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French Connection: Jose Fonte's key role in bringing the best from Lille's young guns

5:20 AM EDT 4/14/19
Jose Fonte Mike Maignan Lille 2018-19
The veteran has been excelling on the park, but it has been his role off it that has really helped propel his club towards the Champions League

If it is the young front line of Lille that has captured the imagination this season as they have charged to second in Ligue 1, the foundation for their success has been constructed upon a 35-year-old veteran whose contribution has been quietly profound.

Ahead of Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash against Paris Saint-Germain, LOSC will lean on the defensive talents of Jose Fonte to shut down the visiting attack, with the Portugal international responsible not only for the club’s fine defensive record, but for changing attitudes in the locker room.

Only a year ago, Lille were starting to emerge from a relegation dogfight caused by chronic underperformance of their players.

With that in mind, they knew they needed to make a change in the summer.

“The Lille sporting director called me and said: ‘Listen, I need someone with your profile, I need someone with experience, leadership skills because I have a very young squad with no experience,’” Fonte explained to The Sun.

“I spoke to my national team colleagues who were playing in France at the time, Joao Moutinho, Anthony Lopez, I spoke to Eder who used to play here. They all said it was a great club, with great facilities.

“It made sense as Lille is an hour away from London where my wife and kids are.”

It has proven to be an excellent move for all parties, with Lille now looking at a future that involved the Champions League and not Ligue 2.

Fonte has slotted in perfectly to a defence that has conceded only 27 goals in 31 matches – the second-strongest record in Ligue 1 – and notched his second goal of the season during a 1-1 draw with Reims last weekend.

“I’ve enjoyed it a lot here, I’ve never felt so confident and relaxed, I’m playing my best football,” he added.

But even if the European Championship-winning defender continues to thrive on the field into his mid-30s, it has arguably been his influence away from it that has been his biggest impact on the team.

Commanding this respect is something he has strived for throughout his career and has not gone unnoticed by head coach Christophe Galtier.

“Once you are 26 or 27 years old and have some experience, young players are inspired by you. I like helping young players and I always try to lead by example, to be a hard worker. For me, it's natural,” he explained last month. 

“It's an honour to give my best for the club and help my team-mates.”

Galtier, meanwhile, believes that such a role model was essential at a club where the young players had a tendency to slack off.

“Aside from injury, he’s never missed a single training session. Not one!” he told Voix du Nord. “And if he doesn’t miss one, the young guy who’s 18 has an interest in doing the same.

“Some Frenchman who are his age will be inside on the bike, reading the newspaper or looking at their phone. Last year, I went mad trying to get certain players out on the training ground!”

Fonte’s attitude for the game, meanwhile, goes undiminished and this mentality has only benefited the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Jonathan Bamba and Rafael Leao, who may not play in a similar position but have benefitted from his professionalism, his advice and his confidence, which has been evident from his trips to the press room.

As early as January he was talking up Lille’s prospects of finishing second – a position unthinkable at the beginning of the season.

“We have a lot of qualities but above all we’ve ambition, a desire to win and a very good coach,” he said bullishly. “Believe me, second place in anchored in our heads. I don’t know if we’ll finish there, but we’ll do everything to make sure we give ourselves the best possible chance.”

And Lille have. With seven matches of the season remaining, they hold a five-point advantage over third-placed Lyon and a massive 11-point gap to fourth-placed Saint-Etienne.

Victory on Sunday against Paris Saint-Germain would not just help to cement the club’s place in next season’s Champions League, it would also be further justification of their signing of Fonte – one of the most inspired of last summer in Europe.