Fallen Giants - Lille


Naz Majeed

In 2011, the champions of the top five European leagues were Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, AC Milan and Lille. Each of those sides has had mixed fortunes since then, and it is perhaps fair to say that from a purely sporting perspective, none of them is exactly where they want to be right about now, though with 6 wins in their last 7 league games (after a miserable run of 3 straight defeats), Lille sits fourth in Ligue 1, and are perhaps on the way back to what they once were.

Regardless of this recent surge, Lille is still a far cry from the side that won Ligue 1 in 2011, setting the season’s records for the largest home win, highest-scoring game, and longest unbeaten run, while supplying the division with its top scorer, player, and manager of the year


Like so many underdog champions, however, Lille soon saw their fantastic squad dismantled, with key players electing to leave for one reason or another and the side never really finding a way to replace them. The 2011 Ligue 1 Team of the year boasted four players from Lille; Adil Rami, Gervinho, top scorer Moussa Sow, and the Player of the Year, Eden Hazard.

Proving his class and expanding his legacy at Chelsea, Hazard would later move to Real Madrid, inheriting the famous No. 7 shirt from Cristiano Ronaldo. Still, while it may have always been a case of everyone knowing deep down he was simply too good for Lille, even if they were French champions, the departure of such a key player would have destabilized any side, and he was not the only one to have left soon after lifting the trophy.

All four of the players in the Team of the Year moved on. As have Mickael Landreau, Mathieu Debuchy, and Yohan Cabaye. Their manager Rudi Garcia was replaced by Rene Girard.

Cabaye and Gervinho left for the English Premier League in 2011, while Hazard and Debuchy did the same a year later. Moussa Sow elected to play in Turkey shortly after scoring 25 in their title-winning campaign, a total only surpassed after the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic signalling the start of the era of PSG dominance.

It remains to be seen if their current squad can bring them back to what they once were, or if the flirtation with relegation is the true measure of the team in the modern era. Their “selling club” mentality may be a hindrance they will never overcome, though history has shown that certain sides manage to push past such a hurdle, with canny management and savvy investment. Either way, it does not bode well that they were forced to cash in on brightest star in recent seasons Nicolas Pepe, who had starred in what may have been their most famous victory since their league triumph.

“A side in transition” is a term often heard in football, and in recent times used to describe each of those 2011 champions Manchester United, Dortmund, Barcelona, Milan, and Lille.

Lille have had many difficult years to steady the ship and until recently little to show for it. Since lifting the league in 2011, the side from the North of France has been unable to reach the giddy heights of that one magical summer.

After finishing 8 points clear of Marseille in 2011, they found themselves 8 points off surprise champions Montpellier the following year. Since then, the gap between Lille and the eventual champions (usually Paris St-Germain) have been 21, 18, 27, 36, 49, 55, and finally 16 points.

They have employed nine managers in less than 9 years, including Marcelo Bielsa who lasted just 13 games and sold former club captain Rio Mavuba, one of the last members of the side who did win the league with Lille.

Their sudden upturn in fortune from finishing just outside the relegation zone in 2017-18 (one match against Montpellier marred by scenes of Lille fans charging the pitch to accost and assault their own players) to ending the season second behind Paris St-Germain may have been the start of a stunning revival, but there is still a vast amount of work to be done, and time will tell if Lille will ever again be in a position to lift the trophy once more.