The Magnificent Seven: remembering Lyon’s star-studded dominance of French football

The Magnificent Seven: remembering Lyon’s star-studded dominance of French football

Cast a backwards glance towards the exploits of the exalted Saint-Étienne squad that waltzed to eight titles in 12 years during the 1960s and 70s, the beguiling Jean-Pierre Papin- lead Marseillais that strung together four consecutive league trophies as the 1980s surrendered to the 90s, or, most recently, the brazen Qatari-backed Parisians who perfected their own run of four on the bounce this very decade. In acknowledging each, painted against a vivid background of their own unique sustained glory, it is clear to see that French football is no stranger to periods of prolonged dominance.

As common as these phases of superiority may seem, though, no club has come close to matching Olympique Lyonnais’ historic period of success from around the turn of the new millennium when, between 2002 and 2008, the club crafted one of the most august and unlikely periods of domestic domination seen throughout all of European football history.

Amassing league title after league title, Les Gones brought a fleeting end to the petty to-ing and fro-ing of control between the likes of Monaco, Lens, Bordeaux and Nantes as, for seven years, Lyon remained untouchable at the Ligue 1 summit. Though perhaps more fascinating than the era of supremacy itself, and the unparalleled successes owing to it, are the circumstances under which such dominance was conceived.

Unlike most tales of countrywide dominion – which ostensibly owe their trophy hauls to unshakable stability; the unquestionable leadership of one supremely inspired manager and a squad as loyal as they are lavish – Lyon’s golden years of the noughties saw them do things a little differently.

Guided by no fewer than four managers during their tremendous tenure at the top, and with the revolving door at the Stade de Gerland scarcely static for a moment, such was the sheer quantity of players arriving and departing throughout that time, Lyon had no right to dominate the French league as emphatically as they did.

Yet here they stand almost a decade later, though no longer the toast of French football, and without a single title to claim in the ensuing years, still proudly holding onto a record that may never be broken.

As the curtain fell on the 2000/01 Ligue 1 campaign, Lyon supporters the nation over sighed with an all too familiar exasperation. Their team had hounded rivals Nantes almost the entire season long but had typically fallen short of beating them to the title. The club had succeeded in adding a small taste of silverware to their season’s takings, prospering in the Coupe de la Ligue, but that particular prize remained scant consolation. Still a first French league trophy escaped them.

Disappointed though they were with having to once again fill up on hors d’oeuvre while Nantes sat across the table tucking into what was their eighth main course, the Lyonnais were buoyed by one most obvious silver lining. His name was Sonny Anderson.

The Brazilian forward had signed for Lyon in 1999, with the club jumping at the chance to add the then-Barcelona striker to their ranks when a disgruntled Louis van Gaal had slapped a modest price tag on the player and marched him to shop window himself. Anderson had made quite the impression upon his return to France.

During his time with Monaco, Anderson had finished the 1995/96 season as top scorer and claimed the league’s best player accolade the following year as he led his team to the French title. In his debut season with OL, Anderson appeared to be up to his old tricks, notching 23 league goals before adding another 22 the year after. But still his goals came without the reward of a national title.

In the lead up to his third campaign with Lyon, the player, much like all involved with the club, hoped to finally see an alternative ending to their all too familiar tale. Thankfully, playing alongside the mercurial talents of compatriot Juninho Pernambucano, the 2001/02 season would give them just that.

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As dawn broke on the final day of another long and arduous season, Lyon’s players were blessed to awake to a scenario in which their fragile fate rested perfectly in their own hands. Sat achingly close to the league summit in second place and with Lens ahead of them by virtue of just a single point, it was Lens who would travel to Lyon to contest the last game of the season. The consequences of each result were as clear as the hopeful squad could have wished for them to be: win and be crowned champions, draw or lose and the title belonged to Lens.

The Lyonnais were made to wait just eight minutes before the celebrations could begin. An eruption of relief and ecstasy unbound the moment youngster Sidney Govou gifted his side the lead, before their voices shed their mistrusting and tentative edge as Philippe Violeau doubled their advantage seven minutes later.

