Fan ire over the running of a club is hardly unusual. However, given that infuriated Lille fans had vaulted the pitch-side advertising boards during the March encounter with Montpellier, attacked their own players and had to be restrained by police as they chanted their threat of “if we go down, we’ll take you down,” up at club owner Gérard Lopez, it was clear that the situation in Northern France had descended from malcontent into utter catastrophe. Nevertheless, miraculously, Lille pulled clear of the bottom three for good this weekend, beating the drop in terms of points won, but their Ligue 1 status remains fragile for financial reasons.
Despite the 1-1 draw with Montpellier that LOSC escaped with that day, they remained second bottom of Ligue 1. For a club that won the title in 2011 and spent €70m on players in the summer, Monaco and PSG the only clubs to outspend them, this season has been, as Lopez admitted “a nightmare”. Lille had seemed incapable of arresting their slump after a sole win in 15 games at the start of 2018, while a naive and inexperienced squad was starting to “spiral out of control” as a L’Équipe front page read at the end of April.
An abhorrent, cowering 5-1 defeat at Marseille’s Vélodrome last month was immediately preceded by players leaving a local nightclub in the early hours of the morning and followed by captain Ibrahim Amadou ducking coach Christophe Galtier’s video review session the following day, whilst supporters group Les DVEwere prompted to release a statement bemoaning “these mercenaries who spend their weekends in Lille nightclubs indulging in alcohol following losses. These mercenaries who humiliate the club and don’t hesitate to disparage their fans home and away.” Director of Football Luis Campos was even more direct, informing his players in the dressing room after the Marseille match: “It’s a disgrace, we’re idiots! Everyone needs to take responsibility!”
Alongside their disastrous league position, fan unrest and puerile players, forward Nicolas Pépé was also benched for a period for time for bringing a ‘weapon’ to training, and the entire situation has been compounded by a reportedly equally dire financial situation. Lille were acquired by Luxembourg businessman Gerard Lopez in January 2017 but, despite completely overhauling the squad since, French football’s notoriously strict financial authority, the DNCG, have started to ask questions about the source of Lopez’s funds and the integrity of the club’s budget.
These issues led to a transfer ban over the winter and will finally be resolved at the end of the month as the DNCG meet to decide the club’s future, a meeting that could quite possibly result in Lille’s automatic relegation, with the club having been previously tasked with raising €25m in sponsorship deals and transfer sales to avoid demotion to Ligue 2.
Given such turmoil, Lille’s turnaround is all the more remarkable. The atmosphere around the club has been suffocating for some time, while an almost prohibitively youthful squad struggled to cope as performances continued to lurch from wayward to absent. Marcelo Bielsa’s radical redesigning of the team left the side leaderless and Kévin Malcuit (26), Thiago Mendes (26) and Ibrahim Amadou (25) as the senior, and oldest, players. All of whom lack experience, even for their age. Meanwhile, Christophe Galtier, an astute coach who excelled in getting the best out of an average group at St Étienne, had initially failed to make an impact as Bielsa’s replacement.
With ten minutes remaining in a pivotal encounter at fellow strugglers Toulouse two weeks ago, LOSC were 2-1 down with hope evaporating and sitting 19th with just three games left despite a 3-1 win over bottom side Metz a week earlier. However, late strikes from Pépé and Yves Bissouma won the game and lifted them clear of the bottom three for the first time since February. With Toulouse, Caen and Troyes all failing to put pressure of Galtier’s side this week, a well-timed visit of a poor away side in mid-table Dijon resulted in a 2-1 win, Lille’s third in a row, putting Les Dogues 15th and mathematically safe.
With relegation avoided, at least for now, Lopez and Campos’ project at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, oddly entitled ‘LOSC Unlimited’, could yet flourish. Despite its inexperience, Galtier’s squad is a talented one. Striker Pépé, who has been crucial in their run of wins, Amadou, a powerful midfielder often linked with the Premier League, Thiago Mendes, a midfield dynamo superb under Bielsa, and marauding right-back Malcuit, touted for a possible France call up in recent weeks, lead a group with the ability to challenge for a Europa League spot, while the likely addition of more street smart, experienced players over the summer could be crucial. Galtier moreover, given his record, remains a prudent choice as manager.
Meanwhile, although he originally stated he saw Lille challenging for the title in two years following his takeover, Lopez has always maintained that the club’s situation remains secure both in sporting and financial terms despite a terrible campaign. “I can hear and see that the players are invested.” he explained last month, “they may not always have a response before being faced with a dilemma. But when we play well, they feel that something special can happen at any time.”
While he insisted on Canal + this weekend; “I read somewhere that we were running out of money, that’s not the case. We will finish the season without any problem, ” before, on the DNCG meeting, adding: “I do not see any risks.” Nevertheless, with the first battle won, the approaching DNCG hearing will now decide Lille’s fate, and, despite Lopez’s confidence, they are unlikely to be as easily defeated as Metz, Toulouse and Dijon.
by Adam White