Lille is in northern France, in Flanders, so close to Belgium that it also has Flemish and Dutch names, Rysel or Rijsel. The city of Lille has a population of about 230,000 but the metropolitan area, or agglomeration as the French call it contains over a million people, making it France’s fourth largest urban area behind Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Lille is only an hour and twenty minutes by car from Calais and it is served by the Eurostar, making it easily accessible from southern and eastern England. I’ve come to Lille with my wife because it is wonderful city full of fabulous things to see and because it’s a good place to watch football.
In its time LOSC Lille has been a half decent football club, winning the league and Cup double as recently as 2011. It was from Lille that Chelsea took Eden Hazard. This season they have struggled and were in the bottom three early on and are now only eight points away from it in twelfth position in the table. Their opponents tonight for the final match of the season are FC Nantes, another big city club with an illustrious past but currently just jogging along. Nantes also flirted with the relegation places a few months ago, but a decent run has seen them climb to seventh in the table.
My wife and I are staying on the other side of the city centre and therefore catch a Metro train out to the Stade Pierre Mauroy which is located in the suburb of Villeneuve d’Ascq. Lille’s Metro only has two lines but it is fully automated with driverless trains. Whilst most of our Metro journey is underground, towards the end there are outdoor elevated sections and somehow it reminds me of the monorail in Francois Truffaut’s film of the Ray Bradbury book Fahrenheit 451; I sigh and think of Julie Christie before I am shaken from my reverie by our arrival at the end of the line.
It’s a ten or twelve minute walk from the Metro station to the Stade Pierre Mauroy, a massive structure with a closable roof it is a multi-purpose venue. Originally, and rather unimaginatively, it was known as Le Grand Stade, but subsequently and somewhat controversially it was re-named after a local politician. The stadium is like a lot of French stadia, a grand statement. It is sheathed in fluorescent tubes that are capable of changing colour and a little like the Allianz Arena in Munich it resembles an enormous rubber dinghy, or may be a slug. The walk from the Metro station is through a university research park; the final approach is impressive across a broad pedestrian bridge over the ring road and into a huge open area around the stadium where fans meet, mingle and munch on chips and baguettes from the food stands; there is beer too.
My wife heads impatiently for our seats at the other side of the stadium whilst I uncontrollably linger in the club shop. I just can’t help popping into club shops, there is something fascinating about them, it’s may be the fact that they are full of people eager to advertise their football allegiance through the clothes they wear, the mug they drink from, the magnet on their fridge, the pennant hanging from the rear view mirror in their car and the teddy bear they hug in moments of doubt.
Having left the shop I get thoroughly patted down by security and wished ‘Bon Match’ before heading through the automated turnstiles. Just inside I pick up a copy of the match day programme; sixteen pages of glossy A5 which is absolutely free and tells you all you need to know about tonight’s teams and happily stops short of telling us anyone’s favourite holiday destination, whether they prefer tea or coffee or would read Camus rather than Stendahl or de Maupassant. Once again French football shows its superiority to English, reasonably priced seats (20 euros tonight) and free match programmes, which gives you more money to spend in the club shop. The programme has the title “reservoir dogues”; partly because LOSC Lille are known as the les dogues, a type of enormous dog, and partly it would seem because LOSC Lille can’t resist a not very good pun.
Up in the stand there are more freebies to be had; a smiling young woman is giving away giant foam hands, whilst under every seat is a red flag on a stick bearing the club crest. It may be the last match of a disappointingly unsuccessful season, against a team ranked as the 4th least entertaining in Ligue 1 by the sports paper L’Equipe, and it may be a meaningless match, but it will be fun! That is the point, because there are new owners at Lille and they have a vision for the club and they want to sell season tickets (abonnements). I buy a small low alcohol (0.5%) beer (Kronenbourg Malt), which I cannot recommend and take my seat.
As kick-off approaches the words of the club anthem appear on the giant screen set into the front of the roof and a good number of the 28,390 crowd sing heartily to the tune of Amazing Grace whilst waving their flags and giant hands; it’s almost moving. Nantes is in the far west of France some 600km away by road, so not many Nantoises have made the trip and the few that have are high up in the corner of the stadium; they mostly don’t bother to take their seats but stand at the top of the stairs, as if preparing for a quick getaway at the end of the match. From where I am sat their contribution to the match atmosphere is nil. The teams come on to the pitch behind large banners displaying the two club crests, as happens for all Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 matches. Lille wear their red shirts and navy blue shorts, whilst FC Nantes are in their traditional kit of all yellow with green trim, for which they are known as the Canaries (les canaris) and for this reason I can’t help disliking them slightly, even though to my knowledge they have nothing else at all in common with Norwich City. Whatever, I am supporting Lille tonight and have the fridge magnet to prove it.
