France is familiar with strong rulers. The most notorious and infamous of them, Napoleon
Bonaparte, declared himself emperor before conquering much of Europe in the 19th century. Another, his nephew, Napoleon III attempted to emulate his uncles’ 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 and you will find 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 and all insurrection to their throne from 1989-1992. The Qatari backed Parisians are the modern representation of this trend, while Stade de Reims once owned control over domestic titles in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, there is one unlike any of the aforementioned. After the turn of the 21st century, France’s second largest metropolis, Lyon, became the king of France. Between 2002 and 2008, Olympique Lyonnais were heralded for their command over the French first division. During that period, Les Gones won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles. 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 once second-tier side for the Champions League within just four years. By ridding the club of debt and reshuffling the club management structure, Aulas built the club to compete at the very top of both domestic and European competitions.
The club’s fortunes began to change in the summer of 1999 despite finishing third in the league for the second year in a row. Off-season recruitment was marked by new ambitions that saw 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 makeup.
In his first season, Anderson finished as top scorer for Les Gones bagging an impressive 23 goals. The following season, despite a slow start (Lyon being ninth at the halfway point), the revived Olympians side went on to win twelve of their last seventeen games (seven of their last seven matches) to finish 2nd. That season’s success however would not come in finishing second but 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 played more that season), there was a growing sentiment that the squad was large and fit enough to challenge on multiple fronts going into the new season. Buoyed by their late season surge and new taste for silverware, Lyon, and their supporters, were finally prepared for a title challenge.
So rarely has there been a more dramatic title race than the Ligue 1 season of 2001/2002. Lyon entered the new campaign hungry to stamp their authority as title challengers, but like a sputtering jet engine they lost their opening game to rivals Lens (2-0). Fortunately, Lyon recovered to win four games on the trot confirming their title credentials.
Despite routing reigning champions Nantes (4-1) and Rennes (4-0), they found themselves eight points adrift from first place Lens after the winter break. Discouraged but unbroken, Les Gones kept the faith knowing Lens would 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 matcheek 31) and Bordeaux (1-0 in matchweek 33) to trail Lens by a single point entering the final match.
“The more enemies, the sweeter the victory” read the tifo unveiled in the North Stand the day of May 4, 2002. Lyon had battled with rivals Lens, Monaco and Bordeaux all season and this was their chance to seize glory. The stakes were simple: win and become champions, lose or draw and watch Lens celebrate the title. The noise around the Stade Gerland was defining, the fans anxious with anticipation.
The nervous energy of the home support would be quelled after 7 minutes as Sidney Govou opened the scoring for Lyon with a powerful effort from outside the area. Combining with Laigle on the left wing, Govou muscled a defender to the floor before unleashing a low driven strike into the bottom left-hand corner of the net sending the Stade Gerland into raptures.
Less than 10 minutes later, they doubled their lead. A delightful cross from Laigle found onrushing Philippe Violeau at the back post to make it 2-0. A hint of incertitude crept back into the stadium as Lens drew one goal back before halftime making it 2-1. After the interval, however, a marauding run through the center of the pitch and a delicate pass from Juninho set up Laigle to restore Lyon’s two-goal advantage and to seal Lyon’s first ever Ligue 1 title. Lyon hoisted the vaunted trophy over Place des Terreaux, the city’s home of honors and celebrations, much to the pleasure of the fervent Lyonnais supporters.
Whereas many football dynasties have profited from the stewardship of long serving managers or the careers of a core group of players, Lyon operated on a whole new landscape than most other successful clubs. The revolving door of players and managers did not cripple the squad with instability or lack of cohesion. The club’s policy of buying undervalued players at low costs and selling them for primum prices allowed the club to maintain healthy finances.
In addition, the profit earned from this lucrative market was re-invested, carefully and strategically, back into the squad. Players who were sold were immediately replaced, and managers who moved to new challenges were substituted for those who could bring immediate results. The appeal of playing in the Champions League attracted top players and managers alike, while not only providing essential prize money to fund Lyon’s ambitious endeavors. This recruitment policy, in addition to strong financial investment, is what set Lyon aside from the rival pack.
This consistent strategy is what empowered Lyon to reclaim their 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 doors for newly-appointed Paul Le Guen to shepherd Lyon towards continued domestic success.
The expansion of Ligue 1 in 2002 from a 34 to 38 match season, only meant Lyon would rule over 20 clubs as opposed to 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. A home defeat to Monaco by three goals to one, their first in 30 home matches, knocked the reigning champions down as far as tenth. Lyon limped out of the winter period having only won two of nine matches after the midway point of the competition.
However, as Emperor Napoleon once said, “La victoire appartient au plus perseverant” meaning, victory belongs to the most persevering. Taking strength from their late season push last season, Lyon did not disparage or panic.
Their fortunes changed after Le Guen adopted a new 4-2-3-1 formation and the return of Sonny Anderson from three months injured inspired a turn in fortune. Lyon went on to win 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 played 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. The club had made sweeping changes to the landscape of the French first division makeup, yet a successful international conquest eluded them. Like Napoleon III, whereas changing the complexion of power in France was a successful endeavor, conquering Europe was the ultimate yet most elusive prize. Owner Jean-Michel Aulas reflected this ambition. He tasked manager Paul Le Guen to build off his miraculous first season by not only reclaiming the French throne but summiting Europe’s pristine competition – the Champions League.
