The Eurostar hub of Lille by the Belgian border is home to one of the most successful French clubs in recent years – and a new stadium, set for Euro 2016.
Finishing ahead of Marseille, Lyon and St-Étienne, 2011 title-winners LOSC Lille were back in the Champions League in 2014-15, albeit briefly, with home games being played at the futuristic Stade Pierre-Mauroy, opened in 2012.
Spice was added to the domestic season with the promotion of local rivals Lens, whose own stadium is being knocked down for the Euros. In the Derby du Nord, cosmopolitan LOSC just have the edge on their working-class neighbours – but recent years have not been so kind to little Lens.
Both bristle with football tradition. 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 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.
Still standing proud near the old stadium, and close to de Gaulle’s house, Au Celtique on place de St-André is a classic football bar where a century of soccer history is revered.
Lille Airport is at Lesquin, 7km (4.5 miles) south of the city centre. An hourly shuttle bus (single €7, return €9) 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. Taxi Union (+33 3 20 06 06 06) charge around €20 into town.
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 Transpole consists of two fast and frequent metro lines, two tramlines and buses. A single ticket (transfers allowed) is €1.50, a day pass €4, two days €7.50. Match-ticket holders can take advantage of the Pass’ Grand Stade (€2.20 return) to and from the stadium, from 2hrs before kick-off.
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 Stade Pierre Mauroy is a functional and affordable option, while the Tulip Inn Lille Grand Stade Residences, formerly Sergic Residences, 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, Hotel Stars is a handy budget option.
Hotels surround the city’s two train stations: the Flandre-Angleterre is one of several two-star establishments while the, nearer to the station of the same name, Lille Europe is slightly classier. Just behind, the Suite Novotel Lille Europe Hotel is a more business-friendly choice.
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 Shooters (No.23-25) offers TV football amid retro US decor.
Nearby Temple’s Bar (No.20) and superior Le Sherwood (No.40) appeal to the expat crowd – elsewhere downtown you’ll also find Tir Na Nog, MacEwan’s (8 place Sebastopol), O’Scotland (168 rue de Solférino), L’Irlandais and, inside Lille Europe station, O’Conway’s.
Of the many bars around the station, Les 3 Brasseurs brews its own beer.
For a real taste of local football history, Au Celtique (7 place de St-André) north of the city centre near the old stadium brims with classic memorabilia such as souvenirs from the 1948 French Cup Final and any number of scarves and signed photos. There’s a decent kitchen, too.