The Eurostar hub of Lille by the Belgian border is home to one of the most successful French clubs in recent years – and a sleek, contemporary stadium, a host venue for Euro 2016.
Finishing ahead of Lyon, Marseille and St-Étienne in 2018-19, 2011 title-winners LOSC Lille qualified for the Champions League for the first time in five years. Home games are played at the futuristic Stade Pierre-Mauroy, opened in 2012.
Though modern-day LOSC were formed in 1944, their roots date back the very beginnings of the French game.
Olympique Lillois were formed in 1902, based at the Café Bellevue on Lille’s main square and playing at the Stade Victor-Boucquey on avenue de Dunkerque.
Under the helm of secretary and later president of the club and regional league Henri Jooris, Lille headed the thriving football scene of north-east France before and after World War I.
At the same time, another local sports club, Iris Club Lillois, mainly subsumed into Olympique in 1907, still had an independent football team of note. Iris and Olympique were big hitters in the regional league, enjoying national cup runs in the early 1930s.
At the same time, Sporting Club Fives, from the Fives area of Lille and based at the Stade Jules-Lemaire, soon embraced professionalism and reached three French Cup semi-finals, and the final of 1941.
Thinking that a single national professional division would weaken his Northern League, Jooris and Olympique held out for amateur status but, with SC Fives quick to join the inaugural French Championship of 1932-33, Olympique followed suit.
Winning one of the two groups that first season, OL went on to beat Cannes 4-3 in the league final in Paris, taking the French title at their first attempt. The following season, it was SC Fives who took the runners-up spot in the one-league championship.
The Stade Victor-Boucquey was renamed after Jooris following his death in 1940. It staged one game at the 1938 World Cup, Hungary’s 2-0 win over Switzerland.
Olympique achieved runners-up spots in the cup and league before war broke out. With the death in combat of their president Gabriel Caullet, Olympique amalgamated with Iris Club, and then, in 1944, Fives, to create today’s Lille Olympique Sporting Club.
LOSC did the double in 1946 and quickly established themselves as regular cup winners and championship challengers. Switching home games between the crumbling Stade Henri-Jooris and the former Fives home of Stade Jules-Lemaire, LOSC moved into a new stadium, the Grimonprez-Jooris, in 1975.
Close to the old Henri-Jooris, the Citadel and the childhood home of locally born Général de Gaulle, the Grimonprez-Jooris was unsuitable for LOSC to use when they qualified for the Champions League in 2001. Home games had to be held in Lens, the club’s local rivals in the Derby du Nord. Lens, of course, a town much smaller than Lille, had already co-hosted the World Cup of 1998.
The debate over a contemporary arena in Lille raged for a decade before the Stade Pierre-Mauroy was opened in 2012. It shifted Lille’s football hub from the grey terraced streets north of the centre, little changed since de Gaulle’s day, to the eastern suburb of Villeneuve d’Ascq, a contemporary complex of science and technology.
Lille Airport is at Lesquin, 7km (4.5 miles) south of the city centre. An hourly shuttle bus (single €8, return €10) connects with the Euralille commercial centre in town, journey time 20 mins. Euralille is set between the city’s two train stations, Lille Europe and Lille-Flandres, a short walk apart and close to the centre.
Centrale Taxi Lille (+33 6 20 53 40 04) charge around €25 into town, credit cards accepted.
Lille is linked to London St Pancras by Eurostar, with flights every 2hrs, journey time 1hr 30min. Trains come into Lille Europe.
Local transport run by ilévia consists of two fast and frequent metro lines, two tramlines and buses. A single ticket (valid 1hr, transfers allowed) is €1.65, a day pass €4.90, two-day €8.80. Note the evening-only Pass Soirée, valid from 7pm, for €2.30.
Alongside the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, in the area marked as Les Terrasses by main boulevard de Tournai, three hotels operate as ideal match-weekend getaways. The Park Inn by Radisson Lille Grand Stade is the classiest (and priciest), with a gym and conference facilities. Next door, the B&B Hôtel Lille Grand Stade is a functional and affordable option, while the Tulip Inn Lille Grand Stade Residence comprises 36 apartments for short- or long-term stays.
Also nearby, in the technology complex near the Cité Scientifique metro station, the Ascotel is a neat three-star. Halfway between the stadium and Villeneuve d’Ascq shopping centre/metro station, the handy option of the Hotel Stars has recently been converted as the budget chain Kyriad Lille Est – Villeneuve d’Ascq.
Hotels surround the city’s two train stations: the Flandre-Angleterre has been overhauled as La Valiz, with the hilarious motto of ‘An invitation to evasion in a punchy universe’, but with 44 renovated rooms nonetheless. Nearer to the station of the same name, Lille Europe is slightly classier. Just behind, the Novotel Suites Gare Lille Europe Hotel is a more business-friendly choice. Gleaming in the sunlight, the nearby Crowne Plaza Lille-Euralille offers a gym, bar and restaurant.
Local Flemish influence means that the city’s bars are well stocked with Belgian beers, of the lager, wheat and fruit varieties.
While terrace cafés and faux pubs abound, the main bar street is rue Masséna and offshoots. Arguably the most popular, its ever-busy terrace and blackboard of scheduled TV sports overlooking a downtown junction of streets, Magnum (No.55-57) attracts a mainly French crowd. On the same stretch, the more bar-like Shooter’s (No.23-25) offers TV football amid retro US decor.
Nearby Temple’s Bar (No.20) and the Barberousse (No.40), previously Le Sherwood before being taken over by a Grenoble-based chain, attract a crowd – elsewhere downtown you’ll also find Tír na nÓg (place Philippe Lebon), MacEwan’s (8 place Sebastopol) and, both on rue de Solférino, O’Scotland and L’Irlandais.
Of the many bars around the station, local chain Les 3 Brasseurs brews its own beer.