RC Lens Enter a Difficult Winter of Discontent
by Kevin Nolan
It should have been a summer of joy. After three years away from playing with the big boys you have managed to return, only for it to turn sour in the blink of an eye. Joy turns to despair as the club you love teeters on the brink of oblivion.
May 14th 2014, the final day of the Ligue 2 season, and Lens have just beaten CA Bastia 2-0. Celebrations erupt as the Sang et Or have won promotion back to Ligue 1 after three trying and testing years in the wilderness.
One month on from that joyous day, news comes through that Lens have been denied promotion. The National Directorate of Management Control (DNCG), which oversees the finances of French football clubs, has blocked their return to the top tier for 2014/2015. The reason given is financial irregularities uncovered in the club’s proposed budget for the upcoming season. A crucial €10 million payment to the club by majority shareholder Hafiz Mammadov has not arrived, leaving the club’s finances in a precarious state. Mammadov himself is rumoured to be suffering severe financial difficulty, leading him to refuse to plough any more money into the club and in turn leaving them in the lurch.
Naturally furious at being barred from Ligue 1, Lens appeal the decision to the French Olympic Committee (CNOSF). They promptly overturn the DNCG’s ruling and allow the club from the Pas-de-Calais department to compete. However, this comes with the stipulation of financial sanctions, which include a transfer embargo. In turn this has led the club to miss out on some key transfer targets, Landry N’Guemo being chief among them. 29-year-old N’Guemo had agreed a three-year deal with the club only to see the move fall through due to the ban. Since then N’Guemo has gone on to sign for Saint-Etienne. This has left Lens short on the ground squad-wise. While the average squad age of 24.8 years might not sound too bad, eight players are under 23, showing a heavy reliance on youth.
All this combined means that Lens are forced to face a Ligue 1 campaign with the Ligue 2 squad – minus some key loan players who got them there in the first place – giving them little realistic hope of survival unless their sense of injustice can help catapult them to an unlikely salvation.
On December 14th 2014 Gervais Martel, Lens club president, met with the DNCG to go over the club’s financial situation. After the meeting Martel, released a statement saying that everything had gone well. He went on to say how much Mammadov has put into the club, around €24 million in his first year, plus another €2.5 million to arrive later that month. Martel further stated that the DNCG had taken note of all this and were encouraged by the signs.
However, no sooner was Martel proclaiming the good news then there was someone throwing cold water over it. Local paper La Voix du Nord came out with the claim that all was not what it seemed with regard to the €2.5 million payment. The paper claimed that the money was being funnelled through an offshore account, the owner of which they said was one Anar Mammadov, the son of the Azerbaijani Minister of Transport, but no relation to Hafiz Mammadov of Lens. What’s more, the paper also claimed that a signature, supposedly of Hafiz Mammadov, on a document presented to the DNCG, was a fake. In truth the source of the club’s funding still remains shrouded in fog, but Martel is insistent that the club is financially stable.
If all this cloak-and-dagger stuff around their finances wasn’t enough, the club have been playing the large majority of their home matches this season 122km away at Amiens’ Stade de la Licorne due to their own ground being renovated in the run-up to France hosting Euro 2016.
With all these off-field problems, things on the pitch aren’t exactly rosy either and the club remains mired in a relegation battle.
All this uncertainty is not exactly new for the Sang et Or. Back in 2012 current president Martel was forced from the club by Credit Agricole Nord de France after 14 years in charge. On leaving Martel vowed he would be back.
That he was, no more than a year later. The club’s majority shareholders were suffering financially and had failed to pay staff, including players, throughout June 2013; the club was a mess. Back in stepped Martel to buy back the club. This time, however, he brought a friend.
The man in question was one Hafiz Mammadov, an Azerbaijani national, also a relation of Azerbaijan president Ilham Alieyv (allegedly the most corrupt man in the world in 2012 according to the Crime & Corruption reporting project). Mammadov had made his millions through the Baglhan group. The company specialised in oil, gas and construction. Although not as wealthy as some men who have invested in the French game in recent years, he was by no means a pauper.
Martel and Mammadov had met on a friend’s boat before spending the night gambling together at a casino in Cannes. It was from this budding relationship that they decided to buy Martel’s former club. The takeover eventually went through but it wasn’t totally straightforward. There were worries about Mammadov’s ability to confirm his potential to fund the club, but nevertheless in July 2013, the High Commission of the FFF deemed the ownership satisfactory.
Initially Mammadov’s money proved a godsend, as he saved the club from financial ruin. The club was reinstated to Ligue 2 on the ninth of July 2013 after being previously demoted due to their financial situation. Mammadov had come in and made all the right noises. He explained how he was going to turn Lens into a European powerhouse for years to come. Yet it wasn’t long before cracks in the façade began to appear.
In April 2014, ratings agency Fitch’s downgraded stock in the Baghlan group due to the company’s default on a €19m debt. Rumours quickly began to circulate that Mammadov himself was suffering financial problems. On a visit to France, Azerbaijani Sports Minister Azad Rahimov spoke of Mammadov’s problems. “Unfortunately something has changed in his life as a businessman. Bankruptcy, these are things arriving. It is not political, it is a personal case.” Rahimov went on to say, “finally I heard he had gone bankrupt, but I am not involved you know. But he has a problem in his business and he can no longer support the club.” Further rumours emerged that he had been arrested back home in Azerbaijan, but he released a statement to refute those claims. All this led up to Mammadov’s refusal to pay the €10m that had got Lens into so much trouble at the start of the current season.
Whatever Mammadov’s personal situation, it looks more and more clear that he will not finance Lens for much longer. This then leaves one of France’s most historic clubs on its knees, with the very real possibility in the future of them being expelled from the professional leagues.
While the club continue to wait for Mammadov’s money to hopefully come through, they did receive a minimal financial boost on the 22nd January 2015, with the announcement that FIFA will be compensating them €43,426 for Edgar Salli’s participation in the World Cup. It may be an insignificant amount to most modern clubs, but for Lens anything will do.
On a personal front this would be a sad sight to see. On my first trip to France it was a Lens jersey I came home with and even all these years later that jersey is still knocking around, being handed down from one brother to the next.
The key thing now for Lens fans is to ensure they have a club to hand down from this generation to the next.