IM AG E S
G E T T Y
Little by Lille The traditional big clubs of Ligue 1 are being challenged by an astutely assembled team of upstarts. James Eastham explains
Lille’s biggest concern over the next few months will be running out of steam. Going into a potentially crucial fixture against fellow title contenders Marseille on March 6, the five-point lead they held over their rivals just a few weeks before had disappeared. Having qualified for the Europa League Round of 32 and the French Cup quarter-finals, Lille will play a minimum of 54 games this season, but coach Rudi Garcia also has a small squad, so relies on the same names every week. This explains why only
The only way you can tell it’s matchday in Lille is by looking at the buses. If there’s a game on, the slogan “Allez Le LOSC” runs where the name of the destination normally is (LOSC being the acronym for Lille Olympique Sporting Club). But wander into any of the city centre bars showing football and you’re likely to find the majority of the locals sampling the beers the region is famous for barely glance up at the screens.
18 outfield players made the starting l ine-up in the club’s first 25 league games, with four of them appearing just once.
The traditional footballing powerbase in these parts is Lens, 25 miles away to the south-west. Home crowds there occasionally exceed the town’s population and the team’s sang et or ( blood and gold) colours are famous throughout the country.
Like many French clubs, a lack of funds means Lille have needed nous to build a winning side
On the pitch, though, there has been a distinct shift in this corner of north-eastern France in recent years. After finishing in some respectable positions during the past decade, including the runners-up spot in 2004-05, Lille are having a genuine crack at winning the French league title for the first time in living memory. Long term, the plan is to emulate the club’s heyday – they won two league titles and five French Cups in the decade immediately after the Second World War.
Should Lille hold on, however, most neutrals would regard them as worthy champions. Set up in a f luid 4-3-3 formation, les dogues (the mastiffs) play the most entertaining football in France. As comfortable dismantling heavily manned defences in home matches as they are picking off opponents with swift, precise counter-attacks away, they are one of the few sides that play to win rather than to not lose. In a division where the average number of goals a game hovers below 2.5, Lille’s 5-2 win at Caen and 6-3 home victory
PHO TO S
over Lorient are just two of several performances that provided welcome relief from the defensive football you normally see.
Like many French clubs, a lack of funds means Lille have needed nous to build a winning side. Former France internationals Mickaël Landreau and Rio Mavuba have successfully relaunched their careers since making what many regarded to be a backwards step at the time, while left-back Franck Béria and midfielder Ludovic Obraniak arrived from second-division Metz. There can’t be many title challengers anywhere in Europe whose centre-halves were spotted playing for regional fourth division sides. Aurelien Chedjou, now a Cameroon international, came from Rouen, while Adil Rami, who has started every game for France since Laurent Blanc became manager, was playing part-time football for Fréjus when he joined Lille five years ago.
The crown jewel is Eden Hazard, coveted by some of the continent’s leading clubs. Lille have often scouted across the nearby Belgian border (Brussels is a half-hour train ride away) and Hazard appears to be their greatest find so far. At 16, he was in the first team. Now 20, he has won Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Year in each of the past two seasons. A winger with quick feet and beautiful balance, he has the potential to be Belgium’s greatest ever footballer. The thrilling football explains why certain European scouts appear to have taken up residence at Stade Métropole. Local paper La Voix du Nord recently reported the “man from Juventus” is virtually a season-ticket holder, while Liverpool’s “Director of Football Strategy” Damien Comolli pays regular visits and dispatched Roy Hodgson on a spying mission before the former Fulham boss was sacked.
As always in a division where the best sides are torn apart by foreign buyers, there are fears Lille will lose their best players the minute the season is over. Rami has already agreed to join Valencia, although Hazard, a young father, seems increasingly likely to stay for another season or two rather than accepting one of the many offers likely to come his way. President Michel Seydoux and coach Garcia hope the prospect of playing in the club’s new 50,000-seat stadium will persuade key members of the squad to follow the example of captain Rio
Mavuba, who recently extended his contract until 2015. The venue will be open for 2011-12 and ought to generate a level of income that allows Lille to compete financially with Marseille and Lyon. Winning something this season might be the beginning of a glorious period in the club’s history.