Jacek Bąk’s goal for Lens momentarily placed a finger on the lips of the raucous, hoping to pose a question the challengers would fail to answer, but Pierre Laigle’s third for Lyon put the result beyond doubt just moments into the second half and there remained little Lens could do to prevent the trophy from slipping from their grasp. For the very first time, and far from the last, it would be lifted by Lyon.

No longer would their traditional white kits evoke sentiments of surrender. They had a French league title to show for their 52 years – and show it off they would. Little did they know just how many more would follow it. But before such delights could flow their way, like the hangover that plagues the morning after the night before, Lyon were quickly given reason to believe their bubble was about to burst so soon after having come to exist.

Victims of their own success, the league-winning Lyon manager, of which there was just one, was swiftly poached by the French Football Federation. Deemed to be the ideal candidate to marshall his country’s ambitious squad after a notoriously disappointing World Cup defence in 2002, Jacques Santini was snapped up and readied to serve his country, and suddenly proverbs attesting to the brightest flames burning for the shortest times seeped into the minds of the Lyonnais. They should have known it was too good to be true.

Fortunately, Santini’s replacement at Lyon would prove to be no cheap imitation act. In fact, the studious Paul Le Guen wasted no time in evidencing his own aptitude for life at the top and not only matched his predecessor’s efforts but built on them in style.

Unlike the season that preceded it, the 2002/03 campaign came to an end without Lyon requiring a dramatic final-day victory to secure the league title – an eventuality most fortunate considering the 4-1 defeat to Guingamp with which Lyon signed off. Needless to say, the loss mattered little and the youthful side named by Le Guen acknowledged that fact long before the occasion’s first ball had been kicked.

Lyon did, however, require eight wins and two draws from the 10 games preceding their season’s curtain closer after a prolonged spot of incredibly suspect form saw them drifting aimlessly as low as fifth with 12 games left to play. Nonetheless, the tricky second title was theirs before Guingamp came to town and the shrill blast of the referee’s final whistle that afternoon served two purposes: to sound the closing of the league season and to declare the beginning of another summer-long party for the Lyonnais.

The club’s title defence had proved far from routine. With as many as five clubs within just four points of their eventual haul, Lyon did not go unchallenged. But Les Gones’ superiority was questioned insufficiently by their rivals, who exposed their own weaknesses with alarming regularity, and Lyon’s debut league trophy was consigned to a lonely cabinet no more.

Over the coming seasons the league trophy would continue to embark upon its tour of the nation as standard, spending months flirting with potential suitors before ending the campaign in the increasingly familiar surroundings of the country’s central-eastern Metropolis of Lyon on every occasion. And, somewhat paradoxically, as the inevitability of another Lyonnais league win seemed to increase with each passing year so too did the turnover of Lyon’s most notable players.

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When Lyon kicked the first ball of their 2003/04 season they did so without the revered Sonny Anderson in their ranks as the Brazilian had since found a new home in Villarreal. Consequently Lyon were left to search for a new talismanic frontman and they soon found one in the form of French forward Péguy Luyindula.

After enduring a heavily restricted role throughout his first two years with Lyon, having joined the club from Strasbourg on the eve of their first title-winning season, Luyindula declared he was ready to assume the starring role and be the man to lead Les Gones from the front. To the delight of the people of Lyon, Luyindula’s confidence proved to have been conceived on solid foundations as the Zaire-born striker completed the campaign as his club’s top scorer.

When compared to his Ligue 1 contemporaries, Luyindula’s numbers seemed frail; his 16 league goals dwarfed by Alexander Frei’s 20 for Rennes and moreso by Djibril Cissé’s 26 for Auxerre. But Lyon cared little for the intricacies of his figures as his efforts were bolstered admirably by contributions from the likes of Juninho, who typically hit double figures from midfield, and his compatriot Giovane Élber, who also hit 10 league goals in his debut season for Lyon. It was exactly this kind of collectivism and innate duty-sharing that helped Lyon to flourish and, in the 2003/04 season in particular, keep at arm’s length the two chief rivals for their crown.

