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Ailing RC Lens Under Threat of Sliding off Ligue 1 Map

Andrew Gibney@@gibney_aFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2015

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There is no such thing as a quiet week for Racing Club de Lens. In the past fortnight they have had to appeal to the Administrative Court of Besancon to keep their place in Ligue 1, sell a young defender to make sure they can pay players wages for the rest of the season, then finish the week fighting for their lives to earn a 3-3 draw in one of the most intimidating grounds in France.

It must have been a relief for Coach Antoine Kombouare to get back to events on the pitch this week. From the heat of deadline day, they jumped straight into the heat of Le Chaudron. After going 2-0 down to Saint-Etienne, the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was stunned into silence when substitutes Yoann Touzghar and Pablo Chavarria struck back to make it 3-2.

Les Stephanois would level the game late on, saving their blushes and another point towards their chase for European qualification. For Lens, it was an inspirational display from the away side, one that could spark a run that could keep them out of the relegation zone for the rest of the season.

However, that may may not be enough to keep them in Ligue 1 for next season.

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Before kick-off, Saint-Etienne started the week in fourth position, Lens way down in 19th. Both clubs are known for having two of the best supports in France football, with Saint-Etienne joint with Marseille as being the most successful teams in the history of the league.

To contrast the recent success of both clubs, when Lens pipped Metz for the title in 1998, Saint-Etienne was playing in the second division. After 17 consecutive years in the top flight, Lens dropped to Ligue 2 in 2008; they would bounce back up and managed two seasons before dropping back down.

This time the drop was harder, finishing 11 points from safety. The struggle to come back up hit the club hard, two seasons in a row they finished 12th in Ligue 2. Although they had a wonderful support—averaging attendances of 16,000 and 21,000—who never gave up on them, the future looked bleak.

Uncertainty on the pitch was followed by even worse scenes off it. Club president Gervais Martel was forced to leave the club by the Credit Agricole Nord de France bank. After 14 years in charge of the club, Martel vowed on his way out that he would be back.

True to his word, his second coming came only a year later. The club’s majority shareholders were suffering financially. Staff and players had not been paid throughout June 2013. Martel returned to save the club, but this time, via Paris Match (in French), he brought a friend.

At first, his name brought feelings of joy and relief, but now the mere mention of Hafiz Mammadov in ear shot of Les Sang-et-Or, and you will not see many—if any—smiling faces. The Azerbaijani business man had made his millions through the Baghlan Group, a company specialising in oil, gas and construction. He may not have been at the same level of Qatari Sports Investment at Paris Saint-Germain, but he was wealthy enough to make a huge difference to a club that begged for success.

Similar to the English FA’s fit and proper person’s test, despite worries about Mammadov’s ability to add sufficient financial support to the club, the French Football Federation ratified his ownership of the club in July 2013.

Mammadov’s influence made an instant impact. His funding helped the club bring in attractive loan deals. Alphonse Areola joined for the season from PSG, Marcel Tisserand from Monaco and Pablo Chavarria was loaned from Belgian giants Anderlecht. Lens also brought in French striker Adamo Coulibaly from Debrecen on a permanent deal after he scored 66 goals in four seasons in the Hungarian league.

Strength in numbers helped lift the club out from their position of mid-table mediocrity and on the final day of the 2013/14 season they confirmed their second-place finish.

Joy for the club was short-lived when the National Directorate of Management Control (DNCG), the body that oversees the finances of all French football clubs, blocked Lens' return to Ligue 1. Their investigations had revealed financial irregularities in the club’s proposed budget for the upcoming season.

It seemed that €10 million, which was due to be paid to the club by Mammadov hadn’t made its way into the club’s accounts. At first an Azerbaijani bank holiday was blamed for the missing funds, but eventually the business man refused to deliver the agreed amount

The DNCG had ruled that Lens would not be able to play in Ligue 1, but the club appealed the decision with the French Olympic Committee (CNOSF). They overturned the DNCG’s decision and ruled that Lens would be able to compete in the league, but they would do so under a transfer embargo.

Lens had revised their original budget, and they wouldn’t be allowed to bring anyone in before the summer transfer window closed. This meant they missed out on a number of key signings. All the loan players that had helped the club gain promotion moved on to rivals clubs.

Lens' squad was now weaker than the team that won them promotion to the top division. If their team had been a mixture of youth and experience before, now it was even younger with even less experience.

In December, with the club struggling to stay out of the relegation zone, Martel met with the DNCG to review the club’s financial position. They were not entirely convinced that the club could meet their financial demands, and the embargo would be lifted slightly, and two free transfers were confirmed.

However, it was declared that the club would still have to find another €2.5 million to ensure that everyone at the club was paid until the end of the season. Failure to meet this demand could have further sanctions towards the club and their position in the league.

With one disaster avoided, the next iceberg would hit on the January 29th. After finishing in the Ligue 1 relegation zone, FC Sochaux had filed a complaint to the courts, declaring that Lens' promotion to Ligue 1 was illegal. Unable to meet the demands of the DNCG, Sochaux claimed that the embargo wasn’t enough and the northern side should not have been granted promotion.

The Administrative Court of Besancon announced that they had found Lens' promotion to be invalid. France Bleu reported that no matter where Lens finished at the end of the season, they would be automatically relegated back to Ligue 2 at the very least. Almost immediately, the FFF revealed they had lodged an appeal against the decision, plunging the club into uncertainty once again.

Back under the spotlight of Le Chaudron, Lens looked into the fire and came out fighting. Going down 2-0 away against Saint-Etienne would have been grounds to shut up shop and in true French style, wait for your next game to try again. However, this season, under Kombouare, Lens has failed to give up.

They have shown unbelievable courage and resilience to put aside what is happening off the pitch and are fighting the only way they know how. The former PSG and Valenciennes coach brought on Yoann Touzghar and Pablo Chavarria in the second half and it would prove crucial.

Touzghar’s low strike and penalty levelled the score, and then with 13 minutes to go, the side down in 19th took the lead. Ironically it was Dimitri Cavare that set up the goal, but we’ll come back to him. The run from the right-back made his way to the byline, he kept his composure and picked out Pablo Chavarria with the cut-back. The Argentine supplied the sublime finish.

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It was the second time in the week that Cavare had saved his club. On deadline day, the 20-year-old was sold to Rennes for €3 million. Rennes then had to cancel the contract of another loanee—you can only have a maximum of seven at any one time in Ligue 1—so they could send Cavare back to Lens for the rest of the season.

The transfer will save the short-term future of the club. Lens started the weekend only five points short of rivals Lille in 13th. It would only take a few good results and performances to go their way to pull them out of the relegation zone. With the belief that the squad have in each other, and the desire they have shown under Kombouare.

However, the problem for Lens is that their hard work and never-say-die attitude could be absolutely worthless at the end of the season.

With the current landscape of the league it could be a very long time until Saint-Etienne has a genuine chance of lifting their 11th Ligue 1 crown, but the harsh reality is that Lens, in their current guise, are unlikely to ever win title No. 2.

Relegation to Ligue 2 beckons for this side with a great history and an even bigger fanbase. If sanctions come down heavy on the club, they could follow the likes of Strasbourg and Grenoble and drop from Ligue 1 to the amateur divisions.

Life is never dull in the northern community of Lens, but it’s conceivable that the dedicated fans would swap all this uncertainty for a few seasons of mid-table obscurity.

There will still be huge attendances and high-profile games at the newly developed Stade Bollaert-Delelis once the work is complete, but those games will likely be during the 2016 European Championships, rather than the excitement of Ligue 1.

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