The missing mastermind, Turkish Grandpa and Tous avec le LOSC: This is Lille’s astonishing year
Lille have clinched a historic Ligue 1 title. With the help of expert and fans Pete Sharland looks at what they have achieved. It is the first time in three years that someone other than PSG have won the league and the first time since 2011, and only the fourth time in their history, that Lille have won the title.
Lille's supporters celebrate after winning the French L1 title in Lille on May 23, 2021. - Lille won the Ligue 1 title over Angers which ensured they were crowned French champions for the first time since 2011
This article was initially published on May 12 with two matches to go. Some changes have been made to reflect Lille's title success but quotes remain unchanged.
In the 40th minute of Lille’s trip to arch-rivals Lens a couple of weeks ago midfielder Boubakary Soumare spotted a loose pass from an opponent and pounced in the centre of the pitch.
Soumare offloaded the ball to a more experienced teammate with one touch. That teammate took the ball, took one touch to get the ball out of his feet, one more to knock it in front of him and then his third touch was a howitzer that rocketed into the net.
Some may argue that Jean-Louis Leca in the Lens goal could have done better but his stunned face told the whole story. He simply didn’t expect the shot from that angle.
As for the player who scored the goal? He puffed out his chest in celebration as he jogged way. His knee slide was perhaps not the most graceful, hardly surprising at his age, and he was quickly engulfed by team-mates as he ended up on the floor.
That player was 35-year-old Burak Yilmaz, who has only ever played once outside of Turkey before this season yet has put in a truly astonishing set of performances in his first season in one of Europe's top five leagues. .
In case you are not aware, Lille have just won the French title, the first time they have done so since 2011 and just the fourth time in their history. Not since 2017 have PSG and all their money failed to win the league and Lille are just the third team to deny PSG’s Qatari owners domestically after Montpellier in 2012 and Monaco in 2017.
Of course we can never know the full extent of a team’s operational power but most reports suggest that Lille’s budget may be as small as a quarter of what PSG have to play with. Simply put, this should not have happened.
The Portuguese Mastermind who is no longer there
So how did it happening?
Well as was the case in 2017 with Monaco the mastermind of the operation was Luis Campos. Now 56, Campos began his career in football as a manager before transitioning to a operational role and eventually being tapped by Jose Mourinho to be a scout and analyst at Real Madrid.
After just one year he was brought in to help oversee the Monaco revolution under billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. Under his watch Monaco brought in players such as Radamel Falcao, Fabinho, Joao Moutinho, Anthony Martial, James Rodriguez, Bernardo Silva and many others. That team won Ligue 1 in 2017 and reached the Champions League semi-finals, most notably stunning Manchester City on the way.
But by that stage Campos was gone, having been approached by new Lille owner Gerard Lopez to do the same thing. Throughout the squad there are remarkable tales that have Campos written all over. Jose Fonte has been a revelation despite being 37 and he has groomed young Sven Botman this season the way he did for now-Arsenal defender Gabriel. The aforementioned Soumare was picked up when he was let go by the PSG academy. One of his midfield partners Renato Sanches was a reclamation project of a discarded wonderkid.
Luis Campos, Lille
Image credit: Getty Images
In terms of sales Nicolas Pepe and Rafael Leao were signed for relative peanuts and then moved on for over £100 million. The money was then used in part to sign Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen, who was sold last summer for £60 million having been bought for a third of that figure. The man Campos chose to replace Osimhen? Yilmaz of course, one of three Turkish players in the squad.
But Campos is no longer there. He left at the end of 2020 when Lopez lost control of the club due to outstanding debts and investment group Callisto Sporting took over.
“He's a man of mystery, Luis Campos is the kryptonite of PSG,” says Maxime Dupuis of Eurosport France.
"We don't know the next step for him and Lille. Because he had a contract with Lopez, for other activities. Weird situation.”
Campos was linked to Tottenham Hotspur heavily when Mourinho was in charge but his name is out of the news cycle right now after his compatriot was fired, particularly as Mourinho's club Roma already have a Sporting Director in place, another Portuguese, Tiago Pinto, interestingly. Wherever Campos goes next it will be fascinating to watch.