Rejuvenated following a disastrous 11th-place finish the preceding season, Paris Saint-Germain hunted Lyon with renewed purpose. Likewise, Monaco, who embarked upon a memorable season that peaked with a first appearance in the Champions League final, appeared hellbent on knocking the Lyonnais off their perch. But Lyon’s position proved unassailable. No team scored more or conceded fewer than Le Guen’s men and they were not to be caught at the top of Ligue 1.

Confirmation of the club’s third straight league title was like sweet music to the ears of all at the club, particularly midfield dynamo Michael Essien whose decision to swap Bastia for Lyon had been vindicated in the most emphatic fashion. The same could also be said for ex-Guingamp winger Florent Malouda, who too had upgraded in the summer and hopped aboard the express train that was Olympique Lyon holding a one-way ticket to the top of the league.

The following season the influence of domestically-acquired players such as Essien and Malouda would increase further still and, far from providing the chasing pack with reason for optimism, the narrow fissure between Lyon and their wannabe successors at the top would become a vast chasm.

As had become the standard in pre-season preparations, Lyon readied themselves for another title defence by selling a small handful of key players. Their efforts were not going unnoticed across the continent, and while many of Lyon’s recruits were content to stick with the club while the going was good, others recognised what they had achieved with Les Gones and sought out further challenges elsewhere.

Furthermore, long-term Lyon owner Jean-Michel Aulas did nothing to hide the fact the football club was still very much a business looking to turn a profit. However, given the club’s ascent from the second division to the very top of their country’s pile, few on the inside thought to question his methods.

On this occasion, in addition to a number of less extravagant transfers, Élber departed for Borussia Mönchengladbach, Luyindula swapped Lyon for Marseille and Edmílson joined Barcelona. Despite the renown of the players departing, these sales brought about relatively little cause for concern as Lyon responded in typical fashion.

With their trusted scouting network focusing their attentions on two distinct regions, one at home and one abroad, Lyon recruited wisely. The team’s defence was reinforced with the additions of Éric Abidal and Cris, from Ligue 1 rivals Lille and Brazilians Cruzeiro, respectively, while their attacking armoury grew in size with the acquisitions of Frenchman Sylvain Wiltord, poached on a free transfer from Arsenal, and Nílmar, who, like Cris, swapped Brazil for Lyon.

This particular period of personnel revision was also noted for its promotion of two Lyon youth players, who graduated from the club’s academy and made their debuts in the coming season. These two players were Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema.

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The campaign that followed played out in familiar fashion. Lyon dominated the league, still sans a truly prolific striker, and scored more while conceding less than their every rival, as it now seemed commonplace for them to do. Only instead of becoming the merry victors of a two or three-horse race, it appeared as though Le Guen’s team were in fact the only horse racing at all. Such was Lyon’s dominance, with a leisurely-attained 12-point gap to show for their efforts, Ligue 1 took on the appearance of an unlikely racecourse playing hosts to a single stallion and 19 ill-equipped and lost-looking asses.

In the weeks predating the season that followed, once again the Stade de Gerland was awash with new faces come the precursory roll-call.

Enamoured by his phenomenal performances for Lyon, Chelsea had willingly parted with some £34 million to procure the services of Michael Essien and the club wasted no time reinvesting that money to sign Portuguese midfielder Tiago as his immediate replacement. Lyon also brought on board further midfield options in the form of Marseille’s Benoît Pedretti, Brazilian striker Fred, to stand in for the outgoing Nílmar, while John Carew also joined Les Gones’ cause. The most notable fresh face, however, was that of the man settling into the swivel chair in the manager’s office.

There was no doubts that Le Guen had performed remarkably during his time at the Lyon helm. He had inherited Santini’s title-winning squad under a cloud of fear and caution and had risen above it to make the team his very own on the way to a further three consecutive league titles. But Lyon owner Aulas was not content with domestic domination alone. Being the best in France was not enough; he longed for Lyon to be the best in Europe and it was this unyielding desire to conquer the continent that lead to the removal of Le Guen and the installation of Gérard Houllier.

