Lyon Olympic dominates the French football league

Olympic Lyon are on course to win their seventh successive French championship title. Since 2002 the club presided over by Jean-Michel Aulas has beaten its rivals in the First Division. Lyon could even achieve a double with victory in the French cup this year. It is also the first French club to be quoted on the stock exchange. But now they need to reach a new level: conquer Europe and the Champions League. Cecile Mathy.

-Lyonnais supporters, Lyonnais supporters…

It’s match night at Gerland. Olympic Lyon are hosting Caen, four matches from the end of the French football championship. A seventh title is in their sights.

-It’s really extraordinary that Lyon… well that we’ve won six titles consecutively and then why not this year the French Cup, that would be superb as well, and above all the seventh title, that would be magnificent.

For Micheline, as for other OL supporters, the key to the success of the club is not necessarily where you’d expect to find it, on the pitch of course, but more than anything in the corridors.

-Back in 1972 when I arrived here, we were really at the bottom, the final reckoning was that we were nothing, now there’s been real progress with an excellent president, progress over the years.

-I think that Aulas has done a lot of good, despite the fact that certain people criticise him. I think that he’s done a lot of good at OL and that he can do a lot of good for French football. OL is a business. So compared to others which are clubs, it’s organised like a business and I think that if Aulas had to sack people, he’d sack people like you do in a business and I think that other people are a little bit behind with a family system or with shareholders but in-house. They need take the plunge.

Jean-Michel Aulas, the president of the club. At the end of the 1980s he took the reins of the Olympic Lyon and applied his entrepreneurial strategy. He was already the Managing Director of a company of accounting software and launched himself on his sporting adventure without any knowledge of soccer. But his rigorous management enabled him to clean up the situation and soon the club which was vegetating in the second division saw the doors open to the first division. Olivier Blanc, number three at Olympic Lyon and communications director.

-The big turning point came in 1987 when Jean-Michel Aulas took over a club which was in the second division with very limited financial means, hardly any players, and which had been in the second division for four years. So there he began to put the books straight and the club went back up in 1989 and he had an approach that was firstly very ambitious, because you’ve got to motivate people, you’ve got to motivate the business partners who came to join us and then there was a development strategy which was to say: “How can we find complementary resources?” It was certainly necessary to enlarge the range of partners, it was necessary to create and then develop a brand which could generate revenues and then rely on the training centre which was producing good players and try to sell them at the right moment to have complementary resources, which enabled the purchase of other players and little by little the climbing of the steps one by one. So the policy was a long term policy which came into place in 1987, then in 1989 the rise to the first division, then onto the first title in 2001; but even in the years 1995-1996 there were the foundations of success with a second place in the championship. You sensed that there was an evolution at Olympic Lyon, but in that era we still weren’t competitive enough. In parallel we were able to set up a branch in Brazil with one of our former players Marcello and thanks to a very good rapport with Bernard Lacombe we were able to get Brazilian players of a very high standard, with enormous potential and at a low cost because they hadn’t yet come to Europe and they contributed too to the development of the club, there was Edmilson, there was Juninho, then afterwards all the others who’ve accompanied us, but the arrival of Edmilson or Juninho was decisive, Juninho notably arrived in the year of the first title.

In the 90s the results started to come on the pitch but they were still along way from being at the top of the championship. A new level was reached with the arrival of Sony Anderson. In 2001 the club won its first title by winning the League Cup. Thomas Nardone is a journalist at Lyon-Mag, he’s also the author of a book about the President of OL: “Jean-Michel Aulaus, Undercover Investigation”;

-The trigger was in 1999 when he managed to bring Jerome Seydoux, the boss of Pathe, Pathe cinemas, into the capital of OL and that for 100 million francs, an enormous sum at the time; he also managed to bring in an extraordinary player who left his mark on the history of Olympic Lyon and that was Sonny Anderson, and this double trigger, on the one hand financially with the arrival of Jerome Seydoux and in a sporting sense with the arrival of Sonny Anderson, which really brought Olympic Lyon into a new era which was the era as French champions. When he paid 100 million francs – which was a record at the time in the French championship – to bring in Anderson it was a real risk, lots of people said: “He’s mad, he’s gone off his head, he will sink the company” whereas on the contrary it really enabled OL to break new ground.

Oliver Blanc confirms: the boss of OL already had has battle plan in mind right from his arrival at the club.

