Lille’s 2-1 victory over Angers on Sunday secured arguably the most unlikely league title in European football this season, as the French club beat powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 trophy by a single point.
As is the case for every other team in France, Lille’s budget is a fraction of the Qatari-backed PSG’s and its ascent to the top of French football – from avoiding relegation by a single point as recently as 2018 – is nothing short of remarkable.
The recipe for success is Lille’s close-knit squad, which has become a mix of mostly young players with a few older stars to guide them, as well as diverse group of nationalities.
Lille boasts the fourth-youngest squad in Ligue 1 and has given playing time to only 21 players this players, the fewest in the league, according to Transfermarkt.
One of the older players is defender José Fonte, who was brought to the club three years ago to help guide the talented youngsters that Lille’s scouting department is so adept at unearthing.
The 37-year-old Portugal international, one of numerous Portuguese-speaking players and coaches, believes the array of languages and cultures in the squad makes acclimatizing easy for the new recruits.
“I would say having three or four experienced players [is crucial],” Fonte told CNN before the end of the season. “We have the French contingent that are very, very close knit. They’re always together, but we manage to mingle with them. We manage to be close to them. We laugh with them, we try to learn the language.
“Everybody in the dressing room, or almost everybody in the dressing room, speaks French. We give ourselves to the other cultures and we give ourselves to them, and they try to know about us. So there’s a great chemistry between us. Then we have the Turkish [players] that also have been fundamental in the squad with Burak [Yilmaz] as the older guy.
“He’s been very good in terms of passing this experience and helping the other two young boys that we have from Turkey. I mean, it’s a young and old mix and there’s people from every country almost in this squad, but it works. It works because we also have good people, good guys that want to be successful and are positive influences.
“That’s what we try to do, be positive, be helpful towards others and understanding that to win, you know, we’ve got to win together and help each other.”
‘Pieces of the puzzle’
The man Lille largely has to thank for its current success is former Sporting Director Luis Campos, who left the club in December.
Campos, who was appointed by Lille in 2017, is widely regarded as one of the smartest and most effective technical directors in football and is likely to be chased by several of Europe’s top clubs ahead of next season.
In 2018, the Portuguese traveled a staggering 240,000 miles around the globe in search of new talent for Lille’s ambitious project, which he hoped would see it become a regular in the Champions League.
That dream was realized in 2019, when Lille played its first Champions League campaign for seven years and, once again, it has guaranteed a place in European football’s top competition for next season.
“This year still, but the last two seasons or three seasons, it was Luis Campos that put together the whole squad, the three squads in this case,” Fonte said. “Obviously with the manager [Christophe Galtier] behind the scenes also choosing, but Luis Campos did the work, you know, he brought us all to the club.
“We’ve got to give credit where credit is due and well done to him and to the chairman as well at the time [Marc Ingla] for putting together the pieces of the puzzle, and then it was all of us being able to gel.”
Lille’s inability to compete financially with Europe’s biggest clubs means the talented youngsters it discovers inevitably leave, but the disappointment of seeing star players depart is offset somewhat by the transfer fees they command.
In the past two seasons alone, Lille has made five of the top eight most expensive player sales in its history; Nicolas Pepe, Victor Osimhen, Thiago Mendes, Gabriel and Rafael Leao were sold for a combined fee of more than $290 million.
Lille started the season in exciting form, winning five of its opening nine matches and remaining undefeated until the 10th game of the season.
PSG, meanwhile, stumbled to defeats in its opening two matches, before a string of bad results in November and December had people wondering whether one of the chasing pack could break the club’s three-year stranglehold on the Ligue 1 title.
However, Fonte believed this group of players was capable of something special as early as the opening few weeks of the season.
“Honestly, after a few games and, you know, seeing the depth that we had in our squad, I kind of expected us to be where we are at the moment,” he said. “Like competing for the first place. We have a very young squad, but there’s a lot of quality in the squad.
“You almost have two good players for each position, so that gives us the possibility to compete in European competitions and then come back into the league and still perform. You know, we started well in the league, we put some wins in a row and we’ve been able to consistently be close to them [PSG].
“So when I arrived three years ago, I wasn’t so sure, but the beginning of this last season, I was confident that we could challenge them one hundred percent.”
Whether for fear of tempting fate or becoming complacent, players often deny thinking about winning the title before the end of the season, instead often opting for the “taking it game by game” cliché.
Fonte admitted that hasn’t been the case at Lille and said the squad had been talking about lifting the trophy “every day” for the last 15 rounds of fixtures.
“I really believe that you have to visualize before you achieve,” he said. “I’ve been trying to put this target in my teammates’ head because I believe that we can do it.”
‘Counting us out’
On April 3, Lille traveled to Paris to play PSG in a crucial top of the table clash. While it was perhaps too early in the campaign to be dubbed a “title decider,” Fonte called that 1-0 victory over PSG at the Parc des Princes a “massive turning point” in the season.
“Everybody was already counting us out,” he said. “You know, we have French players in our team that play in the national team for France, and they were telling me and other teammates the conversations they were having in the national team, that they were going to beat us and it was finished from then on.
“So it was a big moment, [it] was a big turning point for us in terms of confidence and giving us even more belief,” as was the victory away to Lyon just three weeks later, in which Lille turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win, with Yilmaz scoring the winning goal with just five minutes to go.
“So those two games, I would say, were massive in terms of giving us that extra belief.”
Lille’s remarkable rise isn’t over yet. The club still has Champions League football to look forward to next season and will almost certainly be better prepared for the rigors of that competition than it was in 2019.
Some of the club’s special talents will likely leave – Boubakary Soumaré, Jonathan Ikoné and the rejuvenated Renato Sanches have all drawn the gaze of European clubs – but, for now, this group of players will just celebrate their remarkable achievement.
“You know,” Fonte said. “Opportunities like this don’t come often.”