Lille chase first major trophy in more than 50 years

By John BennettBBC World Service Sport
Lille players
Lille are top of Ligue 1 with seven matches remaining

The bar is filled with Lille supporters but only one man can remember the last time the club won the French title.

"Yes I was there that day," the charismatic Raymondi tells me while sipping his pre-match beer. "I never believed we could do it again but this year maybe yes. Fifty-seven years I am waiting for this. After this I tell people I can die happy, no problem."

No wonder he's finally daring to dream; Raymondi and his fellow Lille supporters are already having a season to remember.

Not only are Rudi Garcia's side top of the table but they're also into the French Cup final for the first time since 1955.

So after nearly six decades of mediocrity, how have Lille suddenly become title challengers?

It is no overnight success.

Things changed for "les Dogues" when film producer and businessman Michel Seydoux became involved with the club in January 2002, before being named president two years later.

Under the tutelage of ex-Monaco manager Claude Puel, Lille qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history in 2005. Garcia has maintained the momentum since Puel's departure to Lyon, with the club returning to Europe's premier competition on two subsequent occasions.

Lionel Dangoumau follows the fortunes of Lille for France's biggest sports newspaper, L'Equipe, and he feels the president can take much of the credit for the club's progress.

"At the beginning there was a good project," said Dangoumau. "He's very patient and he comes from the movie industry so maybe he has ideas coming from his main job with actors and actresses, who like footballers can be difficult to manage."

Seydoux has also changed things off the pitch. Lille's current home is Stade Lille-Metropole, a multi-purpose arena deemed unfit to host Champions League matches and with a capacity of a little over 18,000. From next season, however, that will all change.

Lille supporters can look forward to watching their team at the new 50,000 all-seater Grand Stade Lille Metropole. It is a state-of-the art project and will be the first stadium in France to have a retractable roof.

Best of all, construction of the stadium is not costing the club a penny. The ground is being paid for by the local authority, who will then rent it back to them.

On the pitch, though, there could be one inevitable problem for Lille at the end of the season. Some of the biggest clubs in Europe are targeting their star players.

Skilful Belgian winger Eden Hazard has been linked with a number of top European clubs, particularly Arsenal. Ivory Coast forward Gervinho has attracted interest from Liverpool and Moussa Sow is impressing scouts from La Liga and Serie A after scoring 21 goals in Ligue 1 this season.

According to Dangamau, Lille can't afford to lose more than one of these players.

"We think that Gervinho will leave the club at the end of the season because he will have only one year left on his contract and we know that Damien Comolli from Liverpool likes a lot of the Lille players," he says.

Before the challenges of the summer Lille have the small matter of trying to win their first league title since 1954.

Current champions Marseille are finding form and sit just one point behind Lille in the Ligue 1 tableexternal-link. It will not be easy for Garcia's team but after waiting for 57 years, Raymondi tells me he's more confident than ever.

"In the last 10 years we have a really good team, so I hope this year we can finally harvest," he says. "I strongly believe we can do it."