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Olympique Lyon could win the Champions League next month. In coming years they should be even better, as French football clubs dominate Europe. But to see how little anybody outside Lyon cares, an evening in Paris last May sufficed.
Lyon, visiting Paris St Germain, sealed their third consecutive French title, which is not bad. Yet the stadium emptied immediately after the match ended, except for Lyon fans and a few curious Parisian "ultras". Lyon's players dutifully ran to their supporters' corner, but instead of donning club scarves as per custom, they produced flags of their native countries: Ghana, say, or Brazil. At the zenith of ecstasy, Eric Deflandre, a Belgian defender, was raised aloft by team-mates while waving the Belgian tricolour. It was a parodic climax.
Afterwards, at the press conference, the journalists had only three questions for Paul Le Guen, Lyon's coach. "Whatever," was the general French sentiment. It remains so today, as OL prepare to face PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League quarter-final.
Even the Lyonnais hadn't cared much about OL when a software entrepreneur named Jean-Michel Aulas became its president in 1987. Few French people then cared much about football per se, but OL were particularly obscure. Lyon, though France's second biggest city, was considered too bourgeois. OL played in the French second division on a budget of about £2m.
Aulas says: "The problem posed was to give the club an identity. The aim was to be an important brand in daily life in the Lyon region." Today OL is. On match day you can get a haircut at an official OL salon, drink an OL beaujolais at an OL café, book your holiday at an OL travel agency and take an OL taxi to the game - and many people do. OL averages nearly 40,000 spectators a match. No longer can you live in Lyon without knowing the club exists.
The city government gives away match tickets and lets OL use the stadium for free. It probably figures that if OL doesn't spread Lyon's reputation, nothing will. This beautiful city is the birthplace of cinema and nouvelle cuisine, and the stronghold of the French resistance, yet guidebooks are virtually non-existent.
Aulas showed how inefficient the market in footballers is. Other clubs buy big names to please their fans. Lyon, unencumbered by fans, found players without big names but who were outstanding. The Ghanaian Michael Essien went on trial to Manchester United aged 17. They didn't like him. Five years later, Lyon are asking United £15m for him.
Lyon's scout in Brazil is a genius. Few knew Juninho Pernambucano, Cacapa, or Nilmar when Lyon signed them, or even now, but all are excellent. Once Brazilians arrive in Lyon, a translator working for OL sorts out their homesickness, homes, nouvelle cuisine, etc. Not that Lyon - France's gastronomic capital, and warmish - is a hardship posting.
Each season Lyon improved. There was no rush. Fans demanded little, so OL could build in peace, losing games without having to sack the manager.
"We tried to abstract the factor time," says Aulas. If a good offer came for a player, he was sold, no matter who he was, and a better replacement bought. Football's guiding cliché - it's the team that counts, not the individual - is actually honoured at OL, where players clean their own boots.
When OL won the French league cup in 2001, 100,000 Lyonnais celebrated on the streets. In 2002 OL won its first league title. This spring they will pocket their fourth in a row. The club should be a French legend, but isn't.
The contrast is with St Etienne. This working-class town 35 miles down the motorway had a brilliant side in the 1970s that remains legendary. St Etienne's president of the time said that in football, Lyon was a suburb of St Etienne, and the phrase still rankles. In derby matches, St Etienne's fans chide Lyon's for being bourgeois. "Aulas, you paid for titles. Now buy yourself supporters," said one recent St Etienne banner. To which a Lyon banner responded: "We invented cinema when your fathers were dying in the mines."
To impress France, OL needs to win itself a Champions League. It might. From next season, astonishingly, the television rights to French football will be the most expensive in the world. Canal Plus will pay the French league €600m (£413m) a year, slightly more than the English Premiership charges. French clubs on average should then be able to pay football's highest wages, if hampered by what Aulas calls "Europe's most developed tax system". The days of top-notch French players joining Fulham or Parma are over. OL will retain its Essiens for longer.
Yet the French consider the notion of a well-run football club humourless, practically American. Raymond Domenech, France's manager and a former Lyonnais, suggests: "Lyon haven't encountered enough misfortunes to move people." Aulas's banging on about joining the stock market bores and distresses most French fans.
The chief sentiment OL arouses remains indifference. Should they lift the cup with the big ears in Istanbul on May 25, their players could probably carry it down the Champs-Elysées afterwards without being recognised.
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