Despite rival fans’ hopes of a closer title race, or any title race whatsoever, the next season did little to convince watchers of French football it was anything other than a formality. The only event of note at the top of Ligue 1 seemed to be that the solitary stallion had become even faster, having refined its technique, and the gap come the close of the campaign had swelled from 12 points to 15. For Lyon, consecutive league title number five was the most elementary to date.

But, of course, while Jean-Michel Aulas was delighted to see the domestic run continue, it was Houllier’s performances in the Champions League by which he would ultimately be judged.

From the outset of Santini’s success and beyond, Lyon experienced a series of wildly varying fortunes on the continent, ranging from the euphoric – building upon their extraordinary successes at home to topple European giants considered even more imposing than themselves – to the downright maddening, as they failed year on year to translate their domestic dominance into success in the Champions League for more than a single game at a time.

Repeated tussles with the venerated likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid made for thrilling and memorable wins on occasion. But these instances were simply the snapshots of choice pulled from a dark-room filled with images of mediocrity. Beautiful lies. Anomalies. Sadly, Houllier found that he too was destined to craft his own fate in the very same image.

Running away with their league with such ease yet again, many believed 2005 could well be the year Lyon shook off their continental hoodoo and made their mark on the Champions League.

When France’s finest found themselves resolutely defending a 1-1 draw at the San Siro, and the resulting away goal victory it would bring over opponents AC Milan, the rest of Europe saw no reason to disbelieve them. Milan, however, were otherwise inclined and the Champions League veterans struck twice, in the 88th and 93rd minutes, as goals from Pippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko hit at the gut and the heart of the Lyonnais, sending them careering into the very same hurdle for the third excruciating year in a row.

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With French soil underfoot, Lyon were so often viewed only by craned necks and through squinted eyes as they operated on an entirely different plane to their domestic rivals. But in Europe their flaws could be viewed all too clearly. Houllier, given the benefit of the doubt by the all-powerful Aulas, was graciously afforded one more crack at the big time the following year.

As the 2005/06 Ligue 1 season was consigned to the past by the next in line, like a lazy sequel, the same old storyline found itself rehashed for 2007 with minimal alterations made only to expendable cast members, names and dates.

Lyon’s fortunes in the league bordered on becoming a foregone conclusion. Their closest challengers in 2005 were left 12 points off the pace, in 2006 the concluding gap increased to 15 and, in 2007, plucky silver-medalists Marseille ended their season’s endeavours 17 points behind the runaway leaders. Never before had the gulf in class been quite so apparent.

Further evidencing the familiarity of the latest campaign to those gone by, Lyon chose not to defy the sanctity of their tradition and suddenly saunter to the title while relying on the formidable firepower of one particularly adept frontman, and neither did they opt to change tact in their policy on transfers and seek to hold what they had.

Like principled children with an abundance of sweets, again the squad shared their goalscoring duties generously between them knowing there was plenty to go around. Fred set the bar with 11 league goals while Juninho and Malouda trailed close behind with 10 apiece.

And before all of this, in the summer transfer market, as they so often would, players came and players went all the while slowing the Lyon juggernaut not one iota. Mahamadou Diarra departed for Real Madrid, earning his club more than £20m in the process, and was joined in the departures lounge by no fewer than 10 players. Meanwhile Kim Källström, Jérémy Toulalan, Alou Diarra and Sébastien Squillaci were all picked up from fellow Ligue 1 sides, showing the club’s policy of poaching domestic talent was still well and truly alive.

Still, such was Aulas’ priority, it was upon their progress in Europe’s showpiece competition that so much hinged for Lyon. For Houllier, this now was make or break.

Drawn to feature alongside Real Madrid, Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Kyiv, Lyon substantiated the hopes of the optimists among the Lyonnais and palliated the fears of the pessimists by topping their group with a return of four wins and two draws from their six fixtures. Les Gones were rewarded with a first knockout round date with Serie A runners-up Roma while their group stage rivals Real, having been made to settle for second by Lyon, were forced to take on the might of German champions Bayern Munich.

