Boardroom confusion and legal challenge against previous promotion
10 February ~ Since their team won promotion from France’s Ligue 2 last May, at an empty stadium 1,000 kilometers from home, fans of Lens have reeled from one baffling setback to another. The club had to find a temporary home while their Stade Bollaert-Delelis was being done up for Euro 2016, but it took months to work out where. In the end they settled on Amiens’ pretty but odd Stade de la Licorne (the name means Unicorn Stadium and it’s like a cross between a League 2 ground and a Kew greenhouse).
Doubts over their funding meant they were only confirmed as being able to play in Ligue 1 a matter of days before the season started. With some departures and no new recruits they were aiming to stay up with a squad demonstrably weaker than the year before.
The financial doubts were down to the uncertain status of majority shareholder and not-quite-owner Hafiz Mammadov, an Azerbaijani businessman whose proposed takeover of Sheffield Wednesday collapsed last September. The money he provided to bankroll promotion was real enough but since then, despite numerous promises, there’s been nothing. Exactly why remains a mystery. Over the last few months he’s been variously rumoured to be bankrupt, in jail, had assets frozen by a regime he’d fallen out with, been standing up to French football bureaucracy, been ignoring Lens to pursue interests in other clubs and withholding cash as a way to oust club president Gervais Martel.
It’s unlikely even Mammadov knows how many of these have been true at any one time. Apparently his defaulting on promised payments by January could have led to the transferring of ownership to another investor, the Azerbaijani transport minister Ziya Mammadov (no relation), but it doesn’t look like this has actually happened. Martel’s accounts of what has been going on have been all over the place but, again, it’s difficult to tell whether he’s in dispute with Mammadov, playing his own game or simply trying to spin tales to give Lens time to get properly on their feet. Whatever the truth, Mammadov isn’t coming up with funds but hasn’t yet gone away either.
The result has been a litany of recruitment embargoes and rumours of the club’s imminent demise. If that weren’t enough, a French court recently ruled that their promotion to Ligue 1 had been illegal, in an action brought not by one of their disappointed competitors for promotion (which might have made some vague sense) but relegated Sochaux. Like the summer threats to block promotion in the first place it’s unlikely that this will amount to anything, but it adds to the general sense of unreality.
On the pitch a thin squad will struggle to avoid the predictable path to relegation. Under coach Antoine Kombouaré (back from being on strike while the club’s Ligue 1 status was uncertain) they’ve got a good spirit and played pretty well in an undistinguished league – pushing fragile-looking league leaders Lyon close a couple of times. But the refrain “that was a pretty good performance, if we keep that up we’ll get three points next week” will be all too familiar to the supporters of doomed teams.
As it is, the fans have mostly kept up their support, although the official home average of just under 20,000 is skewed slightly by two matches having been played at a full Stade de France. The lack of clarity over what is going on and the absence from Bollaert has made it difficult to find a focus for their fear and anger. While some would just like to wake up and find the season over, many will settle for the club remaining in existence and being allowed to battle to stay in the top flight. Matt Hopkinson