Those European clubs with aspirations to knock Olympique Lyonnais off the perch they have occupied for much of the last decade must have felt at times like they were in need of divine intervention to achieve the feat. They might have smiled, then, at the news earlier this week that the Vatican has launched its first women’s football team. Not many sides have had a prayer when taking on Lyon over the years, but maybe this one will if they ever get around to meeting.
Having reached the final for the eighth time in 10 years, Lyon head to the Ferencváros Stadium in Budapest on Saturday seeking their fourth Champions League title in a row, Barcelona their opponents this time around, the first Spanish club to make it to the final of the competition.
With 20 wins, two draws and no defeats, Lyon wrapped up their 13th consecutive French league title last month, finishing five points clear of Paris Saint-Germain, and went on to complete the domestic double when they beat Lille in the French Cup final last week.
All they do is win.
The unlikely pioneer behind this near-ceaseless record of success is the colourful character that is 70-year-old Jean-Michel Aulas, the hugely wealthy businessman who bought Lyon back in 1987 and, along with investment from French company Pathé (of the old newsreel fame), turned them in to an unrivalled force in French football. The team won seven league titles in a row between 2001 and 2008, although they’ve since been left in the shade by PSG’s resources, as every other French club has.
While PSG are the Lyon women’s closest domestic rivals, thus far they haven’t been able to match them (Lyon beat them 5-0 at home and 4-1 away this season). Much of the reason for that is Aulas showing a considerably greater commitment to the women’s side of his club than PSG have done to theirs.
While funding of the women’s set-up still pales next to the finances injected into the men’s, Lyon are top of the salaries table
It was in 2004, at a time when few of Europe’s major clubs were investing in the women’s game, that Aulas decided to do just that, buying FC Lyon’s women’s team and making it the female wing of Olympique Lyonnais. Within three years they had won their first league title, and they’ve hardly looked back since.
While the funding of the women’s set-up still pales next to the finances injected in to the men’s, Lyon are top of the salaries table. France Football produced a list last month of the highest-paid female players in the world, and the top three were all with Lyon: Norwegian Ada Hegerberg, holder of the Ballon d’Or, was first with a salary of €400,000, followed by two French internationals, Amandine Henry (€360,000) and Wendie Renard (€348,000).
And from the earliest days, Aulas has tried to attract the world’s leading players with his chequebook, going back to 2005 when the United States’ Hope Solo and Aly Wagner were signed for brief spells, and on to 2017 when American star Alex Morgan joined on loan, earning €30,000 a month while there. The current squad features three German and two English internationals, as well as players from Argentina, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan and Wales.
But there’s a strong home flavour, too, eight Lyon players named in the French squad for this summer’s World Cup (including Delphine Cascarino – no relation to Tony, as she keeps on having to tell media folk), many of them coming through the club’s academy, where boys and girls share the same facilities. The academy has been run by former French international Sonia Bompastor since 2013 when she was appointed by Aulas in an effort to ensure Lyon had the best home-produced players. It’s worked rather well.
Barcelona, though, have Lyonnais-sized ambitions of their own, just one of several major clubs around Europe aiming to bridge the gap. Their women’s team turned professional in 2015 and has also gone down the route of bringing in big-name internationals – among them 2017 world player of the year Lieke Martens of the Netherlands, England’s Toni Duggan and Brazil’s Andressa Alves da Silva – while nurturing home-produced talent in their academy.
Aulas might have his work cut out to maintain Lyon’s place on that perch, with Barcelona intent on usurping them
They lost out in the Spanish title race this season to Atlético Madrid, their last league meeting attracting a world record attendance for a women’s club game of 60,739, but there seems to be a genuine effort now among the club’s hierarchy to support the women’s set-up, as demonstrated last summer when they toured the United States with the men’s team. And it is in the US that Barcelona are hoping to set up a “franchised” side in the National Women’s Soccer League as part of their plans to globally promote the women’s side of their operations.
Aulas, then, might have his work cut out to maintain Lyon’s place on that perch, with the likes of Barcelona intent on usurping them, starting in Budapest on Saturday. He’s a determined fella, though, and seemingly always has been.
“A young Jean-Michel requested a judge to legally emancipate him from his parents so he could start his own business as a minor,” Getfootballnewsfrance.com reported recently. We didn’t learn if he was successful, but he hasn’t failed at much in life, certainly not with Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, so he might well have been emancipated in the end.
The Champions League final will be shown live by BT Sport Extra 3 on Saturday, kick-off 5.0