Dupuis does think the takeover will help Lille, he thinks there is a good chance only a few players will leave, rather than the wholesale selling spree that was being reported by the doomsayers even a month or so ago. Selling of course, is just a reality of life for a French club not called PSG so they are bound to lose some stars.
The Turkish Grandpa
Let’s go back to this season, and the man who has probably been the standout in a side that thrives on the team cohesion and the tactics of their hugely impressive manager Christophe Galtier. That man of course is Yilmaz. The experienced Turkish international may only have 15 goals but they have been absolutely vital. Winner against Montpellier and Nimes either side of the New Year demonstrated his importance but Lille lost him for around two months between January and March.
Since his return he has been lights out after a slow return to the team. Since the last international break he has six goals in six games, as well as one assist. His stunning strike last Friday was one of two to go along with one he scored in the reverse fixture in the derby against Lens. A few weeks earlier in a crucial clash away at Lyon he scored two and assisted one more in a 3-2 win. He scored a penalty to double Lille's lead in the final mach away at Angers, his 16th of the season.
Burak Yilmaz, buteur contre le RC Lens avec Lille en Ligue 1
Image credit: Getty Images
Dupuis says “the star is the team and the coach, Christophe Galtier but... there is a star on the field, Burak Yilmaz. 35 years old but the big revelation of this team, normally built with prospects to sell at the end of the year. Now, the light has come from a guy of 35 years old.”
It’s a great point. Most of Campos’ model is built on spotting young talent, developing them and then selling them on for profit. Yilmaz most certainly does not fit that mould. But he’s not the first example of Campos signing an experienced veteran, Dimitar Berbatov was extremely useful for a young Monaco side, particularly a certain Kylian Mbappe and of course we mentioned Fonte earlier.
Guillaume Lefebvre is a Lille fan who lives in the city, when asked by Eurosport about his favourite player he has a few, but can’t resist mentioning Yilmaz.
“[Mike] Maignan, our goalkeeper, he is probably the best keeper in the league (with [Keylor] Navas). Fonte and Botman our centre-backs and of course Burak Yilmaz - he is the fan’s favourite with all his incredible goals (and he scored twice against in the derby against Lens last weekend!) everybody loves him here. "
It’s something that doesn’t get talked about very often but one of the most beautiful things in football is when a player, usually experienced, and a city fall head over heels for each other in an unlikely marriage. Think Bruno at Brighton or Henrik Larsson at Celtic.
Yilmaz is a fascinating player, who was hyped as a youth player (he was the son of a former goalkeeper don’t you know) but he really struggled in his teens and early 20s. When he was 25 his career took off and his record domestically in Turkey and with the national team speaks for itself. He’s a legend in Turkey and one of few players who could get away with playing for all four of Turkey’s big four clubs in Istanbul.
If you’re in any doubt what his impact at Lille has been just read these quotes from Galtier after that Lyon match we mentioned. “Burak is one of the players who are used to winning titles in Turkey.
A Lille flag in a shop window
Image credit: Eurosport
"He went through big clubs, we see it in all the preparation. He is focused on competition. He was one of the driving forces behind this game. He was decisive.
“I watch everything that is happening in Paris, Monaco and Lyon. And it’s the forward players who make the difference. It is the players in front who made the difference here tonight.”
This is what Yilmaz’s team-mate Jonathan David said after the Lens match where Yilmaz scored brace including that stunning goal.
"We can say he's an elder player, he's 35 after all, but with is experience, he's calm, he gives advice, he's strong with his back to play and in the air,
"He links up well, he knows how to score, right foot, left foot…I learn from him day after day.”
A Lille flag on a statue
Image credit: Eurosport
Another Lille fan, David Boidin, also agrees with Yilmaz, but wants to highlight another player who perhaps isn't being spoke about in the same way.
"Of course, we can't avoid Burak in this answer, he's so strong & charismatic.
"Our Turkish connection is amazing but it's a little frustrating for me, because I can't discuss it with the waiters of my favourite Kebab restaurant in the popular district area of Lille (Wazemmes) where I live.
