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Lille's French midefielder Jonathan Ikone celebrates after scoring a goal during the French L1 football match between Lille (LOSC) and Angers (SCO) at the Pierre-Mauroy Stadium in Villeneuve d'Ascq, near Lille, northern France, on May 18 2019. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP) (Photo credit should read DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images)
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CNN —  

Lille’s return to the Champions League after a seven-year absence is thanks, in part, to a little bit of football “art.”

The talented sculptor in question is Luis Campos, the club’s technical director who has molded a relegation-threatened squad into one of France’s finest.

Last year, the Portuguese traveled a staggering 240,000 miles around the globe in search of new talent for Lille’s ambitious project, that he hopes will see it become a regular on European football’s biggest stage.

This season will be the first time since 2012 that the Stade Pierre-Mauroy has hosted Champions League football, thanks to last season’s second place finish in Ligue 1.

At the same time as Campos was hired, Lille appointed Marc Ingla as its CEO, the man whose work behind the scenes on the Barcelona board during Joan Laporta’s presidency was crucial to the most successful era in the club’s history.

Campos is widely regarded as one of the smartest and most effective technical directors in football and, though he left a year earlier, was key to building the team that led Monaco to the Ligue 1 title and the Champions League semifinals in 2016/17.

Upon leaving Monaco, Campos insisted his work on the Riviera would not be his final “masterpiece” and he is already well on his way to creating another.

Lille's players celebrate hammering PSG 5-1 towards the end of last season.
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Lille's players celebrate hammering PSG 5-1 towards the end of last season.

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“The work of Luis is very sensitive for our strategy for the club,” Ingla tells CNN. “It’s very travel intensive, there’s an amount of work that is scientific, that is data intensive, that is methodology intensive.

“But also there’s some art involved, which is the live observation and that’s the final value that Luis adds.”

Campos, of course, does not work alone. Ingla believes Lille has one of the most efficient scouting set-ups in the world, meaning the club is able to fully capitalize on being situated in a region rich with young footballing talent.

Lille has 20 scouts in France and more spread out around the world, focused particularly on unearthing stars in Maghreb and West Africa.

“Our recruitment capacity and the extent of talent we have access to is just amazing, it’s just incredible,” Ingla says. “[This is] led by Luis, who is if not one of the best, the best, not only scout but also sporting adviser.

Marc Ingla (L) and Luis Campos (R) take part in a press conference for Lille.
DENIS CHARLET/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Marc Ingla (L) and Luis Campos (R) take part in a press conference for Lille.

“We scout players with a unique set of methodologies, software tools, data gathering tools, so we can have more rapid and better access than any other club to the emerging young talent that can feed our playing style, which is offensive and spectacular.

“But also formative, so these players can earn exposure and grow – firstly for their careers so we can benefit from their sporting performance – but also so they can fulfill their dreams of succeeding with us and maybe dreaming higher one day, like has been the case for [Nicolas] Pepe.

“Today, like in entrepreneurship and in other industries, talent can emerge in any corner of the world and that’s why we are really attentive.”

Long-term plan

However, the short journey so far has not been without its bumps in the road.

One of Ingla and Campos’ first major decisions was hiring Marcelo Bielsa as the team’s new head coach, a man whose ideas have influenced some of the very best managers of this generation but whose teams also have the tendency to implode.

After amassing just 12 points from his opening 13 games – and then traveling back to South America to visit a terminally ill friend without the club’s consent – Lille relieved Bielsa of his duties.

Such is the nature of modern football – a phenomenon that sees managers fired and entire projects scrapped after a few bad games – the pair perhaps would have been expected to tear everything down and start again.

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Given that only 18 months ago – after Campos and Ingla’s first full season at the club – Lille escaped France’s relegation play-off by just one point, even the duo, as optimistic as they were, could not have foreseen such immediate success.

But both Campos and Ingla had faith in the long-term plan they had envisaged, which was funded by billionaire investor and new Lille owner Gerard Lopez, and hired coach Christophe Galtier to carry through their vision.

