The North derby is dead, long live the Hauts-de-France derby. Sunday, October 18, the Lille olympique sporting club (LOSC) receives the Racing club de Lens (9 p.m.) in its den of Villeneuve-d’Ascq for the first clash between the two rival clubs for five and a half years – and therefore since Nord-Pas-de-Calais merged with Picardy and adopted its new toponym.
Never had the two teams been apart for so long without crossing each other on the pitch. Returned to Ligue 1 this year after struggling in the second division, the promoted Lensois made a surprising start to the season, and was only separated in the standings from his neighbor in the northern metropolis by one point (before the 7e day, Lille was 2e with 14 points, and Lens 3e with 13 points). But all approach the meeting like a terra incognita, none of the forty-two players lined up on the scoresheet not counting the least derby of the North to his credit.
Author of a History of derbies, Olivier Brochart draws a parallel between this 111e clash between the two teams and a meeting disputed twenty years ago. “Both teams are at the top of the table, which is very rare, he relates in 20 minutes. This derby really reminds me of the one played on September 24, 2000 when LOSC had just returned to Ligue 1 after three years in purgatory. And, like this year, both teams were leading the championship. “ Led by Vahid Halilhodzic, LOSC won the meeting in the last five minutes (2-1).
Trajectories often reversed
Since then, and as often in history, the lifelines of the two clubs have split. A crossover that has nothing to do with holidays. Champion of France in 1998, RC Lens experienced the throes of relegation ten years later. “The two clubs have often had reversed trajectories, but each has always used the other to move forward”, observes Gervais Martel, president of Sang et Or for more than thirty years, in France Football. And when LOSC was in turn in the spotlight – doubled in the French Championship-Coupe de France in 2011 – Lens began a decade of struggle. As if, in the North, the light could not simultaneously illuminate Lille the bourgeoisie and Lens the worker, opposition on which the derby was built.
“At the end of the 1990s, Lens took off, while Lille was going through a period of instability, remembers former Lens player and coach Jean-Guy Wallemme, in France Football. And then the dynamics were reversed. Lens’s economy was dependent on results, and the club were on a tightrope, before falling. “ For the former captain of the Sang et Or, if the Lensois must be more inhabited by the fear of coming down than the excitement of the derby this year, they remain the club of a region, in opposition to the metropolis: “Whatever Lille does, there will always be this collective memory. “
“Life is only made up of cycles with beginnings, ends, and unfortunately for Lens we were in an ascending cycle, and they in a descending one, which we have benefited a little from”, notes Michel Seydoux, who chaired the LOSC from 2002 to 2016, and can boast of “Never to have lost a derby”. But for this 111e meeting between the two clubs – the 92e in the first division -, the former president imagines a highly disputed meeting.
“LOSC spent three seasons in D2 [de 1997 à 2000]. Lens has spent most of his time at this level over the past decade. The observation is the same: we suffer from the absence of these gala matches ”, observes the former Lille defender Pascal Cygan, in a large format of The voice of the North devoted to the Northern Derby.
“Sportingly, it’s a shame not to have the fans”
For the first time in twenty years, the planets Lille and Lens are aligned, at the top of the French championship. And the winner of the first Hauts-de-France derby – if there is one – will take the lead in Ligue 1 alone in front of Paris-Saint-Germain. “After so many years, such a derby between two clubs which do not like each other and which play at the top of the table is exceptional”, underlined the Lille president, Gérard Lopez, in The team. Like his Lensois counterpart, Joseph Oughourlian, Lopez may not be local – the two businessmen meet more often in the City of London than in the North – he aspires to maintain the spirit of the derby. By relying, in particular, on supporters.
Since the announcements of Emmanuel Macron announcing a night curfew in eight metropolises including Lille, we know that the Pierre-Mauroy stadium, behind closed doors, will ring empty. “Sportingly, it’s a shame not to have the fans, it was an incredible chance in terms of atmosphere, continues Gérard Lopez. The loser of a derby loses more than one match. But without the supporters, it’s hard to instill it. “
“A derby is all about atmospheres, and there won’t be any, regretted the Lille coach, Christophe Galtier. Supporters only exist through these kinds of matches. They put more energy into it and are brought to light. This time it’s forbidden. “ If on the ground the meeting should not lack spice, outside, this “Match that smells a little more fried than the others”, as Bernard Lama – who kept the cages of the two clubs – formulated it, may lack flavor.