France is familiar with strong rulers, the most notorious and infamous of them being Napoleon Bonaparte who declared himself Emperor before conquering much of Europe in the 19th century. Another, his nephew, Napoleon III attempted to emulate his uncle’s dynastic rule yet failed to suppress rising foreign powers. Henry VI, Charlemagne and Louis XIV represent examples of France’s propensity to submit to dominant dynasties. Although the political institutions of a vibrant democratic nation-state have washed away threats of all-powerful kings and emperors, the same cannot be said for their football clubs.
A glance through the history of French football will demonstrate numerous examples of dynastic reigns: Saint-Étienne ruled the first division during the mid-’60s and ‘70s, winning eight titles in that period. Southern monarchs Marseille stamped out any insurrection against their throne from 1989 to 1992. The Qatari- backed Parisians are the modern representation of this trend started by Stade de Reims and their near-absolute control over the domestic championship during the 1950s and 1960s.
However, there is one who stands above any of the aforementioned. From the turn of the 21st century, Lyon from France’s second-largest metropolis became kings of France. Between 2002 and 2008 Olympique Lyonnais was heralded for the seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles it won. In doing so Lyon became the model by which many clubs, not just French, sought to operate. Yet how did a club that had never won a top-flight title before 2002 suddenly brush aside all challengers to the throne? Furthermore, how did their empire fall to pieces?
Lyon’s transformation, like many football clubs, stemmed from a change in leadership. In June of 1987, Jean-Michel Aulas took over ownership of OL and promised to qualify the second-tier outfit for European competition within just four years. By ridding the club of debt and reshuffling the management structure, Aulas started building Lyon to compete with the best.
The club’s fortunes began to shift upwards in the summer of 1999 following a second successive third-placed Ligue 1 finish. Close season recruitment was markedly more ambitious than usual and brought the arrival of Brazilian forward Sonny Anderson, winger Pierre Laigle, and striker Tony Vairelles. Both Anderson and Laigle would play integral parts in manager Jacques Santini’s traditional 4-3-3 tactical setup.
In his debut season, Anderson finished as top scorer for Les Gones with an impressive 23 goal haul. The following season, despite a slow start (Lyon sat down in ninth at the halfway point), the team proceeded to win twelve of its last seventeen games (including all of its last seven matches) to finish as runners-up to Nantes. Even more notable that season was a success in winning the Coupe de la Ligue, the club’s first trophy since 1973’s Coupe de France.
Furthermore, by playing 54 matches in all competitions (only Liverpool from the big five Leagues played more that season), there was a growing sense that the squad was deep enough to challenge on multiple fronts going into the following season. Buoyed by their late-season surge and silverware gains, Lyon was finally prepared for a title challenge.
Rarely in French history has there been a more dramatic title race than the Ligue 1 season climax of 2001-02. Lyon lost their opening game of the season to Lens (2-0) but quickly recovered to win four games in succession. Despite routing reigning champions Nantes (4-1) and Rennes (4-0), the team found itself eight points adrift of leaders Lens after the winter break. Discouraged but unbroken, Les Gones kept faith knowing Lens would have to travel to Lyon’s fortress at the Stade Gerland on the final day of the season. Fighting for every point, Lyon put aside their struggles on the road to win two crucial away matches against Auxerre (1-0 in Round 31) and Bordeaux (1-0 in Round 33) to trail Lens by a single point with just the final round of fixtures to play.
“The more enemies, the sweeter the victory” read the tifo unveiled in the North Stand on decider day of May 4, 2002. Lyon had battled rivals Lens, Monaco, and Bordeaux throughout the campaign and the chance to make history was in their own hands. The stakes were simple: win and become champions, lose or draw and watch Lens celebrate the title. The noise around the Stade Gerland was deafening.
