An Englishman (or three) in Lille

Michael Miles takes us on a Champions league journey across the Channel.

LOSC v Inter Milan – October 2011
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 is the current dominant French footballing force.

Lille – or Lille Olympique Sporting Club (LOSC) are that club, and the reason I was taking the Eurostar to watch them play Inter Milan in the Champions League.

Belgian wunderkind Eden Hazard, perhaps Europe’s most coveted young player, and supposedly a summer target for Chelsea and Arsenal, is capable of making jaws drop with his precocious skills and ability to score spectacular goals. Lining up alongside him in midfield was one Joe Cole, teenage sensation at my club West Ham, but now on a seasons loan at Lille after appearing to have no future at Liverpool.

In fact, his wasn’t the only English presence on the pitch. The referee was Howard Webb.

Construction off the field has also been high on the agenda at LOSC. The Stade Grimonprez-Jooris didn’t meet U.E.F.A. standards and, after much haggling, President Michel Seydoux ( who produced the Oscar-winning tale Cyrano de Bergerac as you do) 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 , Stadium Nord Lille Metropole Athletics complex in nearby Villeneuve-d’Ascq while the work was being carried out.

Political shenanigans meant that the building permit was revoked at the last minute, and Lille were left in limbo. It was only in 2008 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. The extra revenue should help LOSC close the gap on Marseille and Lyon, if not on PSG, now backed by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.

No doubt supporters, players and officials will be relieved to leave the 17,500 – capacity Stadium Nord Lille Metropole, only ever intended as a temporary home. But in the meantime that’s where they are playing and where I was sat watching Lille’s third Champions League outing this term, against the experienced Inter Milan. Lille coach Garcia had even been quoted as saying the league was his priority because he wanted to be playing Champions League football in the new stadium.

I’ve watched football in all the major European countries but have never entirely reconciled myself to the sight of gun-toting policemen. And these were in full riot gear, with some even sporting sub-machine guns. Did they really expect to be using those on a football crowd? Another shock was the body search given to each supporter. And I mean body search. Not the usual “can I see what’s in your bag sir”

Inter found some respite after a desperate start to the Serie A season, showing all their European experience. The only goal came after 21 minutes when Wesley Sneijder found Maura Zarate on the left-hand byline, and his cross was volleyed home by Giampaolo Pazzini. Lille were recording 60 per cent of possession, but in the first half only recorded 2 easily-saved shots on goal. In the second half they upped the pressure, with Joe Cole prominent. Unfortunately it was the Joe Cole who could not shoot and could not resist beating a man twice just for the hell of it. But the crowd certainly appreciated his efforts. Shouts of “Joe Cole “rang out throughout. He lasted 74 minutes and once he’d gone a lot of the game’s energy went with him. Lille’s number 8 Sow, for one, looked throughout as if he would rather be doing something else than try and force his way past the veteran Lucio at the heart of Inter’s defence. They held out comfortably enough and the way the Inter players celebrated in front of their travelling support at the end demonstrated how much the result meant to them and the already beleaguered manager Carlo Ranieri.

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