Football News

Jose Fonte: Lille must thank football’s “greatest” transfer guru for UCL qualification

By Harry Edwards

Published: 19:01, 28 May 2019

Ligue 1 may have been a walkover for Paris Saint-Germain this season, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been feel-good stories in French football.

Arguably the biggest is that of LOSC Lille, who finished second to secure Champions League group stage football for the first time since 2012/13.

And while this is not as remarkable as, for example, Atalanta qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in the club’s 112-year history, it should not be ignored.

In the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season, Lille finished just one point clear of the relegation zone, only securing their safety in the penultimate game of the campaign.

Not accepting their position, Lille dipped into the transfer window in the summer of 2018, bringing in no fewer than nine players – but never making headlines with their transfer fees.

The most they spent on a single player was a reported £4.5m on midfielder Jonathan Ikone from PSG, who scored three goals and recorded nine assists in Ligue 1 – only Nicolas Pepe set up his team-mates more often among Lille’s squad.

The shrewd transfer business, which proved to be fruitful, was the work of Lille’s sporting director Luis Campos.

And while the likes of manager Christophe Galiter and star man Pepe will receive most of the plaudits for Lille’s Champions League return, there is one man who believes Campos deserves significant credit.

“With Lille it’s amazing to be part of the Champions League,” Jose Fonte, another of Campos’ signings last summer, told Squawka.

“Last year the club was almost relegated so what a turnaround – a fantastic, expectational year that we’ve had.

“A lot of change has happened in the team since I arrived. So great credit to Luis Campos, to all the players and the fans for the great season we’ve had.”

Though many will look at the influence of Lille’s attacking players over the season, the club’s defence should not be forgotten.

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With Fonte at the heart of a four-man defence alongside fellow 2018 signing Mehmet Zeki Celik, Lille conceded 33 goals in Ligue 1 – fewer than any other team in the division.

And, as a result, the 35-year-old is not nervous about a foray into the Champions League, and is ready to take on some of Europe’s biggest teams.

Fonte added: “To play in the Champions League next year will be amazing. If we can have a group with Barcelona, Liverpool and Chelsea that would be amazing, but I don’t care who’s in our group.

“We just want to go and give it our best against the best and we’ll see what happens. We have great talent, we have probably the greatest sporting director in signing players.”

When Campos moved to Lille in 2017, he was joining a club in Ligue 1 limbo, having just finished 11th. Work needed to be done, though it would not be an instant success as their 17th-placed finish the following year showed.

But Campos, a former manager in the Portuguese leagues, has had the last laugh of those who might have doubted him, bringing in a number of players to help in Lille’s evolution.

In Campos’ first summer, 14 players were brought in for a total sum of over £60m, almost all planning for the long-term. The likes of Thiago Maia, Luiz Araujo and Thiago Mendes have played their part, but one name stands out more than the rest.

Perhaps using some of the knowledge he would have picked up while working as a scout for Real Madrid, Campos decided to look closer to home for an attacking star, targeting SCO Angers.

Among their ranks was a 21-year-old who hadn’t had the best of seasons, stats-wise, scoring just three goals and recording one assist, but something had caught Campos’ eye, leading to Lille spending a reported £9m. That player? Nicolas Pepe.

Following a decent first campaign, scoring 13 goals and recording four assists, Pepe took off in his second year at Lille.

Only Kylian Mbappe was directly involved in more goals than Pepe’s 33 last season, with the Ivorian scoring 22 and recording 11 assists – the second-highest in Ligue 1 for both stats.

And now Pepe is being linked with a big-money move away from Lille, with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United reportedly interested.

But while Lille’s chairman has already resigned himself to losing Pepe, Fonte is confident Campos’ influence can help Lille keep building for the future.

“So lets’s see what happens next year,” he continued.

“I’m pretty positive and confident we can build a good enough team to compete and let’s prepare for it. It’s going to be exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”

But what if Campos leaves? As a result of his fine work, the Portuguese has understandably been linked with a move away from Lille, with Chelsea and Roma among those interested.

Chelsea are facing an uncertain future with their transfer ban, but they are in serious need of someone to oversee their signings having made some questionable decisions of late, such as Gonzalo Higuain’s loan move. Meanwhile Roma are looking to replace Monchi, who recently returned to Sevilla.

But in April, Lille president Gerard Lopez spoke with certainty that Campos would stay at the club for “years to come”.

“I’m confident Luis Campos will stay with us, as will our coach,” he told RMC Sport last month.

“It’s true that some clubs have tried to take him away from us, to ‘snatch him’ from the club, but he won’t be leaving.

“He’ll work with us for years to come.”

And this is something Fonte and Lille fans will be hoping is true.