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.

Soccer City: Doha – controversial World Cup base

QATAR’s World Cup is rapidly approaching and there will doubtless be renewed protests about FIFA’s choice of host before the competition kicks off in November. Football is supposedly the most popular sport in Qatar and the national team was crowned Asian champions back in 2019, beating Japan in the United Arab Emirates. Doha, the capital, dominates local football, hardly surprising given around 80% of the country’s population resides there.

The western perception of Qatar has not been positive, hence the strength of feeling about their hosting the World Cup. While some might claim there is an element of Islamophobia about this, it is predominantly down to Qatar’s human rights record. Other critics of 2022 merely believe that a country with an average temperature of 28 degrees and a summer peak approaching 50 is far from being an ideal place to hold a major competition. The only way it could really happen was by moving away from the traditional summer calendar for the World Cup and staging it in the European winter, which will bring major disruption to domestic league programmes. The stadiums will have technology to ensure players and spectators are comfortable – we’ve come a long way since Mexico was viewed as a dangerous place for the Olympics and World Cup due to the altitude and climate.

Qatar is determined to give the World Cup its best shot, however, and their own team will go into the competition as Asian champions. But World Cup officials feel very aggrieved that sentiment has been so negative and point to the countless investigations that have taken place looking into the hosting process and any signs of corruption. There are issues that just won’t go away no matter how much they complain, such as the treatment of migrant workers and zero tolerance towards homosexuality, but unless something dramatic happens, Qatar 2022 is going ahead.

Doha, understandably, is the centre of the Qatar economy and is the headquarters of Qatar Petroleum, Qatargas and RasGas. Oil and natural gas are the major industries of Qatar and the country is a top four producer of the latter. Unsurprisingly, Qatar is one of the worst places in the world for air pollution and one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide per person.

Doha clubs have won 40 of the 57 seasons of the Qatar Stars League. The most successful team, Al-Sadd, has been the club of the upper classes in Qatar. Founded in 1969, they have been champions 16 times and have won the AFC Champions League twice, in 1989 and 2011. Little wonder their nickname is Al Zaeem, which means “the boss”. The Qatar squad that won the Asian Cup included nine players from Al-Sadd.

Al-Sadd have just won the league for the second successive season and finished unbeaten, as they did in 2021. They won 20 of their 22 games and scored 80 goals, conceding just 24. They started the campaign managed by Barcelona legend Xavi, who left Al-Sadd to rejoin his old club in November 2021. His replacement was Javi Gracia and the Spanish connection also includes Santi Cazorla, the former Arsenal and Villareal midfielder. The prize for winning the Qatar Stars League is the Falcon Shield, which may sound like a superhero tool, but underlines the popularity and importance of falconry in the region – it is the national bird of Qatar.

Al-Arabi, founded in 1952, is the second oldest club in Qatar and their crest features a ceremonial falcon. They’ve been champions seven times, although you have to go back to 1997 for the last time they won the title. Their fans are very passionate, especially when they come up against their closest rivals, Al-Rayyan.

Al-Sadd’s big rivals are Al-Duhail, known as the “Red Knights” and only founded in 2009 as Lekhwiya. The club, apparently, has the biggest playing budget in Qatar. Included in their squad is former Tottenham defender and Belgian international Toby Alderweireld. Al-Duhail finished runners-up to Al-Saad in the league but held their Doha rivals to two draws. They also knocked Al-Saad out of the Emir Cup at the semi-final stage. Al-Duhail have long been considered the club of the working class people and have won the Qatar Stars League seven times, the most recent being in 2019-20. Another Doha club who haven’t won the league for a long time are Al-Ahli, a relatively well supported outfit who claim to be the oldest club in Qatar. Founded in 1950, their trophy cabinet has never been full, the only major prize they’ve won is the Emir Cup, which they have lifted four times. Qatar SC, based at Doha’s Suheim bin Hamad Stadium, dates back to 1961 from a merger of two clubs and have won the league three times, the most recent success in 2003.

There will be three stadiums in Doha that will be used for the World Cup: the innovative Stadium 974, constructed from recycled shipping containers with a capacity of 40,000; the Al-Thumama, another 40,000 arena inspired by the taqiyah hat; and the recently converted Khalifa International Stadium. All are very eye-catching designs and in the case of the 974, after the World Cup it will be dismantled and sent to Africa. The construction process has not been without its problems, though, as there have been a number of deaths among the workforce, the exact details of which vary from witness to witness. This has been one of the main arguments against Qatar hosting the tournament.

We are told Qatar is a football-mad country, but the crowds for the Qatar Stars League are poor and issues such as climate have been cited as a deterrent.  In 2019-20, for example, Al-Sadd averaged around 1,500 and Al-Gharafi just 266. Qatar, the nation, clearly has an interest, as seen with the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain and other club sponsorship deals. They’ve made progress in encouraging women’s football and have installed academies to develop young talent, but no matter how many well-known names they engage to tell everyone the World Cup is going to be great, not everyone is buying it. 

Lima – football in the city of kings

LIMA is not renowned as a global footballing hub, although the country’s major clubs are mostly located in the Peruvian capital. The local population is football mad and they’re passionate about their teams – and bull-fighting – even though they struggle to be competitive forces in South American club competition.

Peru’s clubs have struggled to make an impact in the Copa Libertadores and in recent years, they have scarcely been seen beyond the group phase. Since Sporting Cristal, one of Lima’s top clubs, reached the final in 1997, losing to Brazil’s Cruzeiro, only eight times have Peruvian clubs made it into the knockout stage.

