LYON (AFP) – Gone are the days when Olympique Lyon (OL) were France’s dominant club, winning seven straight league titles in the last decade, and tomorrow’s last 16 (4am Brunei time), first leg against Barcelona will be their first Champions League knockout match in seven years.
Unable to keep up with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in Ligue 1, it would be a major shock if Bruno Genesio’s team beat the Catalans over two legs.
However, while ‘OL’ have no Lionel Messi, and their revenue last season was less than a quarter of Barcelona’s – a huge 690.4 million euros according to the Deloitte Football Money League – they are genuine competitors to Barca elsewhere.
According to analysis by the International Centre for Sports Studies Football Observatory on the number of players to have been trained at youth level by clubs who have gone on to play in Europe’s five leading leagues since 2014, Lyon are right on the tails of Spain’s giants.
Barcelona and Real Madrid each provided 69 players, with Lyon third on the list with 56, two fewer than Manchester United but with more minutes played overall.
Barcelona have not been as reliant on youth from their renowned La Masia academy recently, tending towards buying proven talent instead, including France centre-back Samuel Umtiti from Lyon.
Meanwhile, three of Lyon’s starters as they beat Guingamp last Friday emerged from their academy: goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, Houssem Aouar and Nabil Fekir.
The latter helped France to World Cup glory in Russia, and a move at the end of this season seems likely, with Fekir set to follow in the footsteps of many before him.
Since OL last won the title in 2008, the list of youth products to have come through before being sold for big money is a long one – Karim Benzema, Anthony Martial, Umtiti, Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso to name a few. Youth development is vital for Lyon.
“In terms of youth development, we invest more than any other club in France by a long way – more than 10 million euros a year, and that is growing all the time,” said long-serving president Jean-Michel Aulas.
Keeping young players until their peak is not always possible, just as Lyon are unable to compete with Europe’s giants when it comes to buying talent.
Instead, they have been successful at signing gifted youngsters from smaller teams, notably Tanguy Ndombele.
Bought from Amiens for 10 million euros, the midfielder has broken into the France squad and could move for in excess of 50 million.
There is also cause for optimism regarding the future for the club, whose listed holding company OL Groupe is part-owned by Chinese investors.
In a country where, as a general rule, clubs do not own their stadiums, Aulas has overseen the construction of a privately-funded, 59,000-seat ground, the Groupama Stadium, that is among Europe’s best.
The club now plan to build an adjacent, covered arena for other events, with capacity for up to 15,000.
“Others invest primarily in players, while we preferred to start with the infrastructure and then build a competitive team,” said Aulas.