“We believe it is very important to be consistent in football,” Ingla says. “Bad results can come, bad seasons can come but the strategy to stay [the same] and the less changes you make, the more your sporting strategies are reinforced and [you see] the fruits of these.

Marcelo Bielsa's reign as Lille coach lasted just 13 matches.
DENIS CHARLET/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Marcelo Bielsa's reign as Lille coach lasted just 13 matches.

“If you manage the club by the Monday results and newspapers commentaries or social media commentaries, it’s just unmanageable. We have to try to be consistent in an industry that sometimes is a bit more extreme on the negatives or the positives.

“Sometimes we are more accurate in our decisions and with the results we are having we gain more positive attention. We may make errors, of course, but we believe we are in a positive trend.”

’It’s not easy to reach the top’

Given that Lille cannot compete with the financial strength of European football’s superpowers, one of the key elements to the success of this project is the club’s ability to buy low and sell high, as it did with Nicolas Pepe.

Some of the most talented youngsters and the players at Lille hoping to follow in the Ivorian’s footsteps are Jonathan Ikoné, Timothy Weah, Boubakary Soumaré and Jonathan Bamba.

However, while signing and developing some of the world’s most exciting young talent undoubtedly has its long-term financial benefits, it can also lead to a dearth of experience among the current playing squad.

With an average age of just 24.2, Lille boasts one of the youngest squads in this season’s Champions League and has just five players over the age of 25.

While Bielsa sold several of the team’s more senior figures, one of Galtier’s first major decisions when helping shape the first team was to add more experience.

José Fonte with Marc Ingla after signing for Lille.
FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
José Fonte with Marc Ingla after signing for Lille.

One of those brought in to guide and offer assistance to Lille’s young squad was defender Jose Fonte, who had just left Chinese club Dalian Yifang following the 2018 World Cup.

The 35-year-old, who played at the heart of defense in Portugal’s winning Euro 2016 side, says the main example he tries to set for the youngsters is one of “consistency.”

“It’s very hard – it’s not easy to reach the top,” he tells CNN. “But it’s easier to reach the top than to maintain that level. So I think it’s all about consistency – and being consistent, you need to work hard every day.

“You need to perform every day, you need to train hard every day, you need to be focused every day and that’s the hard thing to do. So my role here is to make sure that the kids, the young talent, they perform every day.

“Make sure they are switched on every day for training, they go to the gym, they do their rehabilitation work, talk with them when they are a little bit down, when they’re not confident perhaps and show some calmness and some confidence so they have the support they need to develop their talents.”

After the World Cup, Fonte’s plans changed considerably when he received a phone call from Campos, during which he explained the club’s vision and the role he would play.

Fonte, unsurprisingly, also speaks highly of Campos and credits his compatriot with convincing him to join the ambitious project.

“I came to visit, I researched a little bit of the team and I spoke with the manager – I felt like they wanted me,” he says. “So it was a very simple decision and in the end it paid off.”

Lille and Valencia also faced off in the 2012 Champions League group stages.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
Lille and Valencia also faced off in the 2012 Champions League group stages.

Lille has been drawn in Champions League Group H alongside Chelsea, Ajax and Valencia.

With Ajax losing several of last season’s star players, Chelsea suffering teething problems with Frank Lampard as its new manager and the seemingly never-ending turmoil at Valencia, Fonte believes a place in the round of 16 is there for the taking.

“That is not something that lacks in this team, is confidence,” Fonte says. “We are very, very confident team. We know what we are capable of doing. We know it’s a very competitive group. Yes, we have Chelsea, we have Ajax that has done an amazing Champions League last year.

“Also Valencia have had a good season last year, but we also did an amazing job the year before. So we are confident, we know it’s going to be hard, we know it’s a it’s a difficult competition.

“But we have our weapons, we have our players, we have our talent and the main thing is to compete and to go there with the right mentality. To succeed you must first believe, so I think it’s important that we go with the frame of mind to win every game.”