Champions only five years ago, but now in a relegation battle. Where did it all go wrong for Lille?

It’s May 21, 2011, and Lille coach Rudi Garcia is basking in the glory of some impressive footballing achievements. Less than two weeks previously, the 47-year-old masterminded his side’s 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain to land the French Cup. Now, after a hard-
fought 2-2 draw with the same opponents, he has delivered Lille Olympique Sporting Club’s first French championship since 1954 with a game to spare.

Lille’s side includes Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy, Idrissa Gueye, Gervinho and Eden Hazard – hugely exciting talents who will all go on to play in England’s Premier League – and Garcia is rightly excited about just how far his dynamic young team can go and Lille’s overall ambitions for the future.

Having posted an average home attendance of 16,426 in their 17,963-capacity Stadium Lille Metropole, club president Michel Seydoux has his sights firmly fixed on much bigger and better things. And with a brand new, state-of-the-art 50,000-capacity home due to open in August 2012, Lille are talking up their ambitions of becoming not only a domestic powerhouse but also a regular fixture on the European stage. For the northern club, the sky appears to be the limit.

Fast forward to the end of 2016, and punters and pundits alike are wondering what the hell happened to the dream?

Lille haven’t won a single trophy since that famous day in Paris, Garcia left for Rome in 2013, and only one member of the starting XI that clinched the title in 2011 – veteran midfielder Rio Mavuba – is still at the club.

The project to be French top dogs has been blown out of the water by PSG’s Qatari-fuelled surge to the top. And this season the wheels have really come off. Three games shy of the season’s half-way point, Lille were just three points ahead of the relegation play-off spot. As for continental aspirations, defeat by Azerbaijani side Qabala in the qualifying stage of this term’s Europa League put paid to those for another year.

So why has the fall from grace been so spectacular? Well, you don’t have to look too far for answers.

Garcia’s managerial reign ended in 2013 after six years of stability and progress. But since then the club has lurched from one crisis to the next, going through three coaches in three years as the demand for success sets the stakes ever higher.

Rene Girard, who won the Ligue 1 title with Montpellier in 2012, lasted less than 24 months. Then former Ivory Coast boss Herve Renard took charge for a disastrous six months, before the much-travelled Frederic Antonetti was in turn sacked in November, a year to the day after arriving at the club. At present, Patrick Collot is currently in temporary control, having previously taken over for a short period following the sacking of Renard.

Seydoux has a reputation for steady progression as president, but it seems that big ambitions have led to overall patience wearing thin. Or maybe he believes he’s taken Lille as far as he can.

In the five years since their title triumph, Lille’s average home attendance has risen to 27,373. But while that’s an increase of over 10,000 in under six years, support still falls short of the expectations for a club that once held such lofty ambitions.

With Seydoux looking to sell the club, 44-year-old Spanish/Luxembourgian businessman Gerard Lopez has lodged a formal offer. Having made his money in IT, he is an avowed sports nut who has already purchased the Lotus Formula 1 racing team. And, naturally, Lopez also has big ambitions for Lille, saying he wants LOSC to be one of the top three sides in France and consistently rivalling PSG within three years.

As football’s owners become ever richer and ever more hungry for major success, Lille’s story offers a salutary tale of how
it can all go wrong – and quickly. Yet hope springs eternal, and once again a moneybags has arrived on the scene with ever-greater plans.

Only time will tell if Lille’s current predicament is nothing more than a blip on the road as the club attempts to force its way onto football’s top table.

By Howard Johnson