Lens’ last scorer in the Champions League at Bollaert in 2002, former Nigerian striker John Utaka explains to AFP how scoring in the European Cup in this “mythical” stadium is “exceptional”, before the Lens-Arsenal clash on Tuesday October 3
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During RC Lens’ last Champions League campaign, in 2002-03, you scored at home against Bayern Munich (1-1) and AC Milan (2-1). What were your feelings at that moment?
John Utaka: It’s extraordinary, Bollaert, every time we play, in the league or in the European Cup, the crowd is fantastic. There is nothing to say. It is happiness. That year, we had a very, very good team, which allowed us to have chances, players in midfield who gave us good balls, who created scoring opportunities. Every time I think about it, or I look at the goals, it makes me happy, because it was my first year in France and it was my first European Cup, and managing to score against Bayern Munich and AC Milan, it was something exceptional for me.
Hearing Champions League music in this stadium must have been impressive?
Bollaert is a legendary stadium, there are also World Cup matches that have been played there, it is a stadium renowned in France and even abroad. Every time we play there, it’s a special feeling, it’s exceptional. Hearing this music in this stadium gives you goosebumps, you know you’re there. Apart from the World Cup, there is no higher competition than the Champions League. It’s a mini-World Cup with great teams and the best players. We must respond present in these moments.
Do you feel like you entered the hearts of the people of Lens at that moment?
I think so, but everything was in continuity after that. I scored against Milan and Bayern, but we had to continue to make people happy, have good matches and score goals. Because people pay for tickets to come to the stadium, so the most important thing is to live your passion to the fullest, for me and for the supporters. The Lensois crowd is family, very close to the players, they live football. It’s a very special relationship between the public and the players. Tomorrow (Tuesday), the public will put pressure on to try to win this important match against Arsenal. Everyone knows that the Lensois public is the best, or at least one of the best French audiences. I want Lens to win, they have arguments and a good solid team, with Elye Wahi who has regained his dynamism. They are capable of beating any team in this stadium.
Lens facing the Arsenal challenge
With newfound confidence, Lens will celebrate the return of the Champions League to its Stade Bollaert by coming up against Arsenal, the leader of Group B and apparently much superior. This match against the Londoners, already at the top of their group after their trip against PSV Eindhoven (4-0), constitutes for the players of the Artesian club a peak of their career, much higher in their eyes than the Ligue 1 games , even those against Paris Saint-Germain or against rival Lille. A victory against the reigning English vice-champion, currently third, with a completely different budget and internationally renowned players – Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Declan Rice to name a few – would go straight into the guestbook exploits of the northern club.