How champions Lille made €320m in three years selling stars like Pepe & Osimhen

Robin Bairner
How champions Lille made €320m in three years selling stars like Pepe & Osimhen

Lille are Ligue 1 champions, winning the title despite the challenge of big-spending Paris Saint-Germain.

While PSG have frittered millions away on flops such as Thilo Kehrer, Pablo Sarabia and Mauro Icardi, Lille have been one of the most successful clubs in terms of trading.

READ MORE: Burak Yilmaz: The free transfer humiliating €300m PSG pair Neymar and Mbappe in Ligue 1 title race

Indeed, not only have they the Ligue 1 title in their back pockets, they also posted sales of around €320 million over the course of the last three years. For those who like to measure their success in terms of net spend, this works out over €172m in that period.

In other words, for every euro they have spent on a player, they have received almost two back.

Their ability to replace key figures has been especially impressive. In the summer of 2018, they lost Yves Bissouma to Brighton. A year later, off went Nicolas Pepe to Arsenal for €80m, Rafael Leao to Milan for just short of €30m and Thiago Mendes to Lyon for €22m.

In came Victor Osimhen, Renato Sanches, Yusuf Yazici, Timothy Weah, Benjamin Andre, Domagoj Bradaric and Reinildo. These players cost little more than they had recouped on Pepe alone. All with the exception of Osimhen would be important ingredients in the squad that has defied the odds to win the league.

Osimhen, meanwhile, was busy funding their next summer’s business. Sold to Napoli for €70m, Lille invested the money in Jonathan David, Sven Botman and goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis with around €30m to spare. Burak Yilmaz, meanwhile, joined up on a free transfer. Only Karnezis has thus far missed the mark in terms of these signings listed.

What they have achieved from a purely business point of view has been remarkable. Indeed, had it not been for the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of the Ligue 1 television deal, Lille were set to continue this model.

Nicolas Pepe was sold by Lille to Arsenal for €80m

Nicolas Pepe was sold by Lille to Arsenal for €80m

Owner Gerard Lopez got out before the financial burden became too great. He sold Lille to a Luxembourg-based investment capital group Merlyn Partners at the end of 2021. Lille’s debts were cleared by the new owners injecting €50m into the club immediately. A predicted fire sale of players in January, however, never arrived, and this proved prophetic as it has allowed Lille to enjoy their current success.

The foundations of Lille’s title challenge were laid by brilliant sporting director Luis Campos, who is now being linked with a role at Real Madrid, where he was previously a scout. He could also follow Lopez elsewhere. The investor is reportedly looking at other opportunities, including Southampton and Valencia.

Any club, though, would be lucky to have Campos, who has now had the misfortune to fail to see the seeds of his labour harvested on two occasions in Ligue 1. It was him, after all, who built the Monaco side that upset Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, brilliantly led by Leonardo Jardim in the dugout as well as Kylian Mbappe on the field.

Lille’s major sales since 2018

ToFee (€m)
Nicolas Pepe (2019)Arsenal80
Victor Osimhen (2020)Napoli70
Rafael Leao (2019)Milan29.5
Gabriel (2020)Arsenal26
Thiago Mendes (2019)Lyon22

As every successful Ligue 1 side knows, their triumph is inevitably cursed with change. Clubs simply cannot afford to retain their best talent in the face of lucrative offers from abroad and the present financial challenges mean that is particularly the case this summer.

Lille, though, may hope to avoid the fate of Montpellier and Monaco, and those others who have gone before them. This has been a team triumph after all, yet the man who brought it together on the field, coach Christophe Galtier, will depart at the end of the season.

The future remains uncertain for Lille, but the lure of Champions League football and the attraction of being Ligue 1 champions gives them the chance to build upon the successes of Campos and Galtier going forward. For PSG, meanwhile, this is a stark reminder that they cannot take domestic success for granted.