The nervousness of the home support would be somewhat quelled after 7 minutes when Sidney Govou opened the scoring for Lyon with a powerful effort from outside the area. Combining with Laigle on the left-wing, Govou outmuscled a defender before unleashing a low strike into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. Less than 10 minutes later the lead had doubled: a delightful cross from Laigle found the incoming Philippe Violeau at the back post to make it 2-0. A hint of uncertainty crept back into the stadium however as Lens pulled a goal back before halftime. After the restart, a marauding run through the middle and a delicate pass from Juninho set up Laigle to restore Lyon’s two-goal advantage and that proved enough to seal Lyon’s first ever Ligue 1 title. The players hoisted the vaunted trophy over the Place des Terreaux in the centre of the city to the cheers of many thousands of locals.
Whereas many football dynasties have succeeded via the stewardship of a long-serving manager and a strong core of key players, Lyon would operate in a very different manner than most other successful clubs. The revolving door policy of players and managers did not bring instability or lack of cohesion as might have been expected and the approach to buying undervalued players at low cost and selling them on for premium prices allowed the club to maintain healthy finances.
In addition, the profit earned from transfer trading was carefully and strategically re-invested back into the squad. Players who were sold were immediately replaced, and managers who moved to new challenges were substituted for those who it was thought could maintain standards. The appeal of playing in the Champions League attracted good players and managers alike while bringing in essential prize money to fund Lyon’s ambitious endeavours.
This strategy empowered Lyon to retain the title in 2003. After Lyon’s first taste of French football dominion, coach Jacques Santini was poached by the French Football Federation to lead the national team. This opened the door for Paul Le Guen to continue to shepherd Lyon forwards towards continuing domestic success. The expansion of Ligue 1 in 2002 from a 34 to 38 match season only meant Lyon would rule over 20 clubs rather than 18. With Le Guen at the helm, Les Gones started the 2002-2003 campaign at a blistering pace dispatching sides such as Sedan and Bastia in high-scoring early-season clashes. It was not always smooth sailing through the campaign though. A 3-1 home defeat to Monaco, a first at the Gerland for 30 home games, knocked the reigning champions down as far as tenth at one point. Lyon limped out of the winter period having only won two of nine matches.
However, as Emperor Napoleon once said, “La victoire appartient au plus perseverant” (victory belongs to the most persevering). Taking strength from their late-season push the previous season, playing fortunes changed when Le Guen adopted a new 4-2-3-1 formation and with the return of Sonny Anderson from three months out injured. Lyon won six games on the bounce including crucial matches against Nice, Auxerre, and Bordeaux to put themselves back in the driving seat. Their top scorer Juninho was playing a crucial role in inspiring the side to overcome rivals Monaco and complete another miraculous domestic campaign.
Another Ligue 1 title distracted from Lyon’s shortcomings in European and cup competitions. Winning a domestic cup would have gone a long way to quench Aulas’s thirst for more silverware, but again Lyon fell short in the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue. Their 2004 excursion into Europe showed signs of improvement but inevitably fell short too. Lyon finished top of a group containing Bayern Munich, Celtic and Anderlecht then dispatched a Xabi Alonso-led Real Sociedad in the first knockout stage.
José Mourinho’s Porto would prove too stern a challenge in the Quarter Finals and the eventual European champions dumped the French champions out of the competition with a 4-2 aggregate scoreline. Again Les Gones reclaimed the Ligue 1 title that year, beating out a much-improved PSG, but couldn’t complete a double. Content with the team’s progress and third successive domestic title, Aulas gave Paul Le Guen another opportunity to lead Lyon’s campaign into Europe the following season.
The summer of 2004 saw the departure of talismanic striker Sonny Anderson who went to the Spanish side Villarreal. With a new Brazilian striker Fred, Lyon did not skip a beat. Club top-scorer Juninho led from midfield and contributed 13 league goals as the reigning champions blew away all challengers to their throne. With 22 victories, 13 draws and three defeats, Lyon finished twelve points clear of Lille to record a fourth consecutive title. Nevertheless, Lyon still struggled in their cup crusades losing on penalties to Clermont in the Coupe de France and being eliminated by Lille in the round of 16 of the Coupe de la Ligue. Just as the previous season before, Lyon reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League only to suffer elimination on penalties to Dutch side PSV. This result played a substantial part in Paul Le Guen losing his managerial position that summer.