The match kicks off and for fifteen minutes or so it lives down to expectations and not much happens. But gradually Lille start to look the better team. The crowd, who after that initial pre-match burst of orchestrated enthusiasm had begun to sound a bit lost amongst the cavernous spaces around the other 32,000 unoccupied seats, start to find their voices which fill those voids. The Ultras below our seats call to the support at the far end of the ground and they call back and the atmosphere builds. Thirty-six minutes gone and a through ball finds Nicolas de Preville who advances and passes the ball beyond Dupe to put Lille ahead. Yes! Not only am I seeing a team called the Canaries lose but I had spotted de Preville playing for Reims last season and picked him out as ‘one to watch’. So I’m pretty pleased with myself. Lille continue to be the better team and retain their 1-0 lead as Monsieur Desiage the referee (arbitre) blows for half-time.
During half-time the entertainment switches to a shoot-out between a couple of boys teams and there is also a performance by some dancing girls with pom-poms, which is more or less in the tradition of French Saturday night TV where variety, which in France includes bare-breasted show girls, is still popular. For all its philosophy and sophistication France often still seems oddly sexist. I take a trip downstairs to the gents’ and enjoy the figure painted on the door of a male in a baggy shirt and shorts with knees bent and fist clenched, which is probably meant to convey that he is celebrating a goal, but he looks like he may be just farting loudly, it is a toilet door after all.
A minute into the second half and Lille fans have every reason to fart loudly in the direction of les Nantoises and celebrate as my protégé Nicolas de Preville scores a second goal, a simple tap-in, for les dogues. Les canaris are looking suitably sick as parrots. Seven minutes later and de Preville claims his hat-trick after Lima holds back a Lille player in the penalty box and a penalty is awarded. Lima is sent off. FC Nantes have developed into a full-blown surrogate Norwich City for me with les canaris 3-0 down and with a player sent-off, it’s the sort of thing I dream of seeing.
Just past the hour Lille replace Benzia with Naim Sliti a skilful Tunisian international midfielder and another player who I have to take the credit for spotting last season, this time when he was playing for Ligue 2 Parisian team Red Star. This evening is getting better and better. Apparently however, Sliti is in dispute with Lille because they are not giving him enough games and he has said that if “a door opens” for him he will move. I hope you are you reading this Mick McCarthy.
It looks like it could be a complete rout, but Lille don’t press home their advantage and it’s Nantes who have some half decent chances on the break, but the score remains unaltered. Nine minutes from time Monsieur Desiage books Nantes substitute Kacaniklic with style as some time after he commits a foul he calls him over, speaks with him and then in one very swift and quite angry movement brandishes his yellow card at him.
There’s very little additional time to play, what’s the point? Lille’s win sees them rise a place to eleventh in the final table, leapfrogging Toulouse who play out a goalless draw at home to Dijon; Nantes remain seventh as both St Etienne and Stade Rennais, their nearest rivals in the table, also lose. So that’s it for another season, or is it? We are asked to stay in our seats and meanwhile as the Lille players milk applause for their season’s work a tractor and trailer drives on to the pitch, sheets are laid across the turf and boxes and things are heaped up on the sheets. The players thank the Ultras and the bloke who stands on the step ladder in front of the Ultras to orchestrate their chants makes a short speech to the players. Applause follows, so he evidently hasn’t told them what a useless bunch of overpaid gets they are, or maybe he has. No one seems to take offence however, and as the celebrations die down we sit and wait. Suddenly the stadium lights go out; then begins the loud beat of Euro-disco, the flash of lasers and then the explosion of fireworks. Quite a spectacular display follows and goes on for the next twelve minutes or so. If this is how they celebrate the end of the season when they finish top of the bottom half of the table, what do they do when they actually achieve something? But it’s great; this is what football clubs should be doing, thanking their supporters at the end of the season. I had only seen Lille once before this year, but they seem to care that everyone here has bothered to come to the last match of the season.
We finally leave the stadium at about 11.20pm and head for the Metro which is of course still running; night buses begin to run in about an hour’s time. It has been a fun night at the Stade Pierre Mauroy with defeat for a team called the Canaries, a sending off, a hat-trick for a player I had ‘scouted’, a fireworks display and a free flag. I shall hopefully return some time next season. As it says on the illuminated destination blinds of the buses outside the stadium Allez Lille!