophe Landrin. There are a few "outsiders" who have been brought in for their experience, but this is largely a family club. And the symbolic father of the group is Vahid Halilhodzic, a tough disciplinarian, who took over the reins in July 1998.
Lille, who play a 4-5-1 or 4-3-2-1 formation, are strong defensively while remaining incisive in attack. Relying on spirit and hard graft rather than individual brilliance and a large budget, Halilhodzic's team have caught many by surprise. "No one saw us coming," he says in his Bosnian accent. "Lille is on the European map, but only in a cultural sense. Football-wise, we are nothing. And that is perhaps why we have done so well. I don't know how long this fairy tale will last, but we're going to enjoy ourselves."
The similarities with Ipswich do not end with Lille's rapid climb. Like the strong bond that exists between George Burley and chairman David Sheepshanks, so too Halilhodzic has developed a close rapport with Luc Dayan. Their mutual trust has been fundamental to Lille's success story, with the Nice-based money man Dayan leaving all football matters to his 48-year-old manager. "All over the world, not just in football, the relationship between chairman and manager is paramount," Halilhodzic says. "Nowadays, the key is to give support whether a manager is winning or losing. Without the appropriate backing, a manager cannot work properly. And if I can't work freely, then my players can't play freely."
Halilhodzic has specific methods, including the long-held belief that one should never field the same team twice in succession. Those who do not adhere to his views are banished; those willing to listen are made to feel very special. The list of successes includes the keeper, Gregory Wimbee, who has gone from bit-part player to best shot-stopper in last season's Championnat, and Pascal Cygan, an unknown second-division defender who is now wanted by several top European clubs, including Arsenal. Others, such as the Argentinian Fernando D'Amico and Frenchmen Sylvain N'Diaye and Dagui Bakari, have come of age under Halilhodzic's intensive tutelage.
"No matter what we have achieved so far," he says, "I am not getting carried away. Today, everyone is saying that my perfectionist ways are great for the club, but in the next few weeks I could lose three matches and be sacked because I was too demanding and made my players work too hard. It is a fickle business."
The Albanian international Edwin Murati, who says he is looking forward to resuming the battle he fought with David Beckham during the World Cup qualifier at St James' Park earlier this month, is the perfect example of a player who has found professional happiness at Lille. "I spent seven years with Paris Saint-Germain," he says, "and never felt fulfilled. Thanks to this coach, I'm now part of a close group. It is very satisfying and shows what you can achieve with confidence."
Mikkel Beck – once of Middlesbrough, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Queen's Park Rangers – is another player who has rediscovered both his scoring touch and his smile since joining Lille at the beginning of last season. The Danish international had, by his own admission, lost his way in his last 18 months in English football and needed to get back to basics. He could not have imagined the regime he was joining. "Compared to my time in England," he says, "the work we do here is unbelievable. People say that we finished third last year because the French league is weak, but that isn't true. The reason we do so well is because we function as a unit. We attack and defend as a team, and that explains why we are so solid.
"I've never experienced anything like Lille before. Every day at training, we are pushed to the limit, and once the physical work is finished we go to the video room and study the opposition meticulously. Nothing is left to chance. And, unlike English clubs such as Middlesbrough, when we lose a game at Lille we have to redouble our efforts in training – we can't just buy our way out of trouble."
The financial gulf that exists between clubs either side of the Channel is bigger than ever. Manchester United spent £50m on two players this summer; Lille's transfers totalled less than £1m. In fact, if Lille continue their policy, it would take them a generation to spend such an amount on players. "But you know," Halilhodzic says, "you can be rich and bad at football. We are poor, but that does not stop us from being competitive. If trophies were awarded for wealth, we would not stand a chance. Thankfully, we are able to compete on the field. We are always keen to show we can rival anyone."
On Tuesday, Lille will have the oppor-tunity to test their resolve to the full when they visit Old Trafford. This will be their first-ever match in the Champions' League, as last week's tie against Deportivo La Coruña was cancelled due to the tragedy in America. Players and coach are looking forward to the experience. "Nobody thought we could ever come this far, so we can play against United without any fear or complexes," says Halilhodzic, who faced English opposition on three occasions during his illustrious playing career with Nantes, Paris and the Yugoslavia national team, most notably in an Under-23 European Championship semi-final defeat of Tony Woodcock's England in 1978. "Manchester are an incredible winning machine. It's funny, because you know exactly how they're going to play, but there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop them. They're like a steamroller."
Nobody expects Lille to win, but their mere presence at Old Trafford will only enhance Halilhodzic's messianic image. Legend has it that last season, after Lille had won yet another match at their tiny, Dell-like Grimonprez-Jooris stadium, an excited father brought his son to the entrance of the team's dressing-room. "He wants to see God," the dad said. "God does not exist," replied the man who has performed miracles with little Lille.Reuse content