The summer of 2005 brought wholesale changes to Lyon but in no way disturbed what was now the natural order of things. Newly appointed manager Gérard Houllier was given the brief to succeed where Le Guen had failed. Four years earlier Lyon had never ascended to the pinnacle of their national League; now the club was poised for new and bigger challenges. Like many other dynasties of domestic leagues winning the league was not enough for Aulas – and rightfully so.
Considerable resources had been invested into building the club’s success, while a well-balanced and experienced squad of players had the capabilities to compete with the best. Houllier’s Lyon claimed yet another French title while shattering club expectations. Les Gones set a new record for most points, 84, accumulated over the course of a Ligue 1 season. This season’s Champions League campaign looked highly promising too. Lyon topped a group containing Real Madrid, Rosenborg, and Olympiacos and even dismantled Los Blancos 3-0 at the Stade Gerland. New recruit and club top scorer Fred chipped in 14 goals, while Juninho was voted as the club’s Player of the Season that year.
Once again the Champions League knockout stages proved too big a hurdle. Canny Italian operators AC Milan crushed their hopes and humiliated Lyon in their own backyard sending them out at the Quarter Final stages again. A similar story ensued the following season with Roma providing the killer blow this time.
Like the plot to Groundhog Day, Lyon was forced to live the same story over and over again. However content Aulas might have been with his club’s domestic standing, he had no qualms about pushing out Gérard Houllier because of perceived shortcomings abroad. In the summer of Alain Perrin was brought in and won yet another title despite a rocky start to his debut Ligue 1 season. This year’s script deviated a little from seasons prior, for the first time since 1973, Lyon won the Coupe de France with an extra-time winner over PSG in the final. Despite completed the double, the cracks were beginning to show. Perrin was powerless as his side fell to eventual champions Manchester United in the Champions League to continue their misfortune on foreign soil. Furthermore, the final gap at the top of Ligue 1 was trimmed to just five points separating Lyon from Bordeaux.
The season after Lyon’s seventh consecutive Ligue 1 title was secured, a Trojan Horse by the name of Claude Puel entered the gates of the Stade de Gerland and rendered the kingdom vulnerable. Aulas appointed Puel with the same job expectation as his previous three managers – make a mark in Europe. In conjunction with Aulas’s new appointment, some underwhelming recruitment decisions were being made. The departures of key players – Tiago to Juventus, Diarra to Bordeaux, Abidal to Barcelona and Malouda to Chelsea – thoroughly disrupted Lyon’s composition, while further down the line budgets were tightened to finance a new 59,000-seater stadium costing upwards of €400 million. OL now needed to rely heavily on their academy for new players.
As the chorus to Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ goes: “…you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot”. The bubble finally burst in 2009 when Marseille lifted the French title, the first time since 2000 Lyon had endured a trophy-less campaign. The juxtaposition of dominion over domestic soil and failure abroad ironically reversed in 2010. Lyon was unable to recover its grip over the French League but, as if somehow liberated from their domestic responsibilities, the French side finally overcame the quarter-final hurdle in the Champions League. Defeating Real Madrid over two legs and overcoming compatriots Bordeaux gave Les Gones a date with Bavarian behemoths Bayern Munich in the semi-finals.
Yet, like the ties with Porto, United and Barcelona in seasons past, Lyon were unable to overcome the competition’s eventual champion. Admirable in their pursuit, Lyon ultimately fell short of their prized goal only to be left dreaming of what if.
Today, the landscape of French football has transformed and the continued evolution of Lyon in the age of vast transfer fees will be fascinating to watch. Qatar-backed Paris Saint-Germain now rules over the French game while more traditional rivals Monaco and Marseille continue to strengthen and scrap for Champions League qualification spots. Although Lyon cannot compete with the GDP of Qatar, there are alternate routes to reclaim their coveted throne. Just ask Leicester City. If Les Gones can learn from their past, or even former champions Monaco, to re-create a model for triumph, there is no reason to assume they cannot emulate that first success of 2002. L’Avenir le dira.