Paris Saint-Germain travel to Olympique Lyonnais’ Stade Gerland on Sunday and potentially have the chance to sew up a second consecutive Ligue 1 title in their old foes’ home stadium for a second year running.
Last campaign, a Jeremy Menez goal ended the capital club’s 19-year wait for a third French title, sparking wild celebrations.
PSG went into that encounter seven points clear of Olympique de Marseille at the top of le Championnat with three games remaining. This time, they lead AS Monaco by 13 with just six to play and an ASM defeat at Stade Rennais on Saturday would allow them to secure back-to-back titles for the first time in their history.
Sunday’s match pits them against long-term rivals Lyon, who have fallen on hard times since their last Ligue 1 triumph back in 2008. The Parisians will see the possible title celebration opportunity as payback for the times that OL have celebrated their triumphs at PSG’s expense in the past.
It is also a clash that brings two completely different styles of club ownership into focus.
While PSG’s relatively recent investment has already started to reap rewards, Lyon’s achievements in the early 2000s set the benchmark that every other French club’s success is now compared to.
Who will ultimately prove to have the most successful business model?
Jean-Michel Aulas has been president of Lyon since 1987, when he replaced Charles Mighirian, setting the club ambitious targets that have since been met.
The Frenchman is now closing in on 30 years of ownership.
Aulas, one of France’s most affluent and successful businessmen, invested in the club with the ambition of taking the Rhone-based club all the way from the second tier—where they were when he bought the club—back to the top flight and into Europe.
In his 27 years at the Stade Gerland so far, Aulas has overseen much more than that.
Under the 65-year-old’s leadership Lyon not only returned to Ligue 1 and rid itself of debt, but they went on to become one of the best organised and richest football clubs in the world, not to mention France’s most successful and dominant side in recent history.
Qatar Sports Investments have only been in charge of PSG for just under three years, but want to eclipse those achievements on their way to becoming Europe’s best club side.
Fronted by Nasser Al-Khelaifi, QSI have already pumped almost €400 million in transfers alone into the capital outfit. The plan is to stay at least until 2022, when Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup, but no potential leaving dates have even been mentioned at this point.
With one hand already on a second successive Championnat title and a first domestic cup on the horizon in the Coupe de la Ligue, PSG are on their way towards catching up with Lyon.
But with 19 trophies won across all competitions by Aulas and his club since 1987, there is a considerable way to go yet before the perennial underachievers of French football can even be thought of as one of the country’s most successful clubs.
One of the reasons behind Lyon’s great success of the early 2000s was an unbeatable transfer policy in France, but also abroad.
Les Gones were on top of all domestic talent, as well as sourcing the best value for money in terms of potential and current quality. That was particularly true of South America, where OL excelled in recognising some of the best players and bringing them to Europe early in their careers.
Buying in cheap domestic and foreign talent, increasing its value thanks to domestic success and European experience before selling it on at a much higher price became an extremely lucrative means of growth for OL.
This idea was later replicated and refined by Portuguese giants FC Porto and SL Benfica, leaving Lyon behind as the milking of their previously exclusive talent pool coincided with their slip from the summit of French football.
However, Aulas’ policy arguably paved the way for many of Europe’s most enterprising clubs to follow suit.
PSG are taking a different approach though.
QSI have predominantly bought ready-made stars since their arrival in the French capital back in 2011, although large amounts have also been shelled out on prospective talent.
Firstly, the difference between the markets being worked in by Lyon in the 1990s and early 2000s must be noted.
Today, talent costs more money than it did when Lyon were transforming into the club that are struggling to keep up with the current scale of modern investment required to remain competitive on the continent.
Secondly, PSG are looking to expedite the process by which they catch up with and eventually usurp the likes of Lyon in terms of infrastructure, organisation and—most importantly—on-pitch success.
Because of that need for instant impact on and off the pitch, former PSG player and AC Milan sporting director Leonardo was brought in to oversee the construction of a winning team on the pitch.
The fruits of his labour are now being seen on the Parc des Princes pitch, with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva among the stars boasted by the current French champions, despite the fact that the Brazilian has since left the club.
With that initial influx of talent, secured largely thanks to Leonardo’s excellent contacts in Italy and Brazil, PSG have now been able to establish themselves as major European players in less than three years of ownership.
Two consecutive UEFA Champions League quarter-final appearances demonstrate this effectively.