"But I'd like to highlight another player not so famous, for me he's the most important in the team : the midfielder Benjamin André who is so consistent.
"By the way, he was suspended for the derby against Lens, I was very afraid about that, but we won against our kind enemies. Perfect..."
Tous avec le LOSC
For so many people watching their football team every weekend is a release, a chance to escape and live through your heroes. Sometimes it can feel as if modern football has lost what it means to be a champion, at least at the highest level if the European Super League is anything to go by.
The pandemic has robbed countless people across the globe of the chance to watch their team, particularly in France where the league was cancelled rather than suspended upon the initial outbreak, and is still struggling with the virus now. Eurosport asked Lefebvre what it means to Lille as a city.
“Well because of the pandemic we’ve been in lockdown for a long time and there is still a curfew at 7pm, “ he says.
“All the pubs are closed so it’s hard to say. But you can see flags of le LOSC hanging from the windows here and there and the city have put flags on all the main avenues of the town which reads “TOUS AVEC LE LOSC” (everybody with le LOSC) so you can definitely feel that something is happening and everybody is waiting for it!
Driving through Lille with flags
“For example, for the last game against our local rivals of Lens, 1000 people gathered at the training ground the morning of the game to show their support to the players,”
Unsurprisingly there have been obvious comparisons to the 2010-11 team that did the league and cup double that featured, amongst others Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and a fresh-faced Eden Hazard.
But Lefebvre thinks this team might be better, at least on the pitch as it cannot have the same connection as the 2011 outfit that feature so many academy products.
“In the fifties le LOSC had great season but it was another time.
“2011 was an incredible season because it was the end of a 50 years wait for a new title and we won the league AND the cup. but this season is incredible and on a strictly sporting level, I think it is the best season ever yes.”
Boidin agrees, pointing out the relative strength of PSG, which was not the case in 2011.
"Yes, taking into account the power of PSG indeed. But I wasn't born when le LOSC lived its best 10 years from 1945 to 1955.
"I should ask the two oldest fans of our section who are used to mention us this fabulous period, I'll do it in 2 weeks drinking pints of beer to celebrate, exactly at the moment when it will be finally allowed!
A Lille flag on a lampost
Image credit: Eurosport
"For my part, I've waited the age of 40 years to enjoy the first trophies (double of 2010-2011).
"My son has a season ticket with me since 2016 and could have this chance so soon (12 years). Hum... He's like a crazy dog..."
Hazard, star of that team. Certainly agrees. "Honestly, if they are champions this season, it would be even better than us in 2011, because now there is the Qatar version of PSG, which makes the league more difficult to win," Hazard told Lille's website.
"The supporters deserve it. When we won the double, they had had to wait more than 50 years to see their club win the title. And during this difficult period, it would do good for everyone.
"The people of the North deserve it and above all the players do.”
Dupuis, Lefebvre and Boidin all admit that this came out of nowhere. By Lefebvre’s own admission “We knew we could do well, last season we were doing very good when the league stopped because of the COVID.
"I was hoping for at least a top 5 this season, maybe a top 3, but I was not expecting us to do better than PSG to be honest.”
Boidin adds "Not really [title expectations]. I would say we were very confident thanks of the good dynamic of the last season, and because we felt that the recruitment was rather intelligent. But we could not imagine such a wonderful season."
Yet here we are. Lille have their fate in their hand. It is an astonishing achievement and it is even more remarkable given how uncertain their future is. There were real concerns when Lopez and particularly Campos left, it’s hard to overstate how big an influence Campos had at the club. It doesn’t really matter what happens next, Lille will always have this season. They took on the big boys, and they look as if they’re going to win.
The Lyon game ranks among Lefebvre's favourite this season as well as their huge win in Paris and doing the double over Lens. As for Boidin he also can't pick one and chooses those four matches as well as the away game against Montpellier.
The best moment of the season? "The best moment is coming soon," says Boidin.
Thanks to Guillaume Lefebvre and David Boidin for their insight from Lille. Special thanks also goes to Bastien Desmons, Adolpho Remondi and Guillaume's father Georges for the pictures and video of the support throughout the city you see in this article.