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Just a Lille Bit About Football

Colin Crawford is a museum worker with a well cultivated taste for the arcane and unusual. Buy him a cup of tea and he’ll talk about anything to do with soccer.

This season Colin is exploring Ligue 1, club by club. This week? Lille OSC!


lille-france-before-great-war

It was a throwaway line from an article on the unparalleled Run of Play blog that I can remember neither the author nor subject of. The paraphrase would go along the lines of “inside the stadiums we are all from Ancient Greece.” The insinuation that nationality is set aside for municipality inside the crucible of sporting competition is one that we’ve all experienced, even if the internet has – digitally, at least – extended the boundaries of some territories.

France has several fiercely contested derbies where this thought is even more appropriate. As we discussed earlier, it’s unusual for one city to play host to multiple high level clubs. The sole club in the city acts as an avatar for the residents and serves as conduit for the myths that people tell about themselves and the cities in which they dwell.

The derbies that are typically noted outside of France are the clashes between the historically large clubs, irrespective of geography. Le Classique between PSG and Marseilles tends to get attention, as does Choc des Olympiques – or the Olympico – which happens whenever OM take on Olympique de Lyon. Breton and Normandy have several derbies played within their borders, less internationally recognized but no less hard-fought and regionally important. The two that come closest to being the intra-municipal contests that many fans are used to are the Derby Rhônalpin – between Saint-Etienne and Lyon – and the Derby du Nord featuring RC Lens and our club this week, Lille OSC.

Both Lille and Lens have histories that date back to the medieval era and were both part of the Empire of Flanders until surprisingly recently, but they developed along different lines. Lille was famous for it’s cloth as early as the 12th century, whilst Lens was a fort that turned into a market town because of it’s fortunate position on a river. Lille continued to grow in size and influence over the years, and was enough of a prize that in 1225 a street performer named Bertrand Cordel attempted to bring Flanders under his control by impersonating Baldwin I of Constantinople, who had disappeared on a battlefield some years prior. Needless to say, his ruse was unsuccessful and he was quickly hanged. The relationship between the cities was unremarkable for several centuries, but this changed in 1841, when coal was discovered outside Lens.

Suddenly the small market town became an important point on the industrial revolution map, and began to act accordingly. The city grew to unprecedented levels but it should be noted the population was still a fraction of Lille, which stood at 217,000 in 1912. In comparison, Lens was host to 18,000, a number that was halved after the First World War. The mines surrounding the city kept producing, however, and a full reconstruction was effected. Ever since, Lens has positioned itself as a tough, blue-collar town that lives and works in the mines; the same mines that closed for good in 1986, the same closures that put the city of Lille in the financial doldrums as well. Lille, however, had the population and the local businessman who were able to transition the failing industry into the service sector. This saved the city and made it a financial and political centre once more, one only an hour from Paris on the TGV, and the EU capital of culture in 2004.

Lens was unable to mitigate the loss of the heavy industry that had been the fiscal prop of the region for so long. Now unemployment climbs to new heights and the hard-right political party Front National are circling. The Louvre opened up a satellite space in Lens, but it appears to be a conciliatory gesture at best. The recent construction of business parks crowed about on the official website of the town doesn’t appear to have arrested the slide all that much either. At first glance it can seem very much like a tale of scrappy working-class town that was brought low by outside interests taking on an uppity group of fancy dans who only go to the football if the team is winning[1]. This doesn’t ring entirely true, though.

Both teams have a relatively middle class beginnings. As discussed in the Dijon FCO piece, LOSC was the result of a merging between SC Fives and the older team Olympique Lillois. Lillois were one of the founding members of the national league in an era long before professionalism was legal[2]. The adoption of the appellation “Olympique” gives some clue to the make-up of it’s founders; industrialists and traders from the city of Lille who believed in the Corinthian spirit of sporting contest. RC Lens was founded by students and their parents. A similarly bourgeois pursuit in 1905, even if the original club colours of green and black were supposed to represent the surrounding hills and the coal within them.

As for the myth of “you only sing when you’re winning”, there appears to be some truth to it. Attendance figures are a tricky thing to track for a number of reasons, but Lille’s have certainly taken a jump since the double win in 2010/11[3]. Since then, though, they have regularly attracted over 30,000 fans for each game[4]. For their part, RC Lens, when they are in their home ground[5], continue to draw well, even whilst in Ligue 2. This season through eight games in Ligue 1, LOSC has an average attendance of 25,991, whilst Lens averages 26,709[6]. The numbers seem even, but it must be borne in mind that the Stade Pierre-Mauroy that Lille play in has a capacity of 50,186, such that it always feels emptier than the Stade Bollaert-Delelis which can hold 38,223 – nearly 6,000 more than the population of Lens.

