C.C. CHENGAPPA | 23rd May 2021

11th March 2018. The Ligue 1 is nearing completion with about 9 games to go and the relegation battle is intense. Amongst the clubs that are fighting to stay on top is LOSC Lille with the club needing to gain maximum points to avoid the dreaded demotion. But what transpires in the match against Montpellier is another nail in the expected coffin for the club.

A draw at home is not something that the fans, desperate for a win take lightly, but with a 1-1 result angering the Lille faithful, the ultras storm the ground. Chaos ensues and players are escorted to safety while reinforcements are brought in to protect the player tunnel entrance. It’s an embarrassment for the French footballing fraternity but especially the entire Lille entourage which has had a rocky decade of football ever since winning the league back in 2010. Little do they know that this is just the beginning of something special for them.

And despite the fact that Ligue 1 refuses to shake off it’s “farmer’s league” tag due to the Parisian monopoly, there has been something special that has been brewing steadily in the south of France over the past few years. After suffering immense amounts of heartbreak and narrow finishes coupled with player departures that have affected the overall squad depth, Lille have provided the blueprint for clubs to take notes from if they want to go toe-to-toe with the top dogs.

A point ahead at the summit of the French top flight in front of a PSG side fronted by the princely pair of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, Lille could become champions if they get the 3 points against Angers tonight. But how did they actually knock Paris off their perch to become the crème-de-la-crème?

In the words of Fabrizio Romano, here we go!

Gerard Lopez and his business savvy ways

The turmoil and financial distress caused by the collapse of the French Ligue TV deal with Mediapro in April 2020 was immense. Amongst all the top tiers of French football, it was reported that only PSG would be able to bail themselves out as they could fall back on their financial invincibility. Every single other club was left to fend for itself and was knee deep in debt due to the dearth of potential television money for the next 3 years.

Les Dogues however, have led from the front in showing football clubs how asset management and income distribution can be regulated with smart financial management.

Gerard Lopez had an extremely rocky start to his takeover of Lille in 2016. Despite buying around a 95% stake in the club, the amount the Luxembourgish-Spanish businessman provided initially was not enough to prevent the FFP Ban on Lille from recruiting players in the January transfer window in 2018. To add to this, relegation was imminent and the club seemed to be on the brink of a major financial breakdown.

It was reported that they had to cough up €25 million by April 2018 or else be relegated, regardless of where they stood at the end of the season. Lopez managed to put together around €140 million and saved the once French juggernaut from the clutches of a monetary relegation.

This was part of a fine they had to pay that was sanctioned by the DNCG (the body that oversees the accounts of French football clubs) because they had run into the losses for 3 consecutive campaigns. Hence, transfer fees were extremely handy.

The same season, Lille sold Nicolas Pepe for a whopping €78 million to Arsenal. At that time, they expressly wished to have the payment of the deal in 5 separate installments, worth around €15 million each.

Pepe was Lille’s knight in shining armor but Gerard Lopez had a tough call to make and he did

Surprising business for a club that was already €250 million in debut but there was a vision behind what seemed like a nonsensical call. Little did they know that 2018 would be defining for them financially. Not only was this convenient for them at that time, it also paved the way for investor confidence in the way they were putting together the club.

Subsequently, Lille’s debt fell from €250 million to €130 million by the beginning of 2019. Victor Osimhen was the next player to be cashed in for a whopping €70 million at the beginning of the 2019-20 season. The profit made on his sale was €58 million and this was only a year after he had signed for Lille. What is unsurprising however is that the Southern France outfit again opted to have separate installments paid over 5 years.

In the period between 2017-2019, Thiago Mendes, Rafael Leao and Yves Bissouma had all bid farewell for approximately €20 million each. This has resulted in Lille being left with approximately €125 million of the €225 million loan they were granted by JP Morgan and Elliott Management.

Lopez sold the club in December 2020 to a hedge fund named Merlyn Partners but he did ensure that he left the entire administration with some financial stability.

An ode to Christophe Galtier and the pieces that completed his puzzle

Something that Christophe Gaultier brought with him to Lille was his vast experience in Ligue 1, having been at the helm of Saint-Etienne for 8 years. While his appointment did not cause much of a stir with the Lille fanbase, there was a certain uncertainty with what to expect from the French gaffer. When one looks back now, the masterplan of his was at work throughout the past 3 seasons where Lille have gone from relegation fodder to a staple top 4 side.

Galtier has done smart business in the transfer market despite the administrative chaos that was surrounding him. He has ensured the quality acquisitions of Renato Sanchez, Burak Yilmaz, Sven Botman and Jonathan Ikone have all been put to good use since their arrivals.

In particular, Botman and Fonte have been nothing short of phenomenal in defence. No stat can heap praise and do enough justice to the impenetrable duo than conceding the fewest goals by a team in France. Not only have they maintained that stellar record, Lille also have the fewest shots conceded in the league this campaign. Outrageous stuff.

Botman and Fonte are always in the thick of things

They have been complimented by the magnificence of Boubakary Soumare who has had a major role in breaking down opposition attacks in both halves of the pitch. This of course has been coupled with the resurgence of Renato Sanches who has justifiably been linked with the European elite all season.

And the forward line has been simply sensational. Gaultier has applied a similar tactical vision to his days at Saint- Etienne, despite being slightly at odds with the lack of any real strength in depth in his roster of forwards at the club. The most effective however has been Burak Yilmaz who was written off as standard has-been.

The Turkish ace has racked up a total of 15 goals and 5 assists throughout the season, despite being ruled out with a mid-season calf injury for 9 games. With Galtier utilizing a classic 4-4-2 system, it’s been delightful to see two gunmen at the top of the pitch do what they do best- be it Yilmaz, Ikone or Jonathan Bamba who have all stepped up when needed..

With 23 matches won, including an away win at PSG, Galtier has ensured that his troops have something to give back to their fiercely loyal support after the cancellation of Ligue 1 last year in what proved to be a nightmarish year universally. This too is a signal of intent from French clubs apart from PSG, that all is not lost when it comes to making the battle a fair one.

The resurgence is evident and Lille are at the forefront of matters.

Reflecting on what’s in store

Rudi Garcia etched his name in French footballing folklore with a historic double back in 2010 with LOSC. The team included the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy, Moussa Sow and a certain Eden Hazard. Much was expected for the club back then with many touting it as a start of something special. However, it took them over a decade to establish themselves and the consistency never came easy.

From fighting relegation to bossing the league. That’s football in a nutshell.

And as things stand with the world rooting for Lille, it’s just another reminder that if there is a vision behind a process and you trust it, you can beat the odds. There’s 90 mins against Angers to make history and if you’re a betting man, you have to back Galtier and his army.

Read More