Lyon’s approach has been more organic than PSG’s, yet they are still considered superior to the capital club—in terms of their European showings—thanks to their 2009-2010 Champions League semi-final appearance.
Lyon’s approach has been to raise talent, be it foreign or domestic, before selling it on for large fees and reinvesting that money to strengthen the squad as a whole.
This they have done extremely well.
You only need to look at the likes of Karim Benzema, Juninho Pernambucano, Michael Essien, Mahamadou Diarra, Florent Malouda, Eric Abidal and Cris for evidence of the club’s success in identifying talent.
That ability was then maximised and either sold at the right time or kept as one of the cornerstones on which an extremely successful club was then built.
A number of instantly recognisable names have also been berthed by Lyon’s academy system, illustrating its prowess in terms of nurturing young talent, bleeding it into the first team and then making a large profit on it.
Benzema, Ludovic Giuly, Sidney Govou and Hatem Ben Arfa were all raised at OL’s Centre Tola Vologe training complex and have gone on to enjoy generally impressive levels of success since leaving Stade Gerland.
However, Govou was one of those chosen to act as a cornerstone for the successful Lyon side of the early 200’s that enjoyed a seven-year strong domestic hegemony, before now-PSG coach Laurent Blanc broke that up with Girondins de Bordeaux in the 2008-09 season.
In addition to these methods of success, Lyon is also the only French football club to be listed on the Paris stock exchange. The club’s decision to do this is now coming back to them, as it forces them to balance their books each season.
Therefore, the impact of not qualifying for top European competition in 2011-12 had a profound effect on the club and started the break-up process of a team that had finished second and third consistently in the three seasons prior to that.
A recent example of this stock market listing hurting Lyon is the €5 million sale of teenage attacking prodigy Anthony Martial to Monaco.
Les Monegasques used OL’s situation to their advantage, waiting until just days before the club had to announce their annual results (which they would have done with a shortfall) and bidding the €5million needed to break even for the year.
It has left the fans bemoaning the club’s current situation. PSG supporters on the other hand can have no such complaints. The capital club are at the beginning of their journey and do not have to concern themselves with such matters thanks to the substantial wealth of their Qatari backers.
Lyon’s success was built up on sage business management and financial responsibility over a number of years, enabling the club to peak at 12th in the Deloitte Football money League in 2009 thanks to the impressive amount of revenue they could bring in.
OL itself is also a strong brand name inside and outside of France.
PSG are aiming to do the same thing, but without having to wait for the seeds of their labour to grow. There is such a vast amount of money behind the project; it is just a question of finding the right—and most legitimate—ways of ensuring that the money can be invested into the club.
The French champions’ sponsorship deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority, worth a massive €200 million per season, is the most obvious example of that.
Although Financial Fair Play will likely see that figure revised, PSG’s recent success on the pitch is already enabling them to outstrip the means by which Lyon had built up their success.
OL will be devastated to see themselves falling further behind the domestic competition with the reintroduction of Monaco to the Ligue 1 makeup, but they will also be the first to admit that those two are more adept at doing what Aulas has tried for so long to achieve with le Championnat—making it one of Europe’s top league competitions.
Already 27 years into his time at Lyon, Aulas does not look like he is going anywhere soon. Although the Qataris are enjoying their start to life in the French capital with PSG, the feeling is that the expiry date on their interest in Ligue 1 is 2022.
If that is the case, even if Aulas left OL tomorrow, he would have outlived the Parisians’ owners by at least 16 years.
Although PSG might ultimately do more in their provisional 11 years in charge than Aulas has done in 27 years up until this point, credit has to be given to the Frenchman for what he has achieved without the substantial financial backing enjoyed by the Qataris.
PSG are on the verge of a second consecutive Ligue 1 title triumph, but they are still five behind Lyon’s record of seven straight.
OL also boast seven Trophee des Champions, two Coupe de France and one Coupe de la Ligue victory in Aulas’ time at the club, not to mention that Champions league semi-final appearance of 2009-10.
There are short-term gains being made by PSG, certainly in terms of raising Ligue 1’s profile on the continent, but there are also lessons to be learned from Lyon, particularly with regards to their youth-development policy.
On the pitch come Sunday, the evidence of this will be that the majority of Lyon’s current players, certainly the star talents, have come from the academy even though their ability to attract foreign talent has now greatly diminished.
In order for PSG to make similar claims, that will take time and patience, not necessarily just money.