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Lyon looking for crowning glory

Lyon have won the French league in each of the last six years, so what is the secret behind the success of a club that this season has designs not only on domestic glory but also on European club football’s biggest prize, the UEFA Champions League?
Lyon were founded in 1950 but it was not until the arrival of a young IT entrepreneur called Jean-Michel Aulas in 1987 that success came calling. Aulas, who is now 55, pledged to lead Lyon – who were in the second division at the time – into Europe within four years. He was as good as his word.
The 1988-89 season proved to be the turning point as Raymond Domenech, the current France coach who managed Lyon until 1993, oined forces with technical director Bernard Lacombe, a former French international and France’s all-time record league goalscorer with 255 goals to his name, to guide the club out of six years of second division wilderness. Lacombe is now Aulas’ personal adviser.
In 1991, Lyon finished fifth in Ligue I and qualified for a UEFA Cup adventure that would end in the second round with an 8-4 aggregate defeat at the hands of Trabzonspor of Turkey. But more importantly, the club’s return to the European stage after numerous forays in the UEFA Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’Cup in the 1960s and 1970s had laid the foundations for future success.
Aulas was in many respects ahead of his time as he moved quickly to get sponsors on board. Today, the club boasts 11 partners. In 1999, Pathe Films purchased a significant shareholding, which in turn enabled Lyon to push ahead with the biggest signing in the history of French football, with Brazil’s Sonny Anderson arriving for 17 million francs (approximately 2.5 million euros).
Aulas did not stop there, though, as he began to tap into more and more sources of income by creating a lucrative franchising system. Today taxis, hairdressers, restaurants, drinks suppliers, travel agencies, advertising agencies, driving schools and delicatessens all bear the Lyon branding. As if that were not enough, the club is also a partner of the city’s biggest petanque club, which also helps to attract new fans. Lyon’s package is rounded off by the club’s own TV subscription channel, available via cable and satellite, and then there is of course the merchandising programme with kits, pennants, scarves and the usual club memorabilia.
Then, in 2002, it finally happened. On the final day of the season, Lyon played host to leaders Lens, who had a one-point cushion at the top. “The more enemies we have, the sweeter the win!” boasted a banner in the Lyon crowd. In the end, Lyon’s fans could not have wished for a sweeter win, as a 3-1 victory was enough to secure a first ever French league title for Anderson and his team-mates. The 2002 Lyon vintage featured players of the calibre of current France number one Gregory Coupet and Brazil’s Juninho, who would develop into one of the leading free-kick specialists in Europe. The coach at the time was Jacques Santini, who would go on to take charge of France.
Intriguingly, Lyon have won their six league titles under three different coaches – Santini (2000-2002), Paul Le Guen (2002-2005) and Gerard Houllier (2005-2007). The new man in the hot seat is Alain Perrin, a coach who experienced Champions League football during his spell with Marseille. Lyon recently bought Perrin out of his contract with Sochaux for 350,000 euros and his brief will be to lead his new club to their seventh consecutive title, and if possible, to win the UEFA Champions League, as Lyon have never reigned supreme in Europe. Aulas was recently elected president of the controversial G-14 in a move that spoke volumes, not only about his charisma but also about the respect that his success commands amongst his peers.
Lyon have been listed on the stock exchange since late 2006, but the proceeds of 80 million euros are unlikely to flood the transfer market. Instead, Aulas has his heart set on building a new 60,000-seater club stadium in the Lyons suburbs. The 42,000- capacity Stade Gerland, where Lyon currently play their home games, belongs to the city. Lyon pay rent, which naturally limits the club’s marketing options, but that does not mean that they are struggling financially. “We could easily find 30 to 50 million euros,” stresses Aulas. The club, however, does not want to go down that route. Instead, they want to continue with their policy of investing in training, buying key players at modest prices and then selling them on for a handsome profit.
Take Florent Malouda, for example. The 27-year-old French international was recently sold to Chelsea for 20 million euros, but in 2003, Lyon bought him from Guingamp for just 6.5 million. When the Malouda profit is added to the 15.8 million raised from the sale of Eric Abidal to Barcelona, the 13 million generated by the transfer of Tiago to Juventus and the comparatively modest 2.5 million received from Monaco for Jeremy Berthod, Lyon’s income from transfers in the summer of 2007 alone passed the 50 million mark. Small wonder, therefore, that Lyon were easily able to afford to sign Fabio Grosso, Inter Milan’s world champion left-back, for 7 million. The club’s record signing is Abdulkader Keita, a 26-year-old striker who came from Lille for 16 million euros.
Aulas’ dealings in 2007 have been fraught with danger, however, because Lyon usually only sell one key player and buy one direct replacement. In 2005, for example, Michael Essien was sold to Chelsea for 38 million euros and he was promptly replaced with Brazil’s Fred. In the summer of 2007, however, Lyon sold no fewer than three first-choice players. Perrin will certainly have his work cut out as he tries to form a powerful new team, especially as Lyon showed some worrying symptoms towards the tail end of the 2006-07 season. A number of cliques have formed within the squad, and instead of celebrating the club’s sixth league title, the players seemed to merely regard it as “job done”. Sidney Govou even recently attacked Juninho in an interview, accusing the Brazilian of harbouring “delusions of grandeur”. The Brazilian reacted by relinquishing the captaincy at the club’s training camp in Tignes in July and goalkeeper Coupet fears that “this season won’t be a Cakewalk – either in France or in Europe”.
Yet it is the UEFA Champions League that Aulas, his fellow board members and the Lyon players crave most. After all, money alone is not enough to make footballers happy – they want trophies too.