Welcome (back) to Hell: Lille return for Marseille's Thauvin

The youngster felt the full force of Lille's wrath on his comeback to the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, as James Eastham reports...

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Ninety-two days. That’s how long Lille fans had waited to welcome Florian Thauvin back to le Nord, the region the France U20 international deserted when he forced through his transfer to Marseille.

Welcome is a euphemism, of course. Thauvin became public enemy No.1 among LOSC fans (LOSC being how Lille are known locally) when he quit the club without even kicking a ball for them.

A quick recap: Thauvin joined Lille from Bastia in January 2013, saw out the rest of the 2012/13 season at Bastia on loan – but when the time came to actually move, decided he didn’t want to play for Lille after all. In what became France’s biggest summer transfer saga, Thauvin eventually went on strike in order to secure a €13m switch to Marseille that went through just hours before the window shut on September 2.

So LOSC supporters had Tuesday 3 December – the date of the first post-transfer Lille vs Marseille clash – circled in their diaries ever since the 2013/14 fixture list was announced. With so much pent-up anger and frustration in the air, it was no surprise a group of them gathered at Lille-Lesquin airport to give Thauvin an early welcome (yes, still a euphemism) when the Marseille party flew in the night before the match. As the 20-year-old attacking midfielder made his way through the exit gates he was met by the usual chants (Thauvin! Fils de pute!) but the mood changed when the scene descended into violence: the arriving Marseille contingent stood up to the home fans and the factions exchanged blows (watch the footage below).

In L’Equipe on the morning of the match, LOSC fans warned Thauvin what was to come that night. “We’re going to show him you can’t treat LOSC the way he did,” said Federico Maenza, president of the Dogues Virage East (DVE) fan group (Dogues, or ‘Mastiffs’, is LOSC’s nickname). “We all feel he treated us like fools.” Nicolas Gallois, of the Dogues Devils, added: “He’s going to get called all sorts. If he doesn’t have ice-cool nerves it could put him off.”

The Marseille camp predicted Thauvin would be unfazed. “He’s shown plenty of character since signing for us. He’s an important player adding a great deal to the team at the moment,” said coach Elie Baup. Thauvin’s advisor, Adil Amazzough, better known as Uncle Adil – the family friend and Parisian butcher that many in the press have decided is a maligning influence on young Thauvin’s career – went further: “He’s capable of scoring two or three goals. The context of the game will have no influence on him.”

From the minute Thauvin took to the pitch at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, his every touch was booed and whistled. There were regular, abusive chants from the red-and-white fan groups in the Tribune Nord behind one of the goals. Even the normally-mute supporters in the stands alongside the pitch added to the hostility whenever Thauvin ventured towards them.

On one occasion, it seemed to get to him. In the 33rd minute, Thauvin stood, hands on hip, lining-up a free-kick. He had a long wait as referee Laurent Duhamel dealt with altercations in the penalty area. The noise reached fever pitch. Thauvin ran up and overhit his cross. The ball flew behind the goal into a crowd of gloating LOSC fans.

Baup and Uncle Adil were right as well, though. For the most part Thauvin handled the occasion faultlessly. Just before kick-off he went round and hugged his team-mates, one-by-one. There was a particularly long embrace and word in the ear from Andre-Pierre Gignac, the one player with an idea of what Thauvin was about to go through. Gignac ‘did a Thauvin’ in 2007, when he turned his back on an agreement to join Lille to sign for Toulouse instead (what is it about Lille?).

Gignac irked Lille by snubbing them for Toulouse in 2007.

Gignac irked Lille by snubbing them for Toulouse in 2007.

On the right wing, Thauvin was one of Marseille’s most effective players. There was a cute through ball on seven minutes, a clever turn to draw a foul from Lille left-back Pape Souare four minutes later. Then on 24 minutes he produced one of his trademark, edge-of-your-seat runs that fused the three qualities – balance, dribbling ability and acceleration in possession – that made him such a coveted player when he emerged at Bastia last season.