-It’s true he was a visionary, he anticipated an enormous number of things, he knew how to be patient, he learnt about football, not what went on on the pitch – also on the pitch – but above all the corridors of football, how it all functions, and then he was visionary about a number of things: Bernard Lacombe often tells an anecdote from 1987 when took over the presidency of the club, he told Bernard Lacombe when he’d brought him in: “You know, one day we’ll have our own television station” which was completely not even utopian, a priori it was completely ridiculous as Bernard says in 1987… and yet it’s what has happened.

Today OL has a budget of 150 million euros, so the club has its television station: OL-TV, a restaurant in the town centre and a brasserie which has just opened inside the city’s airport. The brand has been launched but this approach, very much centred on the numbers, doesn’t make everyone happy. Thomas Nardone:

-OL is Jean-Michel Aulas and Jean-Michel Aulas has an approach which is in the end very much that of a businessman and often he talks more about the economic results than the sporting results, and that… football fans who want to see a good game they don’t like that, they don’t like people talking to their wallets, they want people who talk to their hearts. And for example, it’s someone like Michel Platini – who today is the president of UEFA and is a former superstar in France – he said himself : “I’d never buy shares to see OL go up three points in the stock-market, I’m there to see OL take three points on the pitch.” And I think that today there’s a real split between on the one hand the investors, the businessman who associate themselves with Aulas’s approach and the vast majority of supporters who don’t like this cold approach and who prefer someone who can make them dream like Bernard Tapie knew how to make people dream.

-Are there players today who can make the people of Lyon dream?

-Well undeniably Benzema of course who is the new prodigy at OL, who has two advantages. Firstly he is exceptional on the pitch and secondly what’s more he comes from Bron, he comes from the suburbs of Lyon, so to a certain extent that’s Lyon’s identity. It’s rare today in modern football, where transfers happen very quickly and where clubs are no longer necessarily associated with players from the grass roots, if I can put it like that. The big strength of OL is this stability, in the end, the stability of the president, stability with the coaches, even if they change every two or three years, still they keep their place even when there are periods that are a little barren, poor results, they keep their place. And so there’s no adversary to match them and that as well is linked to Jean-Michel Aulas’s strategy which is to try by whatever means possible to take the best players from other French clubs; which a good manoeuvre, it’s the competition, it’s a good manoeuvre because either the other club loses its best player, or it’s obliged to pay more to keep its best player so it’s weakened in its efforts to recruit other re-enforcements. I think it’s a bit short range as a strategy. The problem is that by playing matches which in the end don’t count for much, which aren’t very difficult for them in the First Division, when it comes to the Champions’ League, where they find themselves facing big clubs, who are used in their own championships to playing big matches, real clashes on a regular basis, they don’t manage to make the transition and that is what handicaps Olympic Lyon today.

OL dream now of Europe. Olympic Lyon feel confined in a French championship which they’ve coasted over since the beginning of the first decade of the millennium. In the Champions’ League it’s more difficult, for the second consecutive year Lyon were eliminated in the last 16. To be on the bill one day in a final against Manchester or Barcelona, OL need to increase their capital even more. Olivier Blanc:

-We’re competing in the Champions’ League for the 8th consecutive year, you should bear in mind that before Olympic Lyon no French club had managed to play in it for two successive years. So that’s really a considerable progress, we’re around about the 10th European club in terms of budget, in terms of sporting results and there’s such a big gap with the others that it’s true we need complementary revenues and the prospect of this stadium which will come at the beginning of the next decade and will indeed enable us to generate complementary revenues and so attempt to catch up a little bit on the lag we have behind the English clubs.

This big stadium on the outskirts of Lyon could house 60 000 spectators, 20 000 more than Gerland. At the moment matches there are played pretty much to full houses. But more than a stadium, OL Land will allow Lyon to fulfil its ambitions of grandeur, with a shopping centre, a leisure centre and offices.

All that remains to be done is to maintain the results on the pitch because after seven seasons of unmitigated domination over the world of French football, the pressure is higher. Lyon could run out of steam, with the subsequent risk of no longer filling the stadiums. Thomas Nardone:

– Lyon is not a working class city like Marseille, or Saint-Etienne or Lens. The population of Lyon has never been fanatical about football, so today OL are winning, OL play good football, so the Lyonnais go to the stadium. If OL no longer win, I’m not sure there’ll still be 40 000 yet alone the 60 000 people in the new stadium that Jean-Michel Aulas wants coming to see OL.

But we’re still a long way off that catastrophic scenario, the proof is in the fine run Lyon have had in the French cup as well. Whatever their future, Olympic Lyon and Jean-Michel Aulas will have left their mark on the history of French football.

Let’s go, Let’s go, Let’s go The L O.

$Id: 2008_05_soc.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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