Commentary

The man behind the greatest women's club in the world

With attention focused on Lyon, where fans have reported most -- but not all -- of the ticket issues related to seating of group ticket buyers for the 2019 World Cup, it begs the question, why was Lyon, not Paris, chosen to host the three most attractive matches of the tournament -- the semifinals on July 2 and July 3 and final on July 7?

The answer: Jean-Michel Aulas.

Aulas, a former Division I handball player, who built his fortune in business software, has been the majority owner of Olympique Lyonnais since 1987. He first built Lyon into the dominant team in French men's soccer, transforming a second division team into the winner of Ligue 1 seven years in a row and a top 20 club in the world in term of its finances.

Groupama Stadium, site of the Women's World Cup, was built at a cost of $463 million and opened in 2016. It's one of the most modern stadiums in Europe with a capacity of 59,000, reason enough to give Lyon the Women's World Cup final four, but most important, Lyon -- France's culinary capital -- was rewarded for the commitment of Aulas to women's soccer.

He bought women's club FC Lyon in 2004 and built OL into the greatest women's team ever assembled -- winner of 13 straight French league and six of the last seven French cup titles.

On Saturday, it won the UEFA Women's Champions League for the fourth year in row, crushing Barcelona, 4-1, with four goals in the first half hour to cap an unbeaten season. In 36 competitive matches in 2018-19, Lyon went unbeaten, winning 33 games and tying the other three. (Its only loss came in preseason to the North Carolina Courage in the first women's edition of the International Champions Cup.)

Lyon is a mix of French national team players -- seven in all called up by the host Bleues for the 2019 Women' World Cup -- plus a cast of international stars -- 2018 Ballon d'Or winner Ada Hegerberg, Germany captain Dzsenifer Marozsan, Japanese captain Saki Kumagai, Englishwoman Lucy Bronze and Welshwoman Jessica Fishlock, on loan from the NWSL's Reign FC.

Aulas famously courted U.S. star Alex Morgan via Twitter to join Lyon in 2017. The next season Bronze, who played one season at the University of North Carolina, joined Lyon after Aulas saw her play for Manchester City and made her an offer she couldn't refuse. She accepted it without even checking out what Lyon was like.

“Some people might,” she told the New York Times, “but as far as I was concerned, you do not say no to Lyon.”

The greatest testament to what Aulas has built at Lyon comes from Hegerberg. She has refused to play for Norway's national team since 2017 because of what of she describes as a lack of respect for female players in Norway, but she credits Aulas for attracting and keeping the best players in the world.

"We have the conditions to be the best," she told CNN recently. "We have equality here because of one man basically, the president. I was [made to feel] welcome from day one when I came to Lyon. People think there are so many tough environments in this club but it's the opposite and you need that good atmosphere to succeed.

"We're so well integrated into the men's club, it's our club now -- men's and women's team. I'm really good friends with a lot of people who work in the club, outside the team, so just the fact that you eat together with the groundsman, the security man, the chef, for me is pleasant.

"It's something you should appreciate, and I appreciate a lot. That's what makes me feel so at home here as well."



Hegerberg is the highest paid woman in the world with a salary reported to be around 400,000 euros ($446,000) per year. According to a survey by Paris magazine France Football, Hegerberg and French OL teammates Amandine Henry and Wendie Renard are the three highest paid players in the world. But most women in the French league are lucky to make a tenth of what Hegerberg makes.

Lyon dominates European women's soccer because no team comes close to putting the resources into the team that Aulas provides. Only recently have big clubs like Manchester City and Barcelona started to take women's soccer seriously. Juventus added a women's program in 2017 and Manchester United, AC Milan and Inter Milan started women's teams in 2018.

But nine of the 30 best European men's clubs, according to UEFA's coefficients over the last 10 years, still don't have women's teams. They include Real Madrid and Germany's Ruhr Valley neighbors, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04.

After the Champions League final, Barcelona coach Luis Cortes said Lyon was 10 lengths ahead any other team in Europe. He said Barca practiced against exactly what Lyon scored on and still couldn't stop it.

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