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What happened to Olympique Lyonnais?

After dominating French football at the start of the 21st century, what caused Lyon to lose their grip on Ligue 1?

Since the turn of the millennium France’s Ligue 1 has had eight different champions from fourteen campaigns, although things look likely to become more predictable now that PSG and Monaco have pumped millions of euros into their clubs to tilt the playing field in their favour. However, back in the 2000s, French football didn’t even have the luxury of two potential title winners.

Olympique Lyonnais had spent the end of the 1990s trying to close the gap between them and the top teams in the division, finishing nine points behind the victors Bordeaux and Monaco in 1999 and 2000 and four behind FC Nantes in 2001. Then finally in 2002 they clinched the first L’Hexagoal trophy in Lyon’s 52-year club history, two points ahead of RC Lens, and began their domination of French football.

For the next seven seasons Lyon won every single Ligue 1 title, twice finishing the campaign 15 points ahead of second place. During the period the club also amassed six Trophee des Champions, a Coupe de France and reached the Champions League quarterfinals on three consecutive occasions. This was thanks to players such as Micheal Essien, Juninho, Florent Malouda and Karim Benzema, all of whom would go on to continue successful careers away from Les Gones.

Much of the success was contributed to the strategy implemented by the club’s owner Jean-Michel Aulas – named “OL-Europe”. It was so effective that it transformed the club from a regular second division team into one that dominated one of Europe’s top leagues and was a mainstay in continental competitions. Aulas’ plan was to reorganise the way the club did things and to exploit all available revenue streams so that all the top talent in France could be brought to Lyon, before being sold off abroad and starting the process again.

But why does the club no longer hold such a grip on the nation’s footballing pyramid? Clearly the a potential issue with Olympique Lyonnais’ system was that if you don’t have a manager who can identify where best to reinvest successfully then the whole cycle stalls. When Claude Puel was brought in to deliver the eighth title in a row in 2008 the pressure to succeed at the club was huge, and something that wasn’t dealt with properly. Replacements were never found for Benzema, Ben Arfa and Malouda and as the club began to miss out on revenue from the later stages of European competition, the high-spending model began to falter.

More recently Lyon, and their manager Remi Garde, have opted for a home-grown strategy, taking advantage of the cash injected into the club’s youth academy and training ground to bring through the next generation of French footballing talent. They are also going back to their roots with Aulas’ plan and trying to pick the best players from their competitors in Ligue 1 – a pool of players which is not so regularly plundered by the financial powerhouses in England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Olympique Lyonnais are also chanting the same line as Arsene Wenger at Arsenal – once Financial Fair Play is fully installed throughout Europe, they will benefit from an organic financial model and bringing through their own players rather than paying out the multimillions that their rivals Monaco and PSG do. However, in the same way that Arsenal fans doubt the leadership of their French manager in the face of Russian and Middle Eastern riches, Les Gones’ fans may need to stay firm and be patient in the long-term before their club's vision comes to fruition.

images: © korobukkuru, © julien haler

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