The images from the pitch invasion and threatening chants at the end of the Lille OSC and Montpellier game last weekend have shocked many but not come as a great surprise to most. In an increasingly pressurised sport, where results and instant success are demanded by everyone, it is common to see fans become frustrated and feel isolated. Although fan protests are one thing players being attacked are another. A Lille spokesperson likened the incident to the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985 where 39 Juventus fans were killed, those links are a little insensitive and wildly exaggerated but the French FA needs to take action to ensure player safety is maintained.
In the wake of the incident former Lille legend, Eden Hazard, urged the fans to get behind the team again, he wrote on Twitter “This evening, I’m hurting for my Lille…remember, stay united and together in the good times just as in the most difficult moments. Go LOSC!”
To help bring some perspective, Lille are in the midst of a relegation battle after winning the league and cup double little more than seven years ago. Their fall has been consistent with many smaller clubs who have risen from mid-table also rans to league champions (we can use Leicester City as an English comparison). Lille won the French Ligue 1 title, their only league title to date, in 2011, under the management of Rudi Garcia. This was in his second spell with Lille and under his guidance they made a push from possible Europa League contenders to champions of France.
Under Garcia, Lille played some very attractive, attacking football. This was highlighted by 2009’s league effort where they finished fourth and scored a division-high 72 goals. Their title win and subsequent exposure in the Champions League gave Lille their moment in the spotlight and it’s little wonder their better players and indeed the manager attracted the attention of bigger clubs. Garcia left to join Roma in 2013, this was the same season in which they sold Eden Hazard to Chelsea, but that didn’t derail them as they narrowly missed out on European qualification by one point. Since then they have finished third, eighth, fifth and 11th as their slide down the league started. Like a lot of clubs who have been punching above their weight, Lille have managed to stay afloat in Ligue 1 by maintaining their selling club mentality and their transfer outlay over the last three seasons significantly less than they have received. This sounds like good business, however there has been a lack of genuine quality replacing those who have left the club.
One man who was determined to stop the rot at the northern French club is entrepreneur, Gerard Lopez. He bought the club last year, has recently overseen the construction of new training facilities and has been part of the overhaul at the club’s already impressive youth academy. Lopez also appointed experienced, tactical maverick, Marcelo Bielsa, in May 2017.
Five managers in four years would certainly suggest Lille’s fall down the division started well before Bielsa’s appointment and isn’t totally down to his inability to steady the ship, however the board must take some of the blame as Bielsa probably isn’t the first name you would choose if you wanted a loyal and steady manager. He has always been something of a cross between a football oracle and a court jester, a tactical genius mixed with the unpredictability of a broken catherine wheel. He was appointed as Lazio manager in 2016 and lasted two days before resigning over alleged broken promises surrounding transfers, he was subsequently sued by the club for breach of contract. Prior to that he reigned for little more than a season as Marseille manager and resigned after just one game of the 2014/15 season following a defeat to Caen. He cited differences with the club’s management as the reason behind his resignation, however one must question the timing of his decision.
No doubt he is a talented manager and he has national experience with Chile and Argentina, but his appointment now seems a little desperate on Lopez’s part. The bizarre way he left Lazio and to a lesser extent, Marseille, struck again in Lille as he was suspended in December 2017 for apparently travelling to Chile to visit former colleague, Luis Bonini, without the club’s permission. Bonini was recovering from stomach cancer and although Bielsa remained suspended, the allegations of the unauthorised trip were later found to be false. However, Bielsa was eventually relieved of his position shortly after. After his £58m spending spree in the summer of 2017 it can be argued the club suffered from ‘too much too soon’ as he signed twelve players and completely revamped the first team. Bielsa reportedly took under an hour to decide, from his first team squad, who was staying and who would be sold on. It certainly is apparent the club just never adapted to the huge change brought about by his whirlwind changes and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the club’s owners will have expected something in return for their investment. Although spending vast sums of money can be seen as a little careless, especially for a club with, as I will explain below, such a precarious financial outlook. Bielsa’s record of just three wins in the first 14 games of the season will have also been on the mind of his employers, but Bielsa and the owners must all shoulder some of the blame for Lille’s current predicament.
New manager and former Lille player, Christophe Galtier, started well at the turn of 2018 but results aren’t improving enough to keep Lille in Ligue 1. Their recent form has seen them win just two league games in 2018, despite this Lille’s survival isn’t a lost cause just yet and the events of last Saturday evening seem all the more surreal considering Lille, prior to the game versus Monaco, had nine games left and were only one point from safety.
To further kick the club while they’re down their reported financial troubles have been at the forefront of the sports news recently. In December 2017 France’s football watchdog, DNCG, enforced a transfer ban on the club, no reasons were given, although it’s believed this was due to financial concerns. The club were not allowed to make any transfers during the January transfer window and this could have a huge knock on effect as the final stages of the season draw closer. That added to the fact the club could now face punishment by the French FA for the pitch invasion against Montpellier and be forced to play a home game behind closed doors. The lack of a rousing atmosphere isn’t going to help their relegation fight and without any gate receipts they will also be further hit financially.
Saturday’s events in Lille, as well as those involving West Ham United fans during their game against Burnley at the London Stadium highlight just how emotionally involved fans are and just how much their club’s future means to them. As anyone who is familiar with their club falling down the table season after season the momentum can build very quickly as player sales without significant reinvestment in the team can create a weakened squad, this produces worse results, and so on. As the team declines it is often the fans who suffer.
Gerard Lopez met with the Lille’s ultra groups in the week before the Montpellier game in an attempt to build a better relationship with them, they apparently assured him the fans would back the team until the end of the season. It is reported the DVE, one of Lille’s most prominent ultra groups, was responsible for the pitch invasion and subsequent protest so it appears their promise was shattered by their actions at the final whistle. Ultras across the world have a sometimes uneasy alliance with their club’s directors and players, they are given special access to the team, clubs also contribute to ticket and travel costs; things which most fans would give anything to have. In return for this access and preferential treatment they give their unwavering support both in numbers in the stands and vocally during the game. However as we have seen on occasions when a team is doing badly the ultras can and often do turn on the team and board of directors. Unfortunately the Lille incident isn’t a one off. In September 2017 ultras of Legia Warsaw attacked their players in a car park after a 3-0 defeat against Lech Poznan. In Spain in May 2017, Tercera Division side, Alcala, lost to San Fernando, 1-0. The Alcala ultras invaded the pitch and attacked the opposition players. Many would agree the presence of ultras can be of great benefit to the team in the form noise, passion and colour. However when things go wrong their actions often lead to intimidation and violence. For many ultras their team is literally their life, but their actions can be seen to be particularly excessive to fans, like those in England, where the ultra culture isn’t as prominent.
The incidents at the Lille and West Ham games are certainly an ugly stain on the respective fan bases. However most football fans will agree it is that emotional attachment, the joy, elation, despair, frustration and anger, which not only brings them back each week but also has a huge impact on their day to day lives; relegation, for some, can be akin to the death of a relative. Lille, like West Ham, are fighting for their lives in the top division and history shows us some clubs never return from relegation; indeed both country’s second divisions are littered with relegated clubs who cannot make the leap back into the big time, whether due to bad management, investment or luck. If relegation becomes reality for either it may be difficult to rebuild and win promotion. The players and owners come and go, and while the actions of Lille fans on Saturday cannot be justified, the fans remain a constant, through good and bad and they ultimately deserve better than this.