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Up until 2001/02, Olympique Lyonnias had never won the French title and sat in the shadow of the likes of AS Saint-Etienne, FC Nantes and Olympique de Marseille. But over the past decade, they have topped Ligue 1 seven times and established themselves as UEFA Champions League contenders – both in the men's and women's sections. In a two-part series, UEFA.com examines the rise of OL.
Although Lyon won three French Cups in the 1960s and early 1970s, they had been in Ligue 2 for four years when, in 1987, they were taken over by businessman Jean-Michel Aulas. Journalist Christian Lanier explains: "When he arrived, he made the club into a sports limited company. He wanted to turn the club into a company.
"The club mainly functioned on grants from the city. That became obsolete as the budget grew. He created the 100 Club, which was a first in France: 100 strong industrial partners from the region. Then there was a 20 Club with even stronger partners. Then the arrival of [current vice-chairman Jérôme] Seydoux from Pathé really launched the club."
Promises were kept. Promotion was achieved after two seasons with former player Raymond Domenech at the helm; European football came with a sustained life in the top flight. The foundations for a club that could challenge for French football's biggest prize were laid over the next decade and the demand for a top striker was met by the signing of Brazil's Sonny Anderson before the turn of the century.
"The ambition was different back then," said Anderson, who coaches the club's strikers nowadays. "The ambition then was to become a big club and to win the French league, win some cups, win some titles. Today it's different, today the ambition is to play against top teams in the UEFA Champions League, and why not reach the final?"
Lanier adds: "The arrival [of Anderson] was a turning point, because he was bought for 117 million francs [roughly €18m]. He came from [FC]Barcelona, and he wasn't at the end of his career at that point. So it was a real coup, as Lyon hadn't won any titles. They had to make some incredible arguments to get that Brazilian to come here. [Then coach Bernard] Lacombe played an important role, and so did Mr Seydoux, with strong support from Aulas. They affirmed that they needed to invest, and they were not wrong, as titles followed soon after."
The first came in 2002, though on the final day of the season their visitors RC Lens needed only a draw to clinch the title. Lyon won 3-1. "My best memory is the final whistle," Anderson said. "It was something that we'd hoped for for a long time, something that the club had worked on for a long time, to get to that moment. "
It would trigger a superb spell of success for Les Gones. They would win the next six league titles, a level of dominance never seen before in Ligue 1. "We confirmed it with the second title," Anderson added. "From then on, some big players arrived at Lyon, players like [Michael] Essien, Tiago, they wanted to come to Lyon. We felt that European players wanted to come and play for Lyon."
In the concluding episode next week, we speak to Lyon's current crop of players about life in the UEFA Champions League and the new expectation to claim more silverware. We'll also be with the club's pioneering female side, preparing for their second straight UEFA Women's Champions League final on 26 May, and asking what the future holds for Olympique Lyonnais.
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