The World’s Most Dominant Team Isn’t Who You Think

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For the select few privileged enough to hear it, the pitch is irresistible. Whenever Olympique Lyonnais Féminin identifies someone it believes can burnish its already glittering roster, its offer is simple: Would you like to be part of the best group of players anyone, anywhere, can put together?

More often than not, a sales pitch is unnecessary. Usually, simply being chosen is compliment enough; such is Lyon’s reputation, its imprimatur of excellence, that the invitation is automatically accepted.

“The first time I played against them, I remember thinking this was next level,” said Lucy Bronze, the England defender who joined Lyon in 2017. “The big stadium, the huge crowd, the superstar players. We barely touched the ball.”

After the game, Lyon’s president, Jean-Michel Aulas, sought out Bronze. He complimented her performance, her abilities. A few weeks later, that crystallized into an offer. Bronze did not need to be persuaded: Seeing the players, the environment, the standard up close had been all she needed. “Some people might,” she said, “but as far as I was concerned, you do not say no to Lyon.”

It is almost impossible to overstate the scale of Lyon’s primacy in women’s soccer. Pointing out that it has won the French national title for 13 years straight almost feels like underselling it. Better, perhaps, to mention that it has lost only two league games over the last nine seasons. Its goal difference over that period is a scarcely credible plus-957.

If not for the club’s fearsome record in Europe, perhaps that could be dismissed as the record of a flat-track bully, a sign not of Lyon’s strength but its opposition’s weakness. But Lyon has made eight of the past 10 Champions League finals, and won the last three. Should Manager Reynald Pedros’s team overcome Barcelona in this year’s game in Budapest on Saturday, it would be the club’s sixth European crown. The first came only in 2011.

Such is its dominance that it is hard to think of a club team, anywhere in the world, whose résumé can compete. Aulas has compared Lyon to Real Madrid and Barcelona in the men’s game, but the parallel sells his team short. Barcelona has won eight of the past 11 Spanish championships, but it has not won the Champions League since 2015. Real Madrid sat atop Europe for three years in a row, but its domestic form suffered for it. Lyon has done better than both, simultaneously.

The Golden State Warriors could yet win a third straight N.B.A. championship this year, a fourth in five years; the New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl three years out of five. Both are described as dynasties. Neither, though, comes close to Lyon.

For many in women’s soccer, the reference point in United States sports is something else entirely: both Emma Hayes, the coach of Chelsea, the team Lyon narrowly beat in this year’s Champions League semifinals, and Phil Neville, the England national team coach, call Lyon the Harlem Globetrotters. This is a club that does not lose. It is the most dominant — and possibly the best — sports team on the planet.

Much of that, of course, is down to the quality of player at its disposal, to Aulas’s determination since he launched the women’s team in 2004 to acquire the sport’s brightest stars. The squad, now, contains not only Ada Hegerberg, the inaugural winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player, but the backbone of France’s team for this year’s World Cup, Dzsenifer Marozsán, the captain of Germany, and Saki Kumagai, the captain of Japan. Its list of alumnae is, if anything, even more impressive: Camille Abily, Louisa Nécib, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan.

It has created a virtuous circle: Players want to join not just because it is acknowledgment of their status, but because they know that training at — never mind playing for — Lyon offers a fast track to self-improvement.

“Alex went to France to grow as a footballer and challenge herself every day,” said Dan Levy, Morgan’s agent. “She did that by playing with many of the best players in the world each day. Winning championships was wonderful, the training facilities were first class, but the secret of their success is that — by accumulating so many amazing players — they have created the perfect training environment.”

But just as significant is the club’s culture. Bronze confesses to being a little “star-struck” on her first day, walking into a dressing room populated by so many famous faces — “people I knew straightaway just by their surnames” — but soon found there was no concrete hierarchy to be navigated, no deference expected. “They all came over to introduce themselves,” she said. “They are the most humble group of people I have ever met.”

The club, though, does not treat them like that. When Lyon’s players departed for Budapest on Friday morning, they were driven to the airport and straight onto the tarmac, where they boarded a chartered jet. A second plane had been commissioned to carry family members and partners to the match. When they landed, the Lyon team bus — which set off, overland, earlier this week — was there to meet them.

Such treatment is standard at the most rarefied levels of the men’s game, but it remains rare — if not unique — in the women’s, even as the amount of money invested in it across Europe has increased exponentially in recent years.

At Lyon, though, it is different. Aulas has not only made a financial commitment to the women’s team — Lyon pays considerably better than most clubs, with the majority of its stars on six-figure salaries, and Hegerberg thought to be earning around $470,000 a year — but a philosophical one. An edict at the club runs that the men’s and women’s teams were to be treated exactly the same. Both had Lyon’s crest on their jerseys; both represented Lyon. There was to be no differentiation.

And so not only do the players mix at the training ground they share, but Lyon’s female players have access to all of the same facilities the men would expect: the fields, the medical staff, the liaison officers, access to the “mental cell,” designed to help players with the psychological pressures of performing, all the way from the academy to the senior teams. As Hegerberg has put it, Lyon “put the women in the spot we deserve.”

Aulas attends as many women’s games as men’s matches; he is just as likely to treat the women’s team to a celebratory trip to St. Tropez as he is the men’s. Bronze, for one, said that she feels she can go to Aulas with “any problem, no matter how small,” and have it attended to, just as any male player would expect.

The only difference of note is in the approach to recruitment. Though Aulas has not always taken the most traditional route to enticing signings — his very public pursuit of Morgan has, thankfully, not been repeated — he has adapted his vision for soccer’s skewed economics. Where the men’s team is based on prospects, both homegrown and acquired, he has invested enough to allow the women to become the Globetrotters.

The logic is simple. “What gives boys a high level gives girls a high level,” Aulas has said: male players need to be treated well in order to perform at their best, so why would it be any different for women?

And yet that principle remains strangely elusive elsewhere. “Lyon is not perfect, but it has got a lot right that other clubs haven’t,” Bronze said. “The boys and girls grow up together in the academy, so the players are much more integrated. The success of one team isn’t seen as a threat to the other. I’ve not seen that elsewhere. Generally, the men tend to be seen as the superstars and the women are not held to that standard.”

That is not an option at Lyon; if anything, the reverse is true. The men are underdogs, overshadowed by the wealth of Paris St.-Germain and the rest of Europe’s elite. The women, in contrast, are the Globetrotters, a force of unparalleled dominance, a dynasty spanning more than a decade, perhaps the best team on the planet. Nobody, ultimately, can say no to Lyon.

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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