Watching Munich dispatch Madrid, albeit on away goals, undoubtedly brought a cool relief to those of a Lyon persuasion as it underlined the importance of their own positive results against Real to ensure their own first place finish and the consequent easier draw. However, in fitting with the type of diminished luck the Lyonnais were used to relying upon while watching their team play across Europe, their ‘easier’ tie proved to be anything but.

In Rome the two teams played out a predictably cautious first leg stalemate and Lyon took back with them to the Stade de Gerland a clean slate upon which to formulate their master plan for reaching the final stages of the competition. This plan, needless to say, would begin with beating Roma and it soon proved to be a plan that worked far more succinctly in theory than in practice.

On 22 minutes, Francesco Totti struck to give Roma the lead and with it an away goal that Lyon were now, stranded in the second leg without one of their own, simply beyond replicating. Then, in the 44th minute, Mancini doubled the lead and Lyon’s hopes of an historic Champions League run lay in tatters. Try though they might, Lyon could do nothing to breach the Roman defence and the game ended 2-0 to the Italians.

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Suddenly the coarse edges of the memories of their team’s quarter-final failings softened and the repetition seemed that little less infuriating. They’d not even made it that far this time around. The Lyonnais cursed their idle optimism, aware that perhaps they should be more careful with what they wish for, though they knew there would almost certainly be another chance the following season. Houllier, however, was afforded no such luxury and, as promised, the veteran coach was let go.

In preparing for the 2007/08 season, and life at post-Houllier Lyon, the club’s president elected ex-Marseille and Sochaux boss Alain Perrin to take the wheel. Unmoved in his ambitions for the club, Aulas still wanted nothing more than to crack the continent. But, equally unmoved in both their domestic and European pedigree, despite further dominance across their home nation, it wasn’t to be in the Champions League where Perrin and Lyon would find success.

Routinely referred to by the acronym PPH, short for “passera pas l’hiver”, meaning “won’t last the winter”, Perrin’s relative inexperience and subpar start to his Lyon career led many to believe he’d be the shortest of all Aulas’ managerial acquisitions. But Perrin shook off the looming suspicions, weathered the storm, and gave a dignifying account of himself and his credentials during his debut campaign with Les Gones.

Santini, Le Guen and Houllier had each left behind mighty shoes to fill and Perrin had filled them nobly. Not only had he successfully navigated Ligue 1’s choppy waters, through unknown territory to guide Lyon to another consecutive title, but he had also masterminded the club’s success in the Coupe de France, ensuring their first ever league and cup double.

Yet in the Champions League, Lyon again failed to charm their way to the latter stages and encountered a familiar glass ceiling in the first knockout round where Manchester United denied their progression.

Beyond the tiresome and seemingly inevitable routine of winning at home while losing abroad, the season was responsible for proposing a contradicting set of clues as to what exactly Lyon’s future may hold.

On one hand there was great cause for celebration. The club had continued to rewrite history, seven titles into their unprecedented run, and had added a first domestic double to the decade’s haul. Furthermore, with 20-year old academy graduate Karim Benzema leading from the front, firing 31 goals in all competitions during the season, it seemed the Lyonnais would be crazy in fearing for their club’s fortunes.

However, throughout the year, signs that perhaps Lyon’s era of dominance was coming to an end had become increasingly prevalent. Lyon were bested seven times in the league, more than they had lost in any of the previous four years, and ultimately won the title by just four points. A substantial enough lead though it was to provide another trophy, seemingly gone were the days of 17-point polarities between Lyon and their despairing adversaries.

More worryingly, though, was that Perrin’s first season with Lyon would also be his last. Evidently his championship win had proved far less emphatic than many of those that preceded him but he had also made history in securing two trophies for his season’s work; a feat that not one of his predecessors could match.