Roots

Lima is a city that many people are wary of because of its reputation, although crime has dropped dramatically during the pandemic. It is a sprawling metropolis that is home to around a third of Peru’s population. The Spanish, who conquered the country in the 16th century and founded the city in 1535, called Lima the “the city of kings”. Today it is popular for its cuisine and as a result, a lot of decent quality restaurants have sprung up. Each year, Lima welcomes around 2.5 million tourists.

Football was introduced to Lima and Peru in the late 19th century by British sailors and the country’s first organised league was inaugurated in 1912, a Lima-centric competition that included teams emerging from the city’s major factories – such as Sport Inca, Sport Progreso and Sport Vitarte. 

Sport Alianza, the club that became Club Alianza Lima, was formed in 1901 by workers at the local horseracing stables in the Victoria district of the city. Victoria was an area dominated by Afro-Peruvians, but football became the pastime of white Anglo-Peruvians. Very few black players featured in those early years. Today, Alianza have more fans across Peru than any other club.

Club Universitario de Deportes was formed by students in 1924 and started life wearing a pristine white kit. However, after an ill-fated trip to the laundry, the club’s strip came back as a shade of yellow. Hence, Universitario now play in cream shirts and shorts. Universitario’s support base has traditionally been from the middle and upper classes, but they have also attracted fans with right-wing political beliefs.

The clash between Alianza and Universitario is known as the El Clásico Peruano (the Peruvian classic), a passionate fixture that has often exploded into violence among the fans.

Sporting Cristal were formed in 1955 in the Rimac district of the city by owners of a brewery. Rimac is now an area overrun by what are known as Pueblos jóvenes – shanty towns. Sporting play at the Estadio Alberto Gallardo in Rimac, a 11,600-capacity ground, but their big derbies and cup games are held at the Estadio Nacional.

Deportivo Municipal were founded in 1935 and their golden period was between 1938 and 1950 when they were Peruvian champions four times. Deportivo were the first to get a taste of overseas competition when they were invited to take part in the first championship of South American clubs which was held in 1948 in Santiago.

Universidad de San Martin (known as USMP) are a relatively young outfit having been established in 2004 as the first public limited company club, and they have already been Peru’s champions three times: 2007, 2008 and 2010. Despite their impressive success, the club is without a permanent stadium.

Universitario are the best supported club in Peru in terms of attendances – in 2019, they averaged 12,700 at their home games, more than double the league average. Alianza regularly get over 11,000, while Sporting Cristal and Deportivo Municipal attendances fluctuate from 5,000 – 9,000. Universidad San Martin struggle to get more than 2,000 at most games. 

Ambition

Peru were part of the first World Cup in 1930 and for a while fancied their chances of becoming a force in the game. David Goldblatt, in his fine work, The Ball is Round, suggested Lima had ambitions to become the “Montevideo of the Andes”. Peru started to develop some outstanding players and in 1936, in the infamous Berlin Olympics, they reached the quarter-finals of the football competition. Three years earlier, a team comprising Peruvians and Chileans, the so-called Combinado Del Pacífico, went on an extensive charm offensive in Europe, pressing flesh and demonstrating that South America had a lot to offer the football world. Their exhaustive fixture list included matches with Celtic, Newcastle United, West Ham, Barcelona, Saint-Etienne and Bayern Munich. The majority of the squad came from Lima’s Alianza and Universitario and some went on to become part of the Peru Olympic team in 1936, including the outstanding Alejandro Villanueva, who played for Alianza and his aerial power (he was 6ft 6in) earned him the nickname, “the Peruvian Dixie Dean”. Villaneuva died tragically young, a victim of tuberculosis in 1944.

Teofilo Cubillas

More recently, Peru charmed the crowds in Mexico in the World Cup of 1970 when a talented young player named Teófilo Cubillas helped his country reach the quarter-finals. Cubillas, a native of Lima, played for Alianza and is considered to be one of the greatest Peruvian players of all time. He scored five goals in both the 1970 and 1978 World Cups and played 250 games for Alianza. 

Peruvian football has often flirted with disaster and has faced many challanges. In 1964, over 300 people were killed in a riot in Lima during an Olympic qualifier between Peru and Argentina. This incident, the worst ever disaster to involve football was seen as a reflection of pent-up discontent over the massive inequalities in Peruvian society at the time. Some 23 years later, the Alianza team, returning from a game in Pucallpa, was wiped-out in a plane crash when their Navy aircraft plunged into the Pacific Ocean. There was also a hint of scandal in the 1978 World Cup when Peru capitulated against Argentina, losing 6-0 in a game the hosts had to win by four to qualify from the second stage group. There have been countless theories behind this astonishing result, including the agreement between the two countries for a consignment of grain to be sent to Peru if Argentina achieved the right result.

Decline

Peru’s economic decline in the 1980s impacted their footballing fortunes. Although they appeared in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Peru were nowhere to be seen on the global stage again until 2018. South America experienced a decade of turmoil in the 1980s and in Peru – La Crisis de Los Ochentas – peaked with debt defaults in 1984, hyperinflation peaking in 1990 and 350,000 people per year leaving the country. In the 1990s, the Fujimori government led the economic recovery. Although 20% of the country lives below the poverty line, Peru has been one of the fasted growing economies in the world, although growth has slowed in the past two years. The country also has other issues to deal with such as refugees from Venezuela and Alianza have linked up with the United Nations Refugee Agency to support integration of people arriving in Peru.

Alianza have won just six of the last 30 Peruvian championships, while Sporting Cristal have secured 10 and Universitario eight. Lima continues to dominate domestic football, although the last champions were  Binacional, a team from the city of Juliaca formed in 2010.

Like most countries, Peru suspended its football league during the pandemic and attempted to restart in August. By the end of November, the 2020 season will finally be over. The chances are, a team from Lima will be celebrating.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA