The return of football during the second half of 2020 following the Covid-19 outbreak across Europe in March has been more than a little surreal: no fans; goalposts disinfected at half-time; bizarre results; European competitions redesigned like international tournaments. However, the realities of the pandemic are now starting to truly hit. Lille’s ambitious project under owner Gérard Lopez was the first major casualty in France this week, with more likely to follow. Perhaps most strangely, Lille’s display in their goalless draw against PSG on Sunday night shows that, crisis or not, they may yet win Ligue 1.
Among Europe’s major leagues, Ligue 1 is in a unique financial position. Whereas other divisions resumed their paused campaigns in June or July and continued to enjoy weighty TV deals to help them negate the loss of matchday revenue, French football instead managed to palm the big red button marked “self-destruct” on two occasions.
French footballing authorities unnecessarily halted the 2019-20 season due to a supposed misunderstanding between Uefa and the Minister for Sports, robbing clubs of crucial TV income. Then the LFP failed to carry out due diligence on an incoming TV rights deal with Spanish broadcaster Mediapro. That hugely profitable arrangement, seen as a mitigating influence when last season was stopped, evaporated last week to leave the league without a domestic rights holder. Without ticket sales, a shortfall in last season’s TV money and no new TV partner as yet, Ligue 1 clubs face genuine financial ruin.
While Nîmes’ president informed his players last week that the club would not be able to pay their salaries by March if a new deal could not be found, Lille were the first to be forced into a change of tack. Luxembourgish businessman Gérard Lopez bought the club in January 2017 and, on the surface at least, managed to mould a model that was successful on the pitch and the balance sheet.
In the style of Monaco, Lille became the paradigm of a modern club in “The League of Talents” as Ligue 1 rebranded itself last year. Precise scouting and development of young talent led to mammoth sales and, seemingly, huge profits under the leadership of director general Marc Ingla and transfer-whisperer Luis Campos.
Since the 2017-18 season, Lille have made at least £112m in the transfer market, second only to Lyon in Ligue 1 in that time. Striker Victor Osimhen joined Napoli this summer in a deal that could rise to £74m and Gabriel moved to Arsenal for £27m, a year after Nicolas Pépé’s £72m deal to the same club, while Rafael Leão (Milan), Thiago Mendes (Lyon) and Yves Bissouma (Brighton) all fetched around £20m each in that time.
Nevertheless, financial issues persisted. French football’s notoriously strict financial watchdog, the DNCG, banned Lille from signing players in January 2018, handed Ingla a three-month suspended ban in May 2019 for supposedly providing false financial information about the club, and told Lille to rise €30m in player sales during the summer of 2018 after threatening the club with relegation to Ligue 2 for financial irregularities.
Debt has long been a concern. When Lopez raised the funds to buy the club four years ago, he did so with loans of €225m from JP Morgan and investment fund Elliott Management. Over the last four years, Lille have paid back around half of those loans, with €123m due to be paid back in August. Concerned that they would not receive the money they are owed, Elliott have now pressurised Lopez into selling the club. It seems as if the investors Merlyn Partners have taken over Elliott’s debt and installed the former Rennes and PSG president Létang in Lopez’s place.
We use the term “seems” as the new structure of Lille’s ownership is not yet entirely clear. The club’s new parent company, Merlyn Partners SCSp, is a special limited partnership based in Luxembourg of which we only know the identity of the general partner (Merlyn Partners GP) but not the limited partner(s) who remain(s) anonymous. Létang said on Monday: “Merlyn is a fund that wants to have a great deal of confidentiality.” A further unresolved matter is whether Ingla will continue to retain his stake in Victory Soccer. Létang says Ingla will remain at the club at the moment “for the transition” and assured manager Christophe Galtier that he will not need to offload players quickly in January. Lille have become a credit to French football under their Ligue 1 veteran manager.
Since Galtier joined Lille at Christmas in 2017, perhaps only Jürgen Klopp has proved more effective as a coach across Europe’s biggest leagues. He rescued the 2011 champions from a relegation battle and his brand of balanced but positive football took Lille as far as the Champions League last season. This season, Lille have only lost one of their 16 games in Ligue 1 and they dismantled Serie A leaders Milan at San Siro in the Europa League. Over the weekend they held their own against PSG, who dominated possession but struggled to create many clear chances in an underwhelming game.
For now, miraculously, Lille are top of Ligue 1 and remain financially viable but changes are coming and sales are a must in the medium term. They could win the league, but be relegated soon after by the DNCG if they do not repair their financial damage. Partly due to the league’s own incompetence, 2020 has been a financially disastrous year for Ligue 1, but 2021 could show the scale of that disaster to be far greater than was initially feared. Most worryingly, Lille may soon consider themselves more fortunate than most.
Ligue 1 results
Ligue 1 results
Brest 2-2 Montpellier
Dijon 0-1 Monaco
Nantes 1-1 Angers
St Etienne 2-2 Nîmes
Strasbourg 0-2 Bordeaux
Lorient 0-3 Rennes
Lille 0-0 PSG
Metz 2-0 Lens
Marseille 1-1 Reims
Nice 1-4 Lyon
• Metz have been one of the major success stories of French football in 2020. Little more than a yo-yo club in the last decade, Metz lie sixth in the 2020 calendar year form table. As 2-0 wins this week over surprise package Lens and an exciting Montpellier team underlined, both Frédéric Antonetti and Vincent Hognon – who stood in as Antonetti took care of his wife who sadly passed away earlier this year – have made Metz organised and difficult to beat. They have a versatile set of midfielders and, in John Boye, Dylan Bronn and Kiki Kouyate, they have one of the most efficient defensive units in France. As leftfield results persist in this strangest of years, European football is more than just a dream for Les Grenats.
• Rennes’ 3-0 victory over Breton rivals Lorient on Sunday afternoon was their third win in a row. Suddenly Julian Stéphan’s team have the top four in view. It seemed as if the form that had carried the club into the Champions League this season might have evaporated during a run of just one win in 13 games before this week but, now without the fatigue and intensity of European football, this young side will be a real threat in 2021. They are outsiders, but Rennes could soon join a tight title race.
• We were devastated to hear of the death of a groundskeeper after the match between Lorient and Rennes. The 38-year-old, who was working as a volunteer, died in hospital after being injured in a freak accident at the stadium, where a floodlight ramp fell on him. A team of emergency service members were quick to the scene, with players of both clubs also rushing out from the dressing rooms in shock. The emergency services took the groundskeeper to the Scorff Hospital, where he died of his injuries. He was a father of three. The Mayor of Lorient, Fabrice Loher, who was at the stadium at the time of the accident, said: “It’s a terrible accident. The police from the Lorient police station have marked up the scene and an investigation is underway to understand the circumstances of the accident.”