The night before Lyon’s Champions League qualifying playoff first leg against Real Sociedad, Antoine Griezmann, La Real’s rising French star, was asked to sum up his feelings on returning to his native land.
“I feel very emotional,” said Griezmann. “As a child I was an OL supporter. I used to watch every game. They were my club, an historic team.” Griezmann’s words, spoken in past tense, reflected a bond broken.
Born 70 kilometres from Lyon in Mâcon, Griezmann had trials at Lyon’s academy as a youngster but was turned away, considered too frail. He was told to try again a year later. Real Sociedad didn’t waste time and signed him immediately.
Griezmann has been repaying their faith ever since, scoring 30 league goals including the one that secured fourth place and Champions League football on the final day of last season.
In La Real’s 4-0 aggregate win over Lyon, Griezmann showed the club who shunned him exactly what they missed out on, two outstanding performances capped by this stunning bicycle kick at the ground where he used to cheer on his boyhood heroes; the OL fanatic turned OL assassin.
Being knocked out by a potentially brilliant player like Griezmann, who would have signed for them without hesitation, is bad enough. But read his words again and they too tell a story.
“An historic team.” He couldn’t be more accurate. And yet for the second year running the Champions League draw was made and the name Olympique Lyonnais were nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t so long ago that Lyon won a record seven consecutive league titles, inspired by the shrewd business acumen and savvy ‘buy low sell high’ policy of club president Jean-Michel Aulas.
A club that once had a cast iron grip on French football is now floundering in a new age of reductionism and cost-cutting, stalling thanks to a worrying accumulation of bad decisions, mismanagement and the occasional display of hubris.
“We are in a period of transition and of course we know there will be moments when we suffer,” admitted Lyon boss Remi Garde after the Sociedad defeat with a dose of cold realism. “Perhaps the Europa League is a bit more our level.”
But how did it come to this? And is Lyon’s time at the top table of French football now over?
You can, to an extent, draw a neat parallel between Lyon’s rise and fall and that of their president Aulas, a once notoriously tough businessman who some have accused of losing his shine of late.
Aulas took control of Lyon in 1987 and quickly turned a struggling club once referred to mockingly as “a suburb of Saint-Etienne" – their nearest and greatest rivals – into the formidable force in French football.
Aulas, who made his fortune through a successful software and business solutions company, joined OL when they were in Ligue 2. An ambitious man with a ‘big mouth’ as Le Point once put it, he promised to take them into Europe within four years using the now famous slogan “OL – Europe.” And he did.
Aulas quickly acquired a reputation for his brilliance in the transfer market. Lyon would marry a fruitful academy with an intelligent recruitment policy to make huge profits. Unknown players were plucked from South America and made stars: Juninho Pernambucano, Claudio Caçapa, Edmilson, Cris, Sonny Anderson (though he joined from Barcelona). They were the Porto of their day.
Lyon could spot a player in Europe too. Florent Malouda, Marc Vivien Foe, Eric Abidal, Gregory Coupet, Patrick Muller, Mahamadou Diarra, Karim Benzema – the list goes on. OL created a dynasty: a team with extraordinary swagger and style, an unstoppable, trophy-winning juggernaut.
European football began to sit up and take notice. Forbes magazine named Lyon the 13th most valuable football club in the world, and in the 2006 Champions League quarter final arguably Lyon’s greatest ever side gave AC Milan an almighty scare, before goals from Filippo Inzaghi and Andrei Shevchenko in the 88th and 93rd minute denied a hugely resilient OL their place in the last four.
Today’s predicament is a far cry from these glory years.
In 2009 Lyon lost their grip on the title. In an attempt to reclaim their crown, a period of wild spending followed. Aly Cissokho, Michel Bastos, Bafetimbi Gomis and Lisandro Lopez were signed for €71million. A year later Aulas splashed a further €22million on Yoan Gourcuff. It backfired. Lyon haven’t won the title since, and the result of the lack of success from that splurging has been that they’ve had to scale down significantly. With a new stadium on the way, Aulas’ belt has tightened.
Lyon now place a firm emphasis on their academy – 11 of the 18-man squad that travelled to Spain to play Real Sociedad came through their youth system - while Garde works away diligently with the resources available to him.
Meanwhile Aulas, once such a renowned negotiator, no longer seems to have the same powers of perception or nose for sheer, bloody-minded bartering in the transfer market.
For a telling example of this, compare and contrast the sale of Michael Essien to Chelsea in 2005 with that of Hugo Lloris to Spurs last year.
Hugo Lloris (Spurs, €7.8m)
Aly Cissokho (to Valencia, €6m)
Cris (Galatasary, free)
Kim Kallstrom (Spartak Moscow, €3m)
Ishak Belfodil (Parma, €3.5m)
Ederson (Lazio, free)
Lisandro Lopez (Al-Gharafa, €7.2m)
Dejan Lovren (Southampton, €10m)
Michel Bastos (Al-Ain, €4m)
Anthony Réveillère (released)
Fabián Monzón (Catania, €3.3m)
Anthony Martial (Monaco, €5m)
In 2005 Chelsea only wanted to pay £10million for the Ghanaian midfielder. Bold and outspoken, Aulas - who once described himself as like Don Quixote - was having none of it, eventually squeezing £26million from the Blues. “The club took us for narrow-minded Frenchmen with a beret and a baguette,” Aulas quipped, safe in the knowledge he had taken Roman Abramovich for all he could get.
The contrast with Lyon’s recent transfer activity is enormous. Letting Hugo Lloris – a minimum £20m keeper in today’s market - leave for just £7.8million was a significant blow to both Lyon’s finances and Aulas’ reputation, the master negotiator completely outfoxed by Daniel Levy.
This summer has been even worse. What can only be interpreted as a personal vendetta pursued by Aulas against striker Bafetimbi Gomis turned ugly fast. With his chairman wanting him off the wage bill, Gomis was ostracised from the first team and publicly blamed for the sale of highly rated young prospect Anthony Martial to Monaco, before Lisandro Lopez – the man who looked like being their only established striker for 2013/14 - was sold to Al Gharafa completely out of the blue.
Look at Lyon’s bench against Real Sociedad in midweek and there were three players under 21 and six without any Champions League experience whatsoever, while Gomis – who has 12 Champions League goals in 18 starts - sat twiddling his thumbs at home. Aulas has since suggested he will soften his stance and reintegrate Gomis into first team affairs, but the damage has been done.
Lyon’s administrative stumbling comes at a time when new money at PSG and Monaco means the margin for error is thinner than it has been for some time, and an early season home defeat to Reims has not helped. Failure to qualify for the Champions League has not only hurt Lyon, but also helped their rivals.
Between them, PSG and Marseille now get to carve up the 20% share of France’s €45.6million Champions League commercial rights that was originally reserved for Lyon. The money passing over to two of their main rivals instead is in some respects a symbolic passing of the baton. A clearer off-field strategy needs implementing and fast, because Lyon are getting left behind.
An historic team they may be, but come September it is the boy considered too frail to join his childhood heroes who will be enjoying Champions League football.
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