In the wake of a new financial hegemony, Lyon will have to let the past go
The whistle thrice blown. Ephemeral silence. Then the inevitable cacophony of disenchantment. Boos tinged not with incredulous despair, much rather a grim acceptance. The Stade de Gerland, a setting of numerous erstwhile glories, now reconciling itself to a more pervasive notion of mediocrity. Nil-nil. Stade Rennais had left with a point. Olympique Lyonnais’ home support, admirably vocal throughout, can be spared any rose-tinted, grandeur delusion. The landscape has shifted beneath them.
In 2002, the club, shepherded up-top by the President-Director axis of Aulas and Lacombe, won Ligue 1 for the first time, playing with a joyful promiscuity that comes accustomed with most maiden victories. Seven years on, veteran libertines, they had an unheralded set of successive titles and were considered the archetype for profitable, high-achieving football clubs. Much has been written about their capacity for player development. They were superlative in the transfer market also. Mahamadou Diarra, a player currently without a club or a knee, was sold to Real Madrid for €26 million.
Lyon, without nearly the same levels of revenue as other leading European clubs, were always prone to punching above their weight, most notably in the latter stages of the Champions League, an almost-annual, gloriously graceful middle finger to the established elite. This year they lost in qualifying to someone resembling Carlos Vela. There are many reasons to be found in decline, and a decline is more keenly felt, or possibly accentuated to the point of obfuscation, with the rise of others. PSG and Monaco, two newer additions to the petro-millions super-clubs, a phenomenon one observes with an idiosyncratic mixture of intense shame and salivating sexual arousal, seem able to exacerbate each setback, however minor, of Lyon and below, via their alleged peerage.
The incomparable financial situation of such clubs can be illustrated through the tale of three thoroughbreds, two of which, Falcao and Cavani, were welcomed round for a combined €124 million, by Monaco and PSG respectively, and that of Bafetimbi Gomis, Lyon’s premium striker, who was unsuccessfully flogged to Newcastle over the summer, desperate as they were to slash the wage bill. Gomis remains, undoubtedly as much bemused by the milieu as his equine nature will allow. His far svelter colleague, perennial acolyte of the frustrating-but-brilliant cliché, Yoann Gourcouff, also dines heartily out of the meagre money pot. How Aulas regrets the small excesses that begun to creep in when the going was good. Now to contend with Hollande’s tax rise, coupled with declining television revenue. PSG will cope, Monaco won’t have to bother, Lyon will suffer.
Les Gones are not awful. They have retained some certainly capable young players and, though not a virtue in itself, are building a squad overwhelming composite of French nationals. Grenier, a mesmerising hybrid of poise, technique, vision and elasticised limbs, is brilliant. A player whom, when on the pitch, can be observed simply as being better than the other ones. Lucky to share the slice of turf in the centre of midfield is Gonalons, broader and weightier yet still technically adept, allows Grenier to unpick the lock whilst he commits assault. On the right, they possess Lacazette, quick and incisive. These three are the exemplars. Their defence is not without merit but often appears immobile, against Rennes they were inconvenienced often by the likes of Jonathan Pitroipa, a tiny hare of a man, who seemed to spend the majority of the first half suspicious of his feet.
Appropriate caveats aside, Lyon will have to accept French football’s realignment and smile politely. Their supporters, it feels, have begun to do so, however heart-rending in the glare of recent achievements. The club are certainly not pristine or celestial, but contextualised within the ominous juggernaut of financial unscrupulousness, their demise is somewhat saddening.