November 2005 may turn out to be an important month in the history of LOSC Lille Métropole. Not only did the French club relaunch their UEFA Champions League campaign by defeating Manchester United FC at the Stade de France, they also started making positive steps towards solving their longstanding stadium problems.
Lille have made great progress on the pitch in recent times. Under the canny management of Claude Puel, they finished runners-up in Ligue 1 last term, earning UEFA Champions League football for only the second time. But all the while a shadow has been hanging over the northern club.
For the past 18 months they have been playing Ligue 1 matches at the Stadium du Nord on the outskirts of the town in order to allow for the expansion of the Stade Grimonprez-Jooris, Lille's home since 1974. Last year the club's ambitious president Michel Seydoux proudly spoke of moving into "a modern, English-style arena" in time for 2006/07. Those plans suffered a major setback in June, however, when the remains of an ancient citadel, built by Vauban in 1667, were discovered next to the stadium.
Planning permission was subsequently withdrawn and it remains unclear as to whether the Stade Grimonprez-Jooris 2 project will ever materialise. But after a lengthy stand-off between Lille and the local authorities, Seydoux announced earlier this month that seven alternative sites for a new stadium had been located.
Nevertheless for both parties expanding the capacity of the centrally-located Grimonprez-Jooris from 18,000 to 33,000 and modernising its facilities remain the preferable option. "It is still the fastest and least costly solution," Seydoux said. Lille's chances of being granted permission to do that appear slim, though, with the results of an appeal against the building injunction due next spring.
Away from home
In the meantime, Puel and his young players will keep trying to defy the odds in their temporary homes. So far the Stade de France has been kind to them. They picked up four points from games against Villarreal CF and United, and remain in contention to qualify from Group D. But Puel, while honoured to see his team playing in France's national stadium, claims they are at a distinct disadvantage. "It's as though we are playing our six group games away," he said before the United match.
That fixture attracted 66,470 spectators, breaking the French record for a home European tie, and an even bigger attendance is expected against SL Benfica tonight. It is a glimpse of what the future could hold for Lille should they succeed in resolving their off-field issues.
"My aim has always been to try to give Lille a new dimension, although it is proving difficult," Puel said in the summer. "
The potential is huge when you think about the following that Lille have in the town and in the surrounding region. But unfortunately we've not yet received the support we need to turn Lille into a big club."
His frustration is understandable. Since his appointment in 2002, he has worked tirelessly to mould an exciting, competitive team with limited resources. French Under-21 internationals Mathieu Bodmer and Matt Moussilou are just two examples of players who have flourished under the 44-year-old. "They're a young group, with a lot of character and a lot of hunger," Puel said. "It's enjoyable to work with them because they're receptive and are determined to progress."
The current Lille side has been built very much in Puel's own image. A fiercely competitive midfielder in his playing days, he spent 19 seasons with AS Monaco FC before going on to coach the Côte d'Azur to the Ligue 1 title in 2000. Puel is renowned for being a notoriously bad loser, and admits he now see shades of himself in his Lille charges. "What I like most about them is that they never give up," he said. "During the first two years here I found there was a lack of pride and character in the team. But over the course of time that has changed."
Puel's outstanding work has not gone unnoticed. He turned down an approach from FC Porto in 2004 before resisting overtures from Olympique Lyonnais in the summer. Now he hopes to see his loyalty repaid by a display similar of commitment from the club's backers and the town authorities.
In the aftermath of World War Two, Lille emerged as a major power in French football, winning the league championship twice and the Coupe de France five times in the space of ten years. They currently possess the most talented crop of players since that period, but until they have a home worthy of their current status, a return to the glory days seems improbable.
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