When Marc Ingla and Ferran Soriano set up Cluster Consulting together in 1993, they did not know it was a partnership that would transform football history, and how could they? They were two ambitious 27-year-old management consultants in Barcelona, who wanted to make a splash in the world of technology consulting.
10 years and plenty of success later Ingla and Soriano were elected to the FC Barcelona board. The club had lost its way but their direction, under president Joan Laporta, laid the foundations for the greatest football team of all time, four Champions Leagues in nine years, and FC Barcelona becoming the biggest brand in sport.
Today Soriano and many of his old Barcelona colleagues, including Txiki Begiristain, work for Manchester City. Not just trying to make City giants of the Premier League and Champions League, but to build a global network of franchised clubs. It is perhaps the most ambitious football marketing project in history.
And Ingla? He is the new director general of Lille OSC and is enthusiastically explaining to The Independent in his office how the management lessons he learned at Barcelona can be transferred to Ligue 1.
This is a very different world from Barcelona or even from Soriano’s offices in Manchester and New York. Lille are based at Domaine de Luchin, a charming little complex on the Franco-Belgian border, that has the feel of a remote rural university.
But these cloisters could be home to one of the most ambitious projects in European football in the next few years. Last year the club was bought by Gerard Lopez, the billionaire investor and owner of Lotus F1 team. He appointed Ingla, former Monaco chief scout Luis Campos and legendary Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielsa, who was unveiled last month. There is an exciting sense of a fresh start here, a blank slate, which is rare at the serious end of the European game.
For Ingla that newness, and the freedom it bestows, is very familiar. “It is exciting and it reminds me very much of 2003, when we took over the board of FC Barcelona,” Ingla says. “The socios saw a group of young kids coming from outside of football, and we managed to transform the club and turn it around. Somehow, I am feeling the same energy here and frictions, to make a turnaround of this club.”
It takes effort to remember now just how much of a mess Barcelona were in in June 2003, after the failed presidency of Joan Gaspart. They finished sixth that season and had not won La Liga since 1998-99. They had slipped down to 13th in the ranking of European clubs by revenue, bringing in half as much money that year as Manchester United.
Laporta, Soriano and Ingla could have pursued a policy of austerity to get the club finances back on track but instead went in the opposite direction. They wanted to create a ‘virtuous circle’, spending on better players, making a better team that would be more popular and marketable, in turn bringing in more commercial revenue.
“No matter how distressed you are financially and sporting wise,” Ingla explains, “the only means to have a positive dynamic and to generate more resources and to be competitive is to invest. Invest in the sporting project, and make few mistakes. That is what we are doing here.”
Ingla’s first Barcelona job, as vice-president for marketing and media affairs, was to use the team to bring in money through sponsorship and TV deals. His work with Soriano, as management and strategy consultants, was the perfect preparation.
“Together with Soriano , we applied management techniques that worked for other industries, like fast-moving consumer goods, utilities or telecoms,” Ingla says. “We exported that into the world of football where, even in amazing brand clubs, the level of professionalism is very low, the level of amateurism is very high. There is amazing room for improvement in many clubs, especially mid and low-level clubs.”
So there is big room for improvement at Lille too. The ‘virtuous circle’ means Ingla wants change in all aspects. “We have to shake it in all fronts,” he explains. “The sporting front, the economic front, the commercial front, the image projection front.”
But Barcelona were a still huge club even at their lowest ebb in 2003. Their European Cup win at Wembley was only 11 years before. Lille have only ever won three French titles. So how can they possibly succeed on the ‘image projection front’, even up against Paris Saint Germain, Monaco and Marseille?
Ingla points to their “strong football tradition” and the fact that they produced Eden Hazard, now one of the best players in the world. “We have good assets and good footballistic heritage to do a nice story, going forward,” he says. Ingla points to the immense potential in their “phenomenally connected” area. Lille is one hour from London, Paris and Brussels, with 76 million people within a 300km radius.
But there is no getting past the fact that for all this to work and the virtuous circle to kick in, Lille are going to have to be very good. Their target is to come fifth in Ligue 1 next year, and then third the year after. They will also have to play some brilliant attacking football, as Monaco did this year, if they want to catch Europe’s attention.
“We want to promote a spectacular and winning football playing style,” Ingla says. “Betting with young talents. We want to do that openly. We want to share this passion, this emotion, with people in the region but also elsewhere through the use of internet tools.”
That will be the hardest task of all, especially for a team who finished 11th in Ligue 1 last season. But at least Ingla knows what spectacular and winning football looks like. In 2008 he became vice-president of football affairs at Barcelona, working under Begiristain, now of course also of Manchester City.
Ingla and Begiristain had to find a replacement for Frank Rijkaard and narrowed the field down to Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Ingla drafted the famous nine-point document which set out the criteria for the appointment, which pushed them to pick Guardiola over Mourinho, anxious of the tension the Portuguese generates.
Nine years on, Ingla has overseen the appointment of another brilliant zealot of attacking football, Marcelo Bielsa. The veteran Argentine is great friends with Guardiola, who said earlier this year Bielsa was still “the best coach in the world”. Ingla, who has now worked with them both, sees the similarity.
“I would say that they are wisely extremist,” Ingla says, choosing his words. “They really go for the boundaries, they really don’t leave anything at random. They really analyse every single detail that affects the athlete’s performance, the collective performance.”
It also helps that Bielsa is big figure, with a personal cachet that will help to sell Lille to new player and fans. He is one of the godfathers of pressing, making him more influential now than ever before. “He has an associated brand that is also a value,” Ingla says. “Because football is content, is entertainment. Football is the main conversation meaning in the world within entertainment and Marcelo Bielsa is a discussion subject.”
What Lille also like about Bielsa is his “ability to influence player skill-sets”, and they hope that better players will come and join them now he is here. Ultimately that is the biggest challenge of all. Ingla accepts that football is a “player talent business”, and Lille are not going to get anywhere with average players.
That is why they have recruited Luis Campos, formerly of Monaco, to find the best young players in France and beyond. If he can find players as good as the ones he signed for Monaco then Lille will do very well. They have started this summer with Luiz Araujo, a Brazilian left-winger from Sao Paulo, but they will need plenty more.
Of course Monaco’s project, which climaxed with this year’s Ligue 1 title, was kick-started by €150million of spending in the summer of 2013. Ingla says there is no prospect of that here. “That is not an option,” Ingla says. “We will spot and recruit the players that are more suitable for our playing style and our sporting proposal. It’s not a billionaire’s project.”
What Lille need, then, is good cheap players, to make up an exciting, or even ‘spectacular’ team, to win friends and admirers across Europe, to make enough money to pay for it all. Ingla has done it before, of course, but Barcelona did at least have Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta to build around. This will be harder.
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