Racing Club de Lens, le Sang et Or (the red and gold) were promoted to Ligue 1 after finishing second in Ligue 2 behind Metz last season. After a season of joy in Nord-Pas-De-Calais, it has been a summer of frustration on two separate fronts.
Renovations Enforcing Absence
As a result of France winning the bid to host Euro 2016, RC Lens’ Stadium, the Stade Felix-Bollaert, is scheduled to host a number of games at the tournament. Last renovated in 1998, it is not a crumbling wreck of a ground, but nor is it one of UEFA’s elite stadia. In order to improve the state of their home ground – and, rather oddly, reduce the capacity from 41,000 to 35,000, RC Lens have agreed that they will leave the stadium for the whole of next season, something that makes their promotion last season seem particularly poorly timed.
“I wish we were playing in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and in the same stadium, preferably, for our fans,” admitted president Gervais Martel.
Lens as a Ligue 1 club generally average an attendance of 25,000, so there’s still stadia within Nord-Pas-De-Calais that could hold them, notably in Valenciennes (25,000) and Lille (50,000), but also a little further afield in Amiens (12,000) and Calais (12,500) – outside the region, the Stade de France has offered to host RC Lens next season, though the winds would howl through the empty seats if they were to take up the offer of an 80,000 seat stadium some 120 miles away.
As well as being the closest, Lille appeared to be the sensible option. France is not a country in which groundshares occur regularly, as two-city clubs are rare in the extreme. However, Lille’s new Stade Pierre Mauroy is the only really viable option to regularly host another Ligue 1 team. The snag is here is that Lille’s stadium is owned by a PPP (a private-public partnership) company who may have received €45 million from the region to help with construction costs, but are under no obligation to cede to the wishes of the region now building is complete. Nord-Pas-De-Calais can suggest it would be better for Les Dogues to allow Lens to play at their home but their request has fallen on deaf ears; particularly frustrating for Le Sang et Or after they twice hosted Champions League campaigns for Lille.
Valenciennes’ situation is slightly different in that their club president does not have the power of veto, but there is a definite sentiment against sharing with Lens, within the club though Vert-Marine (who run the stadium) would probably allow the ground-share should they be forced to do so. There is a regulation stating that a club cannot play at more than one ‘home’ stadium over the course of a season, and Martel insists it is in this spirit – for the bigger games – that he was hoping his club would be allowed to play in Lille, rather than every game for the course of a spell that is likely to last around 18 months. Lens have played at both Valenciennes and the Stade de France in the past, it is worth noting.
For now, though, that is how it is, and unless somebody finds a big enough stick to beat Lille with (and in no way could you suggest Lille are specifically in the wrong for looking after their own interests first excepting that it inconveniences one of their rivals) then Lens are without a home for their first Ligue 1 campaign in 3 years.
Finances Enforcing Absence
Which is where the second problem comes in. Ligue 1, being the bastion of Fair Play that it undoubtedly is, requires a balance of €10 million in each club’s accounts that wish to compete. Lens’ Azerbaijani owner has yet to stump up the cash so, as of Tuesday 15th July, the club can no longer consider itself a Ligue 1 club rather a Ligue 2 club who were never promoted. From a practical point of view, there is no firm decision made by the league as to which club would take Lens’ place in the top flight, though suggestion are that Sochaux, with Herve Renard in charge, would be favourites to see their relegation annulled.
Martel himself has insisted that the money is on its way from Azerbaijani owner Hafiz Mammadov, but his explanations of, first, the club changing accounts from Credit Agricole then the payment being sent but with the wrong IBAN code are, at best, flimsy. The decision taken on 15th July, to disallow Lens from Ligue 1 is the right one, however painful it may seem, though if Martel can finally secure payment from Mammadov before the next appeal before the CNOSF, there is little to suggest they would not be reinstated – though whether he is able to do so, of course, remains up in the air. One thing he has confirmed, though, promotion or no, is that Antoine Kombouaré will remain in charge.
Yet Life Goes On.
That same Tuesday 15th as they were effectively relegated, RC Lens travelled to Boulogne for a first friendly match of the season, with two very different sides lining up in each half, but each in Kombouaré’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. The first half started sprightly enough with last season’s top scorer Yoann Touzghar tapping in from a Chavarria cross; thereon, Racing did not have their way, conceding first from a deflected shot by Dia and, in the second half header from Rainier to give Boulogne a lead they held on to.
Of course, the players can only gain fitness and sharpness in view of the season to come; and in that respect, it won’t matter which division they’re in. They will next play on Friday evening, a friendly at Troyes (of course ‘at’ – their own ground is out of bounds currently). For a club who have won Ligue 1 in their time, the wait to hear their fate is unedifying and sad yet, if you look around Europe’s second tiers, not unheard of. It was a similar problem that befell Bologna as they were relegated from Serie A to Serie B, though they are likely to begin their campaign in the latter division.