Far more than marketing wizardry is at work at Lyon under team President Jean-Michel Aulas, who bought the club in 1987 and took over management of the women’s team in 2004.
The Lyon men won an unprecedented seven consecutive Ligue 1 championships between 2002 and 2008, but it was the women who took center stage this summer.
In investing heavily to build and promote women’s soccer, the 70-year-old Aulas has forged a superteam and an unprecedented dynasty in Europe. In May, the Lyon women won their fourth consecutive Champions League title and sixth overall.
This summer, with France hosting the Women’s World Cup, Lyon accounted for seven starters on the French national team, including captain Amandine Henry, striker Eugenie Le Sommer, defender Wendie Renard and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi. On Friday, their dream of winning France’s first World Cup was ended by the three-time and defending champion United States, which prevailed, 2-1, in a quarterfinal in Paris .
Even with the loss, Aulas’s unparalleled investment is expected to have a profound impact on the future of women’s soccer in the United States and around the world. In paying top dollar for top talent and providing facilities and working conditions on par with what men receive, Aulas has created a winning formula. He also has established a model for women’s professional soccer across Europe and the United States, where the National Women’s Soccer League, the latest iteration of a near-two-decade-long quest to establish a viable American professional league, remains underfunded.
Beyond France’s borders, the Lyon women’s club has become the employer of choice for the global elites of the game, who are more than willing to sublimate their egos to be part of a winning organization. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, recipient of the sport’s first Ballon d’Or for women, is believed to be the highest compensated among them, with an annual salary approaching $500,000, insiders said.
Four of the World Cup’s final eight teams boasted Lyon players. In addition to France’s seven, England and Germany each have two; the Netherlands, one. Two U.S. co-captains, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, formerly played for Lyon.
The secret to the club’s success, in Morgan’s view, is Aulas’s commitment to gender equality. It’s a commitment, she noted, that Aulas, the club president, backs up with financial resources.
“Financially, the president makes a commitment to paying the players much greater salaries than a lot of the other leagues or teams around the world,” said Morgan, who signed with Lyon in 2016 to elevate her skills. “With that, you’re going to get the best talent in the world, so that definitely helps.
“The facilities are world class, which is great. And it’s really cool that the president is very involved. He is a fan of the game in general, both the men’s and the women’s side. He listens to the requests of the players and the teams and makes reasonable decisions off that. Everything is very professional, with a clear chain of command from the president, the general manager, the team coordinator and the publicists.”
Said Rapinoe, who played for Lyon in 2013-14: “At the heart of what Lyon is doing is money, insofar as they invest in their youth programs. There’s a reason why all the good players want to go there. The best players will go there and sit on the bench because the money is there, the training is great, and they continually invest in the team.”
All this has inspired respect and a measure of envy from rival club owners and soccer federations around the world. Count April Heinrichs, captain of the U.S. team that won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and a former national team coach, as an admirer.
“I was sold on Olympique Lyon from the minute I heard how gender-equitable the president is and the club is,” said Heinrichs, 55, who toured the Lyon museum and facilities this month in conjunction with a coaches program she runs during World Cup years.
Heinrichs explained that she initially was skeptical about the French club model for women, in which the top players generally play for one of two clubs — Paris Saint-Germain or Olympique Lyonnais. In the United States, they’re allocated more broadly, among the NWSL’s nine clubs.
But after surveying the World Cup field, Heinrichs concluded that France was playing the best soccer of the tournament. And she attributed that largely to the cohesion that the squad’s nucleus developed at Lyon.
U.S. Coach Jill Ellis made a similar point before Friday’s quarterfinal.
“Lyon has a lot of the French [national team] players,” Ellis said. “They are kind of the best of both worlds — their national team is also a club team. That is a great benefit as well.”
Heinrichs, a former technical director who oversaw the U.S. under-20 and under-18 teams, put it this way: “It’s quite frightening what’s happening here. From my perspective, it’s quite frightening.”
Believing in the game
It is fitting that Lyon boasts Aulas’s powerhouse club and will host the World Cup semifinals and finals.
As France’s third-largest city, Lyon has never wasted energy trying to be Paris. Its history dates to 53 BC. Its location, about 290 miles southeast of Paris at the convergence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, is lovely. And its cultural and artistic influences derive as much from Italy as they do France, with terra cotta roofs topping the medieval and Renaissance structures in its Gothic center.
Over the centuries, Lyon has produced visionaries, individualists and citizens of conscience such as the Lumiere brothers, late-19th-century pioneers of cinematography; aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the “The Little Prince;” and, in World War II, leaders of the French resistance against the Nazis.
Today, Lyon is a vibrant commercial center and gastronomic capital that teems with university students and fervently supports its soccer clubs, men’s and women’s alike.
Said revered former player Camille Abily, the all-time scorer for the Lyon women and now an assistant coach: “The people who live around Lyon, they know really well women’s football. Every weekend, there is a game, and people are coming, and it is in the newspaper. Everyone knows Ada [Hegerberg] and Eugenie Le Sommer. For FIFA and the French Football Federation to give the semifinals and finals to Lyon, it is to thank Monsieur Aulas, because he was believing in women’s football before everyone else.”
There for support
For weeks in the run-up to the June 7 World Cup opener, the Scottish pub Wallace, in Vieux Lyon, promoted the tournament. “Watch every match live!” its website proclaimed, alongside menu specials and price lists of too many whiskeys and craft beers to count.
On the first lovely night of June, perfect for dining and drinking on the outdoor cafe tables that line the cobblestone streets, Wallace was packed for the French women’s final group-stage match, against Nigeria, even though Les Bleues had already secured their spot in the knockout round.
The best table in the pub — the high-top in front of the big-screen TV — had been commandeered by women. They were nine friends, most graduate students at the respected Institut Lumiere, and were consumed by the match even though, they explained, they weren’t traditional soccer fans. They were soccer converts, drawn to this World Cup by the excellence of France’s team and the larger statement the squad was making.
“Empowerment!” said Soline Foure, 23, when asked what she found compelling about the team.
Added Marie Durand, 38: “What is very important with the women is to show that we are playing very well but also with pleasure and with a smile. Our watching is a way to support the women.”
The bar is packed, roughly 80 percent men, with every TV tuned to women’s soccer except a small screen showing a France-South Africa rugby match to an audience of two. The crowd hisses and boos a Nigerian player’s effort to coax a foul with excessive theatrics.
For these women, Les Bleues are both a belief statement and boatloads of fun. Spread out before them was a large red paper napkin on which each woman’s prediction, with final score, had been recorded. After a scoreless first half, everyone got a redo, so they revised their margins of French victory downward.
There was no prize for winning. But winning mattered — as did corralling the bar’s prime table, which they did at 7:30 p.m. for the 9 p.m. kickoff.
“It’s partially about re-appropriating a public space,” said Auria Mauras, 26. “We, too, can go into bars and shout! We’re taking over a little bit here.”
Asked what it would mean if France won this Women’s World Cup, Aude Stheneur, 24, said: “To me, it will put the lights on women’s sports. It would be amazing to see women doing such great things, such impressive things. It’s empowering. It’s also great to see boys and men support the women.”
Although France was stopped short Friday, the participation of so many Lyon players represented a victory for Aulas.
“He is very proud of the team — what they achieved as women, as players,” said Valerie Fontaine, the club’s communications officer. “It’s very important for him.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Wallace, the pub in Lyon, was an English pub.
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