Hoisting a domestic cup would have gone a long way to quench Aulas’s thirst for more silverware, but again Lyon were eliminated the following season in the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue. Their 2004 excursion into Europe showed signs of improvement but inevitably fell short. Lyon finished top of a group containing the likes of Bayern Munich, Celtic and Anderlecht and dispatched a Xabi Alonso-led Real Sociedad in the first knockout stage.
José Mourinho’s Porto would prove too stern a challenge, and the eventual European champions dumped the French champions out of the competition by 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 south to Spanish side Villarreal. With a new Brazilian striker Fred, Lyon did not skip a beat. Club top-scorer Juninho led from midfield, contributing 13 league goals, as the reigning champions blew away all challengers to their throne. With 22 victories, 13 draws and three defeats, Lyon racked up 79 points and brought home a fourth consecutive title while finishing twelve points clear of Lille.
Nevertheless, Lyon still struggled in their cup crusades losing on penalties to Clermont in the Coupe de France and were eliminated by Lille in the round of 16 of the Coupe de la Ligue. Their efforts in Europe failed to bear any fruits either. Like the season before, the club reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League only to underwhelm. Elimination on penalties to Dutch side PSV showed signs of regression in the competition, and as a result Paul Le Guen lost his managerial position that summer.
The summer of 2005 brought wholesale changes to Lyon but in no way disturbed he natural order of OL’s French rule. Newly appointed manager Gérard Houllier was given the reigns to succeed where Le Guen had failed. Four years after never owning a first division title, Lyon were well poised for new 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 the club’s success, while a well-balanced and experienced squad of players had the capabilities to compete with any rival. This fortitude was displayed under Houllier’s Lyon as they reclaimed yet another French title while shattering club expectations. Les Gones set a new record for most points accumulated over the course of a Ligue 1 season with 84, while scoring 73 goals and maintaining a +42 goal difference.
In addition, this dominance was reflected in the early stage of the Champions League. Lyon won 12 of a possible 12 points in a group containing Real Madrid, Rosenberg 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.
Yet, for all their vigour, Lyon could not replicate their supremacy in knockout matches. Canny Italian operators AC Milan spoiled the French Champions League party humiliating Lyon in their own backyard. A 3-1 defeat sent them crashing out of Europe at the quarter-final hurdle. The cycle continued the following season as this time Roma defeated Les Gones in Lyon to erase a promising start to the Champions League Campaign. Again, topping a group with Real Madrid and sweeping away French challengers to the Ligue 1 title, they just could not seem to sweep the competition on the continental stage.
Like plot to Groundhog Day, Lyon were forced to live the same story over and over again. Aulas, however content with his club’s domestic standing, pushed out Gérard Houllier because of their shortcomings overseas. Alain Perrin was brought in to right the ship and, despite a rocky start to the Ligue 1 season, successfully managed to recoup the French title.
This year’s script however deviated slightly than seasons prior. For the first time since 1973, Lyon won the Coupe de France with a 103rd minute winner over PSG in the final. Lyon finally completed the double, yet the cracks began to show. Perrin was powerless to push his side past, eventual champions, Manchester United in the Champions League and their misery continued on foreign soil. Furthermore, the final gap at the top of Ligue 1 was trimmed to five points separating Lyon from Bordeaux.
The season after Lyon’s seventh consecutive Ligue 1 title, a Trojan Horse by the name of Claude Puel entered the gates of the Stade de Gerland rendering the kingdom vulnerable. Aulas appointed Puel with the same job expectation as his previous three managers – conquer Europe. In conjunction with Aulas’s new appointment OL made underwhelming recruitment decisions across the following few seasons. The departures of key players – Tiago to Juventus, Diarra to Bordeaux, Abidal to Barcelona and Malouda to Chelsea – eventually disrupted the complexion of Lyon’s makeup. Further down the line, budgets were tightened to make room for a new 59,000-seater stadium (costing upwards of €400 million) causing OL to rely heavily on their academy for new players.
Like the chorus to “Big Yellow Taxi” …
“…you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot…”
The bubble burst. Lyon let its supremacy slip hunting bigger fish. As a result, they dropped to second in the league. For the first time since 2000 Lyon went trophy-less under Puel and were forced to watch southern rivals Marseille lift the French title.
The juxtaposition of dominion over domestic soil and failure abroad ironically came to the fold once more in 2010. Regrettably, Lyon were unable to recover their commanding grip over the top of the table. However, as if somehow liberated from their indispensable domestic responsibilities, Lyon finally overcame the quarter-final hurdle in the Champions League. Defeating Real Madrid over two legs and overcoming French adversary 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 about what if.
Today, the landscape of French football has transformed. The evolution of Lyon in the age of ghastly transfer fees will be fascinating to watch. Qatar-backed Paris Saint-Germain ruled over French football while 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 their first success of 2002. l’Avenir le dira.