Top Lille supporters enjoy their side’s entertaining and successful football Right Belgium’s bright hope, Eden Hazard
32 WSC “I based my decision on my heritage, origin and family,” said Subotic. “I was always different than the American kids because my parents were from Yugoslavia.”
Republic of Ireland
In a little-noticed cameo during the February international break, Derby County striker Conor Doyle made his debut for Ireland Under-21s in a friendly against Cyprus. Born and raised in Texas to a father from Dublin, the 19-year-old’s appearance came just three months after Giovanni Trapattoni expressed interest in establishing a scouting network to find new talent for Ireland in the United States. Indeed, Trapattoni went as far as asking for a full list of Major League Soccer players with Irish-sounding surnames.
Hav i ng a l ready seen h i s native Italy bag the highly rated Giuseppe Rossi, a kid who learned the game in New Jersey before his father brought him to Parma just before his 13th birthday, Trapattoni can be forgiven for thinking the US might yet prove fecund ground for Ireland too. After all, Argentina and Mexico also have American-born players currently knocking around their senior and Under21 squads. Against that background, Ireland, a smaller country and one with such a long history of emigration to the US, can surely pick up a couple of children of their diaspora too.
Trapattoni can be forgiven for thinking
To understand why the Ir i sh are look ing west, it is necessary to know the story of Neven Subot i c . Const a nt l y l i nked w i t h a move f rom Bor ussi a Dortmund to the Premier League, the 22-year-old Subotic spent the format ive years of a peripatetic childhood in Utah and Florida. Having first gained international recognition with the US Under-17s and Under-20s, one of the most prized young defenders in Europe eventually switched allegiance to Serbia, the country of his birth, following a row with an American youth team coach.
the United States might yet prove fecund ground for
Trapattoni isn’t the first Irish manager to try to tap into this vein. Brian Kerr made an informal approach to the New England Revolution’s Pat Noonan in one era and Steve Staunton capped the college prospect Joe Lapira in another. While nothing came of those particular efforts, it seems Trapattoni and the FAI
Call of duty Dave Hannigan looks at how Ireland is hoping to attract young footballers with a US education but an old country sentiment
PHO TO S2
have now decided to take the potential over here a little more seriously, impressed perhaps by how the recruitment of Americanborn players has improved the Irish women’s national team.
This sort of move won’t require too much investment for the cash-strapped association because there is already a ready-made network of scouts. At last count, there are nearly 100 Irish working as professional coaches at university level from New York to California. Their work brings them into contact with the best youth teams in every region on a daily basis. This same network has already proved useful in identifying and bringing on board female players, and it would only take the unearthing of a single Rossi or Subotic over the next few years to make the whole thing worthwhile.
Arguably the biggest problem the FAI may face is the strength of organisation in the American game. Almost as soon as a promising player begins competitive soccer in this country, his coach will be asked to recommend him to the Olympic Development Programme so he can began regional training, with a view to one day making the national senior team. Impressive as that setup may sound, the enormity of the country ensures some still fall through the cracks.
Also, as has been demonstrated by the defection of Michael Hoyos, a Californian teenager now tipped for greatness with Argentina, there will always be players who can have their heads turned by parents and romantic attachments to other countries. Irish-Americans have never been slouches in that respect, often rearing their children to be more Irish than the Irish themselves.
Apart from exploiting that rich sentiment, the FAI can also point out the greater professional opportunities available to a footballer carrying an EU passport, and mention the fact America has such an enormous pick (capping almost 100 senior players between World Cups) that many players get lost in the shuffle.
Even though Conor Doyle claims to be still undecided about which country to commit to, this initiative looks very promising for Ireland. Well, aside from the fact the FAI chief executive John Delaney appears rather ill-informed about the state of the sport in the US. Talking on Ir ish radio after the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, Delaney pointed out that the one thing the Americans are lacking is a professional league. Which would be news to al l those Ir ish-eligible players in Major League Soccer.
Above Giovanni Trapattoni looks out for talent Top Derby County’s Conor Doyle, product of the the Irish-Texan community