Lyon’s roar will be remembered

‘Disappointment” was the first word that popped into the mind of Lyon’s Lucy Bronze after their 2-1 win over Chelsea in the Champions League semifinal first leg two weeks ago.

“I think we’ve probably had one of our worst games I’ve seen us play this season,” she lamented. “A Lyon team all firing —you would know and you would see it. That’s a team that can dominate any team …Today we never really got out of second gear.”

Such are the standards of the French champions that a one-goal lead feels paltry and insufficient. Doubt is an uncomfortable sensation in these parts —they’re accustomed to the certainty that their eminence usually entitles them to. Just ask title rivals Paris St-Germain (PSG) who were on the wrong end of a 5-0 thumping the previous weekend.

Newcomers to the women’s game might find it a bit baffling reading about Lyon in such elevated tones. The men’s side hasn’t exactly been a force in French football, let alone European football, since the Juninho-inspired 2000s.

We’re naturally inclined to think the two planes would mirror one another when weighing up the heavyweights. Juventus, as an example, have drawn endless plaudits for their efforts on the female front over the past two years. The endeavour reached its commercial apex two weekends ago when the Old Lady could brag that both its teams lifted Serie A titles on the same day.

READ MORE: Could Juventus Women become the cult we need?

Although that rapid rise is no doubt impressive, there’s still one undisputed superpower in this sport: Olympique Lyonnais Féminin.

Before it was in vogue to deliver a women’s team, the club poured resources into theirs. An endeavour that has been handsomely rewarded on the field.

This is what total domination looks like in numbers and facts: that mauling of PSG put Lyon on the verge of securing Ligue 1 — it would be their 13th consecutive title. They haven’t lost a game in that league since 2016. When they won it last year they did so having scored 104 goals from 22 games … conceding five.

On the European stage they hold the prestige of owning the most titles with five. When Wolfsburg fell 4-1 in the final in May last year, the French side became the first team ever to win the Champions League three times in a row. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid would only achieve the feat two days later.

Of course we didn’t just get to this point by accident. The long journey instead was plotted by club president Jean-Michel Aulas.

In charge of the club since 1987, Aulas was persuaded in 2004 to acquire the women’s section of FC Lyon (a different sporting entity). He then did something unheard of at the time — he decided not to treat the section as an unwanted appendage and pumped money into it.

“Jean-Michel Aulas arrived with ambition and the desire to accumulate titles, as for the men,” says Cœurs de Foot editor Dounia Mesli.

“He gave himself the means by recruiting the best players in France, at a time when the French and European competitions were structured. He has been patient, never looked for profitability as the Qataris can do with the PSG men’s team. And he took advantage of the example of Montpellier.”

In the past decade the best players in the world have turned out for Lyon. Those include, but are certainly not limited to, England international Bronze, United States megastar Alex Morgan, Japanese captain Saki Kumagai and inaugural Women’s Ballon d’Or winner Norwegian Ada Hegerberg — yes, the same player who was asked to twerk on stage.

As the best team in women’s football history, they’ve undoubtedly served as one of the leading catalysts for the revolution the sport currently finds itself in.

Tired of being humiliated, their rivals have similarly looked to invest in this department. Although, as evidenced by the 5-0 PSG scoreline two weeks ago, they’re not quite there yet. Still, the team from the capital in particular has made major strides.

There is also a somewhat amusing idiosyncrasy that’s in development. PSG has had a complicated relationship with its “ultras” (superfans that are usually synonymous with hooliganism, racism and homophobia). Criminality and violence have forced it to ban various sects over the years from attending the Parc des Princes, where the men play all their home games.

In protest, the ultras have taken to following the women’s team. About 600 of them attended the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea.

They easily stood out from the thousands in attendance: singing ceaselessly, flying banners of protest and turning the atmosphere blood red with flares.

Chelsea survived that tie but ultimately could not overcome the might of Lyon.

In the other semifinal on Sunday, Barcelona beat Bayern Munich in a race between the two to secure a maiden spot in the final.

Just saying that last bit out loud sounds ludicrous when looking at it through the prism of the men’s game. But, this is not the men’s game, this is Lyon’s game.

And so the French will try to achieve the unprecedented once more while the Catalans look to write history.

The Groupama Aréna in Budapest, Hungary will be the scene of the battle. With a capacity of 22000, the ground regrettably has a bit of a Europa League feel to it — as opposed to the opulence expected of the greatest club competition in the world.

Still, this final may come to be seen as a seminal moment in the growth of the game; one which marks the last year that anyone —fans, media and teams —pretended it didn’t exist.

In the decade that follows, the pedigree of teams like Barça and Bayern will almost certainly have permeated through to their women’s teams. History, however, will remember the first superpower: Lyon.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


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