Lyon: The foodie capital prepares to feast

OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS (OL) are on the brink of being taken over, possibly by American businessman, John Textor. What will this mean for French football, which desperately needs a credible opponent to Paris Saint-Germain to make Ligue 1 more competitive? From the perspective of the people of Lyon, what will this do for a club that is already one of the better supported in France?

Lyon is a pleasing city with an old quarter – Vieux Lyon – which attracts plenty of tourists. They come for the atmosphere of quaint old streets and alleyways and the food. Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, or at least that’s what local restaurants will proudly tell you. Actually, the food is really quite superb.

As for football, Lyon is effectively a one-club city, although there is a small club called Lyon La Duchère which is no competition for OL, who can draw almost 50,000 in normal times. Lyon La Duchère are lucky to get 500 and frequently get far less through their turnstiles at the multi-purpose Stade de Balmont.

If you were Bill Shankly, you would say the best side in Lyon are OL and the second best team in the city is Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, the current women’s European champions. In recent times, Les Fenottes have won more prizes than the men’s team. They have been French champions 15 times in 16 years, 2021 was the exception when PSG won the title by a single point. They’ve won the women’s Coupe de France nine times and they have lifted the UEFA Champions League on a record eight occasions. In 2022, they beat holders Barcelona 3-1 in the final in Turin. It’s fair to say OL have been at the forefront of the women’s game in Europe for some time. They are undoubtedly the best supported women’s team in France, with an average gate of around 4,000.

It is a city that likes its sport. The local rugby club, Lyon OU, play in the oddly-named Top 14 but haven’t been champions since 1933, but they did win the Challenge Cup for the first time in May 2022. Lyon also has a top basketball team, AVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne, and cycling, unsurprisingly, is tremendously popular. The city is also plagued by e-scooters at the moment, some of whom cruise up behind pedestrians and impatiently wait for an opportunity to pass them. And given two rivers run through Lyon, the Rhône and the Saône, rowing is also on the agenda for some folk.

OL used to reside at Stade de Gerland, where Lyon OU play, but in 2015, moved to a new stadium, the Groupama, an eye-catching arena that can hold more than 59,000 people. Designed by Populous, the Groupama cost € 480 million to build. It’s not in the city centre, however, but some 10 kilometres east of town, in the Décines neighbourhood, and is accessible via a tram journey. OL actually own the stadium and their training facilities, an unusual situation in France.

OL have won Ligue 1 seven times and they all came between 2002 and 2008. There was nothing before and nothing since. In the past decade, they have finished runners-up twice and have finished in the top four seven times. In 2021-22, they had a poor campaign, finishing eighth. They also reached the quarter-final of the UEFA Europa League, but were easily beaten by West Ham United. The Lyon fans were generally discontented throughout the season and the club had to deal with outbreaks of violence, including pitch invasions. When West Ham won 3-0 at the Groupama, the fans threatened to run onto the pitch in protest.

Despite their size and potential support, OL are way behind PSG in their financial clout. In 2020-21, for example, OL’s revenues only totalled € 118.2 million compared to PSG’s € 569 million. Furthermore, OL’s wages amounted to € 134 million versus the PSG bill of € 503 million. In a nutshell, that illustrates the imbalances within French football.

After PSG, Lyon have been the next biggest spender in the transfer market in France over the past 10 years. But Lyon’s gross outlay of € 375 million is a fraction of the € 1.3 billion spent by PSG. Lyon have received the highest income from transfers, around € 624 million from the sale of players almost on a conveyer-belt, including Alexandre Lacazette, Samuel Umtiti, Tanguy Ndombele, Bruno Guimarães, Ferland Mendy and Bertrand Traoré. Karim Benzema, who enjoyed something of an Indian Summer at Real Madrid in 2021-22, started out at Lyon before joining the Spanish giants in 2009.

The future could be exciting for OL, based on the hope that a new owner will provide fresh impetus and resources to make the club successful once more. Certainly it sounds as though John Textor is another who has seen multi-club ownership as the way ahead for clubs outside the elite. “My plan is to create an eco-system of cooperating top-tier clubs that will benefit from the sharing of a global footprint of talent identification,” he said. Corporate speak, maybe, but in there is a message in there and it is one that is increasingly being telegraphed around Europe by eager sports investors from the US. People are looking at ways to create value out of football.

