The Sweeper: Olympique Lyonnais Go For Historic Double

Olympique Lyonnais

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There’s a pretty good chance that you know Olympique Lyonnais are playing today in the UEFA Champion’s League semi-final against Bayern Munich.

You may not also know that Lyon’s women’s team are also playing in their UEFA Champion’s League semi-final this Saturday, against Swedish giants Umeå IK.

As UEFA reports, this gives Lyon the chance to make history:

No club has won both premier European competitions, the closest being Arsenal FC, whose female team won the old UEFA Women’s Cup in 2007 12 months after the men lost to FC Barcelona in Paris. Arsenal, thanks to their 1994 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup win, are the only club with European men’s and female honours, while FC Bayern München’s bid to win the newly-introduced UEFA Women’s Champions League this season was ended by Montpellier Hérault SC in the round of 16.

Lyon’s success in women’s football is largely down to some serious investment by the club, as UEFA’s report continues:

Lyon’s success is the vision of club president Jean-Michel Aulas. The women share sponsorship with the men and are part of the same marketing strategy with identical goals – to succeed in France and in Europe. The women even play their biggest games at Stade de Gerland, sch as the Umeå fixture, attracting as many as 12,000 fans.

Farid Benstiti, who coaches the female side, said: “Women’s football owes a lot to Olympique Lyonnais. The president wants a great women’s team. And we all have to try harder to succeed in this aim. We’re all thrilled about this goal. On top of that we are handed the resources to reach the top. We just have to win titles.”

This approach, with the women’s team’s  success seemingly tied to and dependent on the men’s side of the club, is a marked difference from their opponents, Sweden’s Umeå IK (Marta’s former team), who have twice won the UEFA Champion’s League.

Umeå IK are an independent club,  but their enormous success over the past decade seems to have come from over-stretching their means, as Nedved’s Notes explains: along with Marta, three other of their top players have moved to WPS, signing for the Atlanta Beat.

Although Umeå IK have been beating all comers for most of the last decade, things have not been going so well lately. The Brazilian superstar Marta left at the end of 2008 to play in the inaugural season of the WPS for the Los Angeles Sol. That was not good, but Marta’s departure was overshadowed by enormous financial problems that almost killed off the club entirely.

Umeå IK’s general manager, Britta Åkerlund, recently revealed how badly the situation had deteriorated in a recent press release: ‘A few months into this job I realized that the club had lived beyond his means for a long time. Just in time for Christmas [2008], we had to choose who would receive pay and who should be without… The focus of my work since then has been much about economics, or rather the lack of finances…In September [2009] the economic troubles culminated when the whole club’s existence was at stake.’

Of course, the same can be said of many men’s clubs in Europe as well, less well-run themselves.

But can independent women’s clubs succeed?  Well, WPS is doing pretty well so far (with sponsorship up significantly this year on 2009), and that approach would seem to be the best guarantee of the long-term future for any women’s team if it proves to be a sustainable league.

We have seen in England many times successful women’s teams that are part of originally men’s clubs fold when the latter gets into financial trouble; as their own clubs, WPS teams can build their identities, support and sponsorship not dependent on the men’s team. Or is Lyon’s approach, where the women’s side seems to be more intricately tied into and promoted as part of the club, also an attractive possibility for real partnership?

In some ways, the match-up between Umeå IK and Lyon is a match-up of two different approaches to the future of the women’s game.

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