Nevertheless, just like Le Guen and Houllier before him, Perrin had found Europe’s peak far too steep a climb to master and Aulas was unwilling to waste any more time, effort or investment in helping him reequip for another attempted ascent.

And so, with Perrin swiftly dispatched, came the turn of Claude Puel to take charge of the Lyon cause. Despite the change in personnel, no such alterations were made to an unequivocal job specification. Europe remained the priority. Unfortunately for Lyon, a great many factors outside of their control had changed, not least of all the makeup of the league in which they were competing and the strength of the squad they entrusted to top it.

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In the impending season, Lyon would not only compete against their familiar domestic opponents, they would also be forced to combat the dreaded seven-year itch which would prove to be one contest they couldn’t win.

In the season’s approach, Lyon continued to abide by their own blueprint in the transfer market, opting not to hesitate in selling a number of their most established players for exorbitant fees so long as they could be succeeded with domestically sourced replacements. Except, on this occasion, an ill-fitting balance was struck by Puel.

Malouda joined Chelsea, Abidal left for Barcelona, Tiago swapped Lyon for Juventus, and Alou Diarra made the move across country to Bordeaux. They were quickly replaced like-for-like where possible, as Abdul Kader Keita, Fabio Grosso and Mathieu Bodmer stepped into their now vacant positions, but the new recruits failed to do so adequately.

Throughout the campaign, Lyon’s defence denied any and all suggestions that a changing of the guard was due in Ligue 1. Conceding just 29 goals, bettered only by the miserly defence of Toulouse who allowed just two fewer, it was at the business end of the pitch that Les Gones struggled.

Hitting 52 goals for the season may have seen them outscore all but two of their rivals yet the tally was their lowest for nine years and the lack of firepower killed their hopes of a high-flying eighth straight title before they could ever leave the ground.

Aulas could perhaps have forgiven his troops and pardoned their streak-ending malaise had their concentration slipped at home all the while they conducted a compelling European adventure elsewhere. But Lyon cursed the draw that handed them an invitation to Barcelona as early as the Champions League’s first knockout round and the 6-3 aggregate trouncing which immediately followed meant that there was to be no redeeming their domestic failings on foreign soil.

After such time in shared company, it was not entirely inconceivable to imagine a burgeoning generation of football-besotted children scattered across school playgrounds for whom the very prospect of seeing Lyon without the Ligue 1 trophy held firmly in their clutches was far too alien a thought to even comprehend. It was all they’d ever known.

Yet that was the dim reality the club faced in the summer of 2009 as they were forced to watch on helplessly as the Ligue 1 trophy was carried off by one of their rivals, showing not a moment’s courtesy for the time it had spent at the Stade de Gerland. Sadly for the Lyonnais, they would come to know that particular scenario intimately in the years that followed.

Should a philosophical tour d’horizon of their demise be required, Lyon’s eventual fall from grace perhaps seeks to comment on the importance of taking sufficient pride from your victories and highlights the pitfalls of taking them for granted while aiming too high. One wonders if, had Aulas treasured Lyon’s domination of France more dearly and not sought to so eagerly chase his dream of conquering Europe, his team may well have retained their position as the toast of their nation.

But, in the same breath, it must be acknowledged that without Aulas’ immense ambitions, sizeable wealth and obvious aptitude for his position as president, Lyon could very well still be treading water in France’s second tier, with not a single honour to present let alone the finest championship streak their country has ever witnessed.

Today, Olympique Lyonnais are far from some toppled giant still reeling from a dramatic and near-fatal collapse. It may have been almost a decade since their last league title but the club have repeatedly collected runners-up medals in subsequent seasons, not once finishing in a position lower than fifth, and still have about them more reasons than most to be hopeful of a prosperous future.

The landscape of Ligue 1, and with it the breed of rival Lyon must defeat in order to reclaim their crown, has mutated in such a way since their last championship win that it seems almost inevitable that Lyon will never replicate their famous streak. But then all streaks begin with just one and, should Lyon get their wish and top the table come May once again, there’s no telling where it could lead them. We all know what happened the first time they won just one.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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