Textor is co-owner of Crystal Palace and also controls Brazilian club Botafogo and Belgium’s Molenbeek. Like many others, he doesn’t like projects like the PSG model. The deal for OL has been reported to be € 800 million, which includes debt, which would give Textor and his associates 80% of OL, who are listed on the Paris stock market. Apparently, 19% owner Pathé – Lyon has a rich history in the film industry – and private equity firm IDG will both offload their holdings.

Lyon is a big city with a population of 1.7 million. The football club has many of the ingredients needed to be successful. If the deal goes through, PSG may find it has some stiff competition in the years ahead, although the chasm is extremely challenging. Monaco and Lille both demonstrated it can be done, but it is surely about time that France’s bigger clubs put the Parisians under pressure.

Mirror image – UWCL includes familiar names

THE UEFA Women’s Champions League has reached the quarter-final stage and the eight teams involved are: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Wolfsburg. It could almost read like the A to Z of men’s football in Europe, with the exception of Lyon and Wolfsburg. Five of the eight have appeared in at least seven quarter-finals in the past decade and in the past five years, six have taken part in at least four. The men’s game has actually been less polarised since 2017-18.

Clearly, money talks in the women’s game almost as much as it does with men. The leading clubs are almost all affiliated to elite European clubs and unsurprisingly, those teams are dominant in their domestic leagues. Of the last eight of the Champions League, the leaders in Spain (Barcelona), France (Lyon), Germany (Wolfsburg), Italy (Juventus) and England (Arsenal) are all in the mix. While men’s football took decades to create huge imbalances, women’s football seems to have reached that stage at a rather extraordinary speed.

Barcelona, the holders, demonstrated how superb their team was when they swept Chelsea’s women aside in 2020-21 in the Champions League final. In the league this season, Barca have won all 24 of their games, scoring an astonishing 136 goals and conceding just six. They have already been crowned champions. Likewise, Lyon are unbeaten in France, winning 16 of their 17 games and PSG, Arsenal, Juventus and Arsenal have all lost just one game each. 

The elite in women’s football have financial strength and this enables them to lure the top players to their clubs. For example, the Guardian’s top 100 women footballers, published at the end of 2021, included 13 from Barcelona, 10 each from Lyon and PSG, nine from both Arsenal and Chelsea and eight from Bayern Munich. In total, the current last eight of the Champions League accounted for 58% of the top 100.

The Women’s Super League in England is dominated by three clubs: Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Chelsea have won five titles since 2015 while Manchester City have been runners-up six times in that same period. Arsenal’s most recent championship win was in 2019, although they lead the table in 2021-22.

Interest is growing in the women’s game in England and the average WSL crowd is now around 1,600 with Arsenal the biggest draw with gates of just under 2,600. Chelsea average 2,500 and Manchester City 2,200 and another half dozen generate more than 1,000 with Manchester United just under 2,000. There’s no shortage of media coverage these days and the profile of women’s football is growing all the time. Currently, there is considerable momentum behind the levelling up of wages, notably in the FA Cup, but while the highest level of women’s football has attendances comparable to step two or three non-league, advocates will have to be prepared for a long game.

Only one WSL team has won the Champions League or its equivalent, Arsenal in 2007, who beat Swedish side Umeå 1-0 on aggregate. The winning goal was scored by none other than BBC pundit Alex Scott and the combined crowd from the two games struggled to get to 10,000. The last Champions League final with a crowd drew almost 20,000. This year’s final will be played in Turin.

The names might be familiar, but the Champions League should make for compelling viewing over the coming weeks. Can anyone really stop the Barcelona machine?

Quarter-final draw: Bayern Munich v PSG (22 March, 30 March); Juventus v Lyon (23 March, 31 March); Arsenal v Wolfsburg (23 March, 31 March); Real v Barcelona (22 March, 30 March).