William Nuytens might have answers in his book La popularité du football : sociologie des supporteurs à Lens et à Lille. I’ll confess I haven’t read the book, but I was directed to a 2007 interview [7]. He very roughly outlines his findings and concludes that the two fanbases are more alike than they are different. He pours scorn on the mining identity invoked by the Lens fans, claiming it’s a myth concocted by community leaders. Nuytens also talks about the support for RC Lens originating from strongholds in smaller towns in the Artois region. It’s here that I feel the real rivalry between the two clubs lie.

Whilst I talked about clubs being conduits for municipal pride above, it’s not a large step to expand the horizon to a regional or cultural one. Lens is a city and the football club acts as a locus for the Ch’ti, a culture concentrated in the Pas-De-Calais Nord region that maps it’s heritage back to the Picardy empire. In rough terms, they’re similar to Newfoundland residents, or perhaps those in the North-East or South-West of England. It’s an unfashionable region to be from, and those notorious taste-makers, PSG fans, stirred up trouble in 2008 when they welcomed RC Lens to the Stade de France with a sign that read ‘Paedophiles, unemployed, inbred: Welcome to the Sticks [Ch’ti Country]’[8]. The people there are still proud of their roots, however, and RC Lens is one of the ways that those who self-identify as Ch’ti can gather and celebrate their culture.

Lille on the other hand, is perhaps much more Flemish in character. Close to the Belgian border and with a more entrenched merchant class, it’s not difficult to see how these two clubs could be opposed to one another, although one feels that perhaps the footballing rivalry is held more dear on one side than the other.[9]

The two footballing representatives first met in 1937, when LOSC was still Olympique Lillois. Since then they’ve played over 100 times, and French Football Weekly ran a good round-up of the recent footballing history between the two clubs last year. There won’t be another rendition of the Derby this year, except perhaps for cups, as RC Lens are currently in Ligue 2 after some financial irregularities saw them denied promotion last season whilst LOSC are in Ligue 1, albeit languishing in 18th position.

Lille will have felt the losses of Djibril Sidibe and Sofiane Boufal in the offseason, and the new names of Julian Palmieri from Bastia and Eder on a permanent deal do not necessarily inspire confidence. Rony Lopes, on loan from Monaco, is the top scorer in the league this year with two. Morgan Amalfitano fills the “Oh, that’s where he went” quota, and eagle-eyed fans of the Canadian national team might recognize the name Hamza Mendyl for the part he played in the shellacking Morocco gave to Canada earlier this week.[10]

This weekend they face our old friends En Avant de Guingamp, so I’m going to crack open a Breizh Cola and drink it in.


My thanks to Lauren Maharaj, Jeremy Smith, and Andy David, who helped immeasurably with the research for this article.

[1]     This is such an easy narrative, in fact, that it is consistently parroted on various corners of the internet, particularly the English language ones. Exhibit A: http://rivaltalk.co.uk/tag/derby-du-nord/ I’ve no doubt the other work on the site is worthwhile, but this appears to regurgitate a lot of the hyperbole around this and other derbies.

[2]     Professionalism in French football was legalized in 1930 and fully implemented in 1932.

[3]     http://web.archive.org/web/20120112043628/http://www.lavoixdessports.com/Magazine/2012/01/09/article_dans-les-c-urs-aussi-le-losc-est-passe-devant.shtml – with thanks to Andy David

[4]     Numbers from http://www.ligue1.com/ligue1/affluences/ club & http://www.ligue1.com/ligue2/affluences/club

[5]     The last time they were in Ligue 1 they played their home games at Stade de la Licorne, an 18,000 seater stadium 90 km away in Amiens.

[6]     Indeed, their nearest competition is RC Strasbourg Alsace who have an average of 14,932, the only other team in the division with an attendance in five figures.

[7]     With thanks to Jeremy Smith

[8]     There was an immediate hunt and some people were handed with a 500 Euro fine and a year stadium ban. It was also used as another reason to step in and disband the Boulogne Boys.

[9]     I’m not going to get into the mire of discussion about authenticity here, as I’ve already gone on long enough. I just want to state for the record that I fully believe Lille fans to be just as passionate about their club as those at Lens.

[10]   Although having said that, he doesn’t appear to have a squad number or to have played any games. This probably doesn’t reflect well on the Canadian side.

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