Lyon have, without doubt, been the most successful French team of the millennium, while Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille remain the country’s most high-profile clubs by a long chalk. And yet it’s a small provincial outfit from the unfashionable north, a club that only regained its top-flight status as recently as 2000, that many are tipping to be the dominant French footballing force of this decade.

Lille – or Lille Olympique Sporting Club (LOSC) to give the club its full name – have been setting the pace in Ligue 1 and could go all the way and land their first championship for more than 50 years.

Coach Rudi Garcia – a former Lille player himself – has created a team that is solid at the back, competitive and creative in equal measure in midfield, and razor sharp in attack. And if the overriding spirit is one of collective investment, Garcia still isn’t afraid of giving players their head and allowing them to shine.

Belgian wunderkind Eden Hazard, perhaps Europe’s most coveted young player, is capable of making jaws drop with his precocious skills and ability to score spectacular goals. Senegalese striker Moussa Sow tops the French goalscoring charts and it’s easy to see why, given the 25-year-old’s strength, athleticism and poacher’s instincts. And Ivory Coast attacker Gervinho has the tricks and flicks to keep the fans excited, while retaining the end product to ensure that his coach doesn’t tear strips off him.

The most open French title race in years has seen Lille get their noses in front and it would be just reward for a club built on solid principles if they were to finally get their hands on the Ligue 1 trophy – not that Garcia is getting ahead of himself.

“I always like to do better than the previous season, and we’ve finished fifth and fourth in my first two years in charge,” he says. “If we can manage to capture one of the top-three spots then it will definitely have been an excellent season.”

Today’s Lille is a relatively young club, having been founded as recently as September 1944 when two clubs from different parts of town, Olympique Lillois and Sporting Club Fivois, opted to join forces. The former had known some significant successes, not least winning the first French professional football championship in 1933, and with a solid base of talented players behind them the early history of LOSC was glorious. In the first 10 years Lille won two league titles and five French Cups. Yet despite such on-the-field success, the club had trouble balancing the books. The local council put its hand in its pocket on numerous occasions, but it was to no avail as LOSC yo-yoed between the first and second divisions. Things reached a nadir in 1969 when Lille dropped into the third tier and gave up their professional status.

The council came to the rescue once again in 1980, taking over the club before it was privatised in 1999 when businessmen Luc Dayan and Francis Graille promised to invest and take things forward.

Under Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic, Lille took the 1999-2000 Ligue 2 season by storm, winning the title and gaining promotion with an enormous 16-point gap over second-place Guingamp. But even greater success was to follow when Halilhodzic led the club to a third-place finish in their first season back with the big boys and a place in the 2001-02 Champions League qualifying round.

To the outsider it might have looked like Lady Luck had picked Lille to succeed for the most capricious of reasons – but not according to Dayan, who claims: “Everything that happened in those early days of the rejuvenation of the club had been planned out beforehand. Our primary objective was to get the team up to standard and to develop the club’s infrastructure.”

While the ascent to Champions League status thrust the club into the media spotlight, especially when Lille qualified for the group stages at the expense of Italians Parma, things were changing quickly behind the scenes too. If anything, growth had been too quick and suddenly Dayan and Graille found themselves out of their depth financially.

Financial muscle

It was a case of having to take one step back to take two forward. Michel Seydoux offered greater financial muscle in his new role as president, but spending still needed to be brought under control for the club to progress in an orderly fashion. Halilhodzic’s team was broken up and a new coach, Claude Puel, installed. With a budget reduced from £35million to just £22m – the second smallest in Ligue 1 – and with star players sold, it was down to Puel to rebuild from the ground up. The project wasn’t about to happen overnight and it took two difficult seasons on the pitch before Puel’s new team finished second in 2005 and third in 2006.

Construction off the field, meanwhile, had also been high on the agenda at LOSC. The Stade Grimonprez-Jooris didn’t meet UEFA standards and, after much haggling, Seydoux and the local council agreed that the ground should be renovated rather than building a new stadium, which was the original intention. The project was given the green light and work should have been completed by the end of 2004, with the club moving to another ground, the Stadium Nord Lille Metropole athletics complex in nearby Villeneuve-d’Ascq while the work was being carried out.

As it transpired, political shenanigans meant that the building permit was revoked at the last minute and Lille were left in limbo. It was only in 2008 – and with Lille still playing their home games at Stadium Nord – that an agreement was finally reached to build a new, 50,000-seater stadium, the Grand Stade Lille Metropole, also in Villeneuve-d’Ascq. The state-of-the-art complex is due to be unveiled in time for the start of the 2012-13 season.

Playing stability

Against such a backdrop of uncertainty and political intrigue, it’s nothing short
of incredible that Lille have managed to remain so robust on the field. Much of this is down to the stability that Seydoux has been able to bring to the playing side. Since 2000 Lille have had just three head coaches – Halilhodzic, Puel (who left for Lyon in 2008) and current boss Garcia – in comparison to PSG who have got through seven and Marseille’s staggering 13 in the same time.

Three Champions League and two UEFA Cup/Europa League qualifications in the last 10 seasons prove that the policy has paid tremendous dividends for a club that has none of the resources of PSG or OM. European competition revenues have clearly helped to keep the club on a sound financial footing and the projected annual additional revenue of £17.5m once the Grand Stade comes online should see Lille in rude fiscal health for the foreseeable future.

With UEFA’s Financial Fairplay regulations due to be introduced at the start of next season, together with the stipulation that UEFA-licensed clubs must start breaking even by 2014, Lille’s stadium revenue boost, together with the club’s prudent wage structure, could prove to be a winning formula.

“Our new stadium will allow us to move to another economic dimension,” says Garcia. “When we’re there we’ll have the means to battle it out a bit more often with the league’s big teams.”

For now, though, Lille fans won’t be thinking about anything except winning the league this season. And it would be a fitting tribute to departing national team centre-half Adil Rami, who moves to Valencia next season, if Les Dogues (the mastiffs) could land the title.

Rami sums up the spirit of this ambitious yet homely club perfectly. Never picked up by any professional club’s academy, he was working as an odd-job man for his local council in Frejus and playing at amateur level when spotted by Lille in 2007. Rami signed his first pro contract just three-and-a-half years ago, is now a first choice for Laurent Blanc’s national side and could pocket a league winner’s medal come the end of May.

As fairy tales go, it takes some beating. But that’s what Lille Olympique Sporting Club is all about: dreaming big and making them come true.

By Howard Johnson