There was more: a cleverly weighted pass on to Gignac’s chest, a powerful, first-time left-foot drive that provoked one of a number of excellent saves from Lille’s Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and two perfectly timed interventions to dispossess Souare in the Marseille half. The fact Thauvin got back to execute those tackles effectively sent out a clear message considering he is a player that has been criticised for shunning defensive responsibilities. It wasn’t all good – there were a couple of dribbles that ended up going nowhere and a moment’s hesitation cost him a shooting opportunity in the first-half – but it was a sound evening’s work.

Replaced by Saber Khalifa on 89 minutes, Thauvin received warm handshakes from Baup and assistant boss Franck Passi. The score was 0-0. An intense game was drawing to a close. Marseille had done more than enough to earn a point. But Thauvin had barely taken his place on the bench when disaster struck. In injury-time, Lille mounted one last attack. The ball came to Florent Balmont on the right wing, and striker Nolan Roux headed the midfield warrior’s cross beyond the reach of Steve Mandanda into the corner of the goal. A few minutes later the whistle blew. Lille had won 1-0.

Celebrations among the majority of the 46,089 fans were ecstatic. Victory meant LOSC had moved to within one point of leaders PSG (having played a game more), and extended their lead over Marseille to nine points.  Thanks to yet another outstanding performance from Ligue 1’s October Player of the Month, Enyeama, Lille have now kept 11 consecutive clean sheets. They have conceded just four goals in 16 Ligue 1 games.

Nolan Roux (right) scores the winning goal.

Nolan Roux (right) scores the winning goal.

Post-match, Thauvin batted away questions about his reception. “I expected it; it’s part of the game. It wasn’t a problem. I just got on with my football. You learn from matches like this. I got plenty of little kicks and knocks [from Lille players] but I took them. I wanted to make sure my behaviour on the pitch was exemplary, and I think it was.”

The morning after the game L’Equipe and regional daily La Voix du Nord agreed the hostility towards Thauvin was actually fairly mild after all. “It wasn’t the hell we were told it was going to be, thank goodness,” said L’Equipe. “I know regions [of France] where it would have been a lot worse,” said Lille manager Rene Girard. By now the focus had moved on to Enyeama, awarded 9 out of 10 in L’Equipe for his latest match-winning display between the posts.

But the occasion was still a big test for Thauvin, and he came through it well. In a sense, all he did was underline what we already knew – he’s got bags of talent, but also the mental strength to go with it. Marseille’s a notoriously difficult place for young footballers to thrive, yet Thauvin has settled immediately, all the more remarkable considering the transfer saga that preceded his move and the fact he missed out on a proper pre-season. His lack of fitness meant l’OM eased him into action gently – he didn’t start a game until September 14 – but since then he’s become indispensable. Four goals and two assists in his last six league starts provide statistical proof of his prowess, while his gliding runs and increasingly good decision-making about when to keep the ball and when to pass it have become important features of Marseille’s attacking gameplan. Right now he and Monaco’s James Rodriguez are Ligue 1’s two most exciting players.

After two months of consistently impressive performances the media are tipping Thauvin to be named in the France squad for their friendly against Holland on March 5. Of the 21 players that were crowned world Under-20 champions in Istanbul on July 13, Paul Pogba and Geoffrey Kondogbia have been capped at senior level. Left-back Lucas Digne was favourite to be the next to earn a call-up but he has backed himself into a corner by leaving Lille for PSG and being unable to oust Maxwell from the side. Right now, Thauvin is a more deserving candidate. Should he maintain his current form into the New Year it would be a surprise if Didier Deschamps overlooked him.

For all the vitriol flying about in Lille over the past couple of days, this is a story with a happy ending. Lille – second in the league with 36 points from 16 games – are doing better than anybody expected. And Thauvin has confounded the critics that predicted the extreme action he took to force through the move to Marseille would either temporarily or permanently stunt his development.

There could be an epilogue, too. Stade Pierre-Mauroy has been mooted as a possible venue for a France international next May, just before the national squad jets off to the World Cup in Brazil. So Thauvin could be back in Lille before the end of the season. On that occasion, in the colours of his country, perhaps a few fans will be on his side.