Love him or hate him, Olympique Lyonnais president Jean-Michel Aulas is one of the most successful and influential figures in the French game.
The 68-year-old is celebrating 30 years as president of OL this season, and to mark the occasion we decided to take a look at how Monsieur Aulas transformed Lyon from second-division stragglers into the most dominant team in the land.
“You could sense Lyon had become a true football city,” Aulas tells The Ligue 1 Show on beIN Sports as he looks back on those early days.
“Every year, you just knew Lyon would be the best,” says Sonny Anderson, the Brazilian who went on to become a key player when the glory days began at the start of the last decade.
From what Aulas calls “the start of a beautiful adventure”, OL would go on to have a team, in his view, “capable of winning the Champions League.” The part Aulas played is summed up by the prominent football writer Vincent Duluc, of sports daily L’Equipe, who calls him “the best president in French football history.”
For many years Lyon was best known for its gastronomy, and its beautiful landscapes. The inhabitants were seen as well-heeled people, for whom football was a working-class sport better practiced in neighbouring Saint-Etienne.
Founded in 1950, Olympique Lyonnais took time to truly capture the French public. Indeed it was only in 1987 when local businessman Aulas took charge of a club then floundering in the second division that the modern-day OL was born.
“I decided to give OL a helping hand, and without really defining a strategy, I accepted to take charge of a club and the debt that came with it,” he says.
Aulas set his sights incredibly high, vowing to bring European football to the Stade de Gerland within four years.
“We were surprised by his stance and this slogan he created, ‘OL Europe’, when in real life they were playing Martigues, Louhans Cuiseaux, Gueugnon and Montceau-les-Mines,” says Duluc.
But Anderson describes Aulas as “a visionary” who “sees things before everybody else.” And the president’s first big decision was to offer key roles to two club legends.
“I asked advice from my friend and associate at the time Bernard Tapie. He told me to create a true Lyon identity, and he said I need a good cop and a bad cop. The good cop with Bernard Lacombe and the head coach was Raymond Domenech,” Aulas recalls.
The Domenech days
It has been a theme of Aulas’ time that former players have returned to the club. And under Domenech, Lyon duly earned promotion in 1989, before delivering on Aulas’ promise and qualifying for Europe in 1991.
The rise continued when a Lyon team then coached by Jean Tigana secured a best-ever second-place finish in 1995. But it was only when the cinema group Pathé invested in the club in 1999, and allowed Aulas to go and sign Brazil striker Anderson from Barcelona, that the modern-day OL truly took off.
“Jerome Seydoux and I wanted to sign somebody who symbolised performance and style,” Aulas says of the Anderson signing.
Duluc says Anderson “changed everything” at Lyon thanks to his attitude, which the man himself makes clear.
Anderson recalls: “I joined Lyon to make them the best, to finish top. We had to change the mentality of the place, of the fans. The people who worked for the club had to understand that Lyon was going to become big.”
“Sonny brought Lyon the notoriety it was lacking, he scored many goals, but above all he brought us this winning culture,” adds Aulas, and the Brazilian hit 59 goals in first two seasons, many of them sensational strikes. Then, crucially, he helped the club end a 28-year trophy drought by winning the Coupe de la Ligue against Monaco in 2001.
“The 2001 Coupe de la Ligue win was the start of everything. It was the first time Lyon brought 25,000 fans to the Stade de France, and it gave Lyon that taste for winning,” says Duluc.
Once that inaugural trophy had been won, the floodgates opened. Lyon won the first league title in their history the following season, Jacques Santini’s charges reeling in the leaders Lens and pulling to within a solitary point of them come the final day and a home game against Les Sang et Or.
Duluc continues: “It was amazing – the second-placed side hosted the leaders on the final day with one point between them. It was an unbelievable night.”
“The script had been written,” as Aulas recalls. Anderson looks back at that moment as having done his duty by turning the team into champions. A winning team had been born, one that was to make French football history by winning seven consecutive league titles.
Part II will follow this weekend…