PARIS (AP) — When Lyon won seven straight French league titles, it was hard to imagine its success ever ending. Now, even qualifying for the Champions League is difficult.
Lyon is in sixth place in the French league, 22 points behind leader Paris Saint-Germain, now France's powerhouse club following massive investment from Qatar. Even more humiliating for the fans, Lyon trails its bitterest rival, Saint-Etienne, by six points.
What a change from the 2000s, which were almost all Lyon's. At its peak, Lyon won the league by 12 points in 2005, by 15 in 2006, by 17 the following year, and then made it seven championships in a row in 2008 before Bordeaux broke the run in '09. Although Lyon reached the Champions League semifinals in 2010, the team was starting in decline.
Several players from Lyon's dominant era — Karim Benzema, Florent Malouda, Eric Abidal and Michael Essien — went on to have excellent careers in Spain and England.
This season and last, Lyon has had to settle for Europa League football, with the far more lucrative and prestigious Champions League slipping beyond its reach. Key players will likely leave or have to be sold if Lyon doesn't qualify for the Champions League again this season. Even during the last offseason, president Jean-Michel Aulas unsuccessfully tried to sell forwards Bafetimbi Gomis and Jimmy Briand to balance the books.
On the team sheet these days, perhaps only France midfielders Yoann Gourcuff and Clement Grenier stand out. But who are Jordan Ferri, Corentin Tolisso and Mehdi Zeffane?
The club website recently trumpeted three new contracts. Unsurprisingly they went unnoticed, because the three-year deals were given to youth academy directors who nurtured Ferri, Tolisso and Zeffane.
Still, it was significant because it highlights how Lyon is relying on its youth system now that it has no spending power.
Debts incurred building a 58,000-seat stadium costing 250 million euros ($345 million) — set to open in the 2015-16 season — and some over-priced signings saw to that.
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