As the Bollaert stadium prepares to return to the Champions League on Tuesday, during the clash between Lens and Arsenal, the former Sang et Or midfielder evokes his memory of a crazy match against the Gunners, inscribed in the European legend of the Artesian club.
An entire city is preparing to pounce. For its return to the Champions League after 21 years of absence, the Racing Club de Lens welcomes, Tuesday October 3 (9 p.m.), the English vice-champion Arsenal during the second day of the competition. A poster like we haven’t seen for a long time, at the Bollaert-Delélis stadium, and which brings back some memories for Sang et Or fans.
Because it was against the Gunners that the Lensois signed, on November 25, 1998, the greatest success in their history in C1. At Wembley – and not Highbury, the traditional den of the English club, under construction at the time – Daniel Leclercq’s players achieved the feat of becoming the first French team to win in the temple of football. A success marked by the seal of one man, Michaël Debève, midfielder at the time and only scorer of the match (0-1). The 52-year-old man today, assistant coach of Amiens in Ligue 2, recalls with emotion his memories of this “match apart” and gives some keys to republishing this performance.
franceinfo: sport: What does this return of the Sang et Or to Bollaert mean for you to play a Champions League match?
Michaël Debève: It definitely brings back lots of good memories of the 1998-1999 campaign. People often bring me back to that match against Arsenal and that goal I scored. As soon as there was the group draw this summer, it resonated with me, and then with the supporters as well. I was in great demand from a lot of people at that time, people calling me to say: “you saw it’s Arsenal!”, “are you going to be at the match?” Are you going to watch the game?” It will bring out a lot of things, and it is obvious that I will be the first supporter of the Lensois, that’s for sure.
Guillaume Warmuz, RC Lens goalkeeper during the match against Arsenal in 1998-1999, was asked about this reunion with the Gunners. He explained that this meeting was nothing more and nothing less than the best memory of his career. Is this also your case?
Yes, it’s one of the most beautiful memories, knowing also that with this generation of Sikora, Déhu, Smicer, Vairelles etc… we had been champions of France the previous season and that we continued in the League champions. It remains the highlight of my career, it’s the only season where I played in the C1 and what’s more, the goal I scored at Wembley allowed me to be in the spotlight. Even today I can talk about it, and it remains in the memory of the Lensois supporters that I meet almost everywhere. It’s a bit like with Yoann Lachor and the title goal in 1998, I was the scorer at Wembley.
On November 25, 1998, you also became the first French club to win at Wembley. Did you measure this historical significance?
We didn’t know that it was going to be historic, no, but for us it was already great to have been champion and to compete in such a competition. Having Arsenal in your group, you might as well say that they were favourites. At Wembley, in front of more than 73,000 people… That’s what makes it all legendary, compared to this stadium and this big European machine that is Arsenal.
There are good players, a good team, and we know that at home the Lensois will be supported by the public. Football allows us to believe in qualifying for the round of 16.Michael Debève
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How do you analyze Lens’ chances against Arsenal and in this group which also includes Sevilla FC and PSV Eindhoven?
These are teams used to European campaigns and at a very high level. The advice is to do what they did against Sevilla (1-1 on the first day), that is to say do not hesitate to play, take risks. It’s a competition where you shouldn’t calculate too much. If it’s to say “we have little chance”, it risks ending badly. I think they showed the way against Sevilla, that is to say you have to play forward, not be afraid, try to score goals. Lens can be in this group, there is no reason.
The start of the RC Lens season was complicated in the championship (four defeats and a draw during the first five days). Can the Champions League allow Franck Haise’s men to regain confidence, to play this competition with a slightly new spirit, without pressure?
Quite. It was already an achievement in the league last season, they may have been in difficulty in these first days but it is temporary. When we see how they fought to be in a position to be able to compete in the C1, we cannot let this opportunity slip away by playing small arms. A European campaign is not to be taken lightly. It’s so difficult to qualify that once you’re there, you have to play hard. In Seville, they were absolutely not ridiculous and showed that they will have to be counted on.