ITW - AULAS: THE ARCHITECT OF LYON'S SUCCESS
The obstacles have been numerous, but for Olympique Lyonnais Chairman Jean-ichel Aulas, the construction of the 59,000-seat Stade des Lumières represents a crucial development in Lyon's history.
For Aulas, the last eight years have been hard work, Lyon's long-serving owner grafting tirelessly to ensure that his club becomes the first in France to possess its very own super stadium.
"This stadium is essential for us because if you look at the top 20 European clubs in the UEFA rankings you can see that every big clubs is the owner of a big stadium. It's important that in the future your revenues don't only come from TV money or from qualifying for Europe," Aulas told The Ligue 1 Show on beIN SPORTS. "Above all, there must be a continual flow of revenue that comes from the stadium, and at Lyon we are building more than just a stadium: we're building the Olympique Lyonnais Park, which will have the stadium in the middle but also a whole host of activities around it that will be open 365 days a year."
Aulas has always been a visionary, but the 66-year-old admits that in this instance he's used Arsenal - who themselves moved in to a new home in 2007 - as an example to follow.
"It's true that Arsenal went through a difficult period with a lot of skeptical people saying 'you can't develop all this infrastructure and have a strong team at the same time - the club will die'," Aulas explained. "So there is definitely a parallel between the clubs - and we actually chose the same architect as Arsenal to design our stadium. But we also paid close attention to what they did in Munich with the Allianz Arena."
Like Arsenal, Lyon are fighting against oil-rich rivals. And, like the Gunners, they've needed to rely on a youth-centric policy in order to survive during some turbulent times.
"The 2011-12 season wasn't a good one, and yet we'd spent nearly 135 million euros on new players. That was far too much considering the club's standing at the time," he admitted. "So we decided to change our sporting policy entirely by focusing on strengthening the academy. Today, we're reaping the benefits of this investment in youth, because not only did it allow us to finish second last year and qualify for the Champions League, but it has also put us in a strong position for the future."
Buoyed by the insouciance of youth, Lyon pushed PSG hard for the title last term. After finishing second, Aulas freed up funds to sign a handful of established players in the summer, but the early weeks of the current season have proven difficult.
"I think we got a bit carried away," he conceded. "Everything looked rosy and we maybe lacked a bit of humility. Maybe we believed that it was enough to simply build a stadium, finish second one year and possess a good youth academy. We thought the results would follow automatically. We've had to manage the task of integrating the new players with the homegrown players who were already here. And don't forget we lost our best player to injury, just when things were going well."
Nabil Fekir, the 'best player' Aulas referred to, picked up a knee ligament injury - sustained the week after he scored his first Ligue 1 hat-trick - and will be out of action until April. Star striker Alexandre Lacazette, in particular, is struggling in Fekir's absence.
"He was voted Ligue 1 player of the year last season - top scorer," said Aulas. "But he had his mate with him, Nabil Fekir, who not only scored goals and not only made goals, but also occupied the opposition's defence a lot. Equally, a lot of players arrived from big clubs this summer, players with a certain status, and I think certain players have found this development difficult to take on board. Of course it's Alex's fault a bit and the fault of those around him, but we also have to bear some of the blame."
In charge of OL since 1987, these are exciting times for Le President, but Aulas will feel more than a tinge of emotion come Sunday night, when OL play host to local arch-rivals Saint-Etienne in the last-ever Rhône derby at the Stade de Gerland.
"It will be a big moment especially for the fans because it is the end of a story, we know today that the last game at Gerland, or last derby rather, is as important as the Champions League games for us," Aulas intoned. "We have an opportunity to close a beautiful story at Gerland with a quality encounter and hopefully a good result!"
So, with both clubs fighting for a Champions League place, does Aulas still consider Saint-Etienne to be Lyon's principal rival?
"No, not any more. They're no longer our main rival," he said. "The way we are going, our competitors are now teams like PSG, Zenit, Valencia, Barcelona, Bayern. Because this is an ambitious vision that we are drawn to."