Back in the Champions League for 2019-20, Olympique Lyonnais have lost domestic dominance to Paris Saint-Germain but gained a fabulous new stadium, the Parc Olympique Lyonnais. The arena, unveiled in 2016, forms part of a football-based empire known as Parc OL, aka OL Land, in Décines-Charpieu, 12km east of Lyon.
On the pitch, OL made the Europa League semi-finals in 2017, before selling the prolific Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal. The Lyon-born striker is typical of the quality produced by the club’s youth academy.
Seven-time successive league winners from 2002 to 2008, Lyon rose from lower league to European contenders thanks to owner/chairman Jean-Michel Aulas. This local businessman picked up the likes of Michael Essien and Florent Malouda cheaply from rival French clubs, got a couple of great seasons out of them, then sold them on for a serious profit. Other academy products include Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa.
With roots back to the early 1900s, today’s Olympique Lyonnais were founded from an amalgam of local teams in 1950. A year later, OL won the second division. The club spent most of the next 30 years in the top flight, winning the cup three times. Memorable European games included a 4-4 away goals win over Spurs in 1967 and a semi-final appearance in 1964. Key players included Jean Djorkaeff, Nestor Combin and, the hero of the 1960s, Fleury Di Nallo. His successor in the 1970s was the equally bullish Bernard Lacombe.
By the 1980s, OL were on the wane. It took the arrival in 1987 of Aulas to launch ‘OL-Europe’, a plan to push the club back into the limelight – and back into Europe. OL, ‘Les Gones’ to their fans, the ‘Bad Gones’, became a popular phenomenon along the lines of Olympique Marseille a decade earlier.
Promoted in 1989 with Jean Tigana as coach, OL finished league runners-up in 1995. Goals by Florian Maurice and big-name signing Sonny Anderson saw progress in the UEFA Cup and Champions League.
The arrival of Jacques Santini as coach in 2000 brought unexpected Champions League victories over Olympiacos and Bayern Munich. The next season, in the title clash with Lens, Pierre Laigle broke away to score the decisive goal and send the Gerland into ecstasy. OL had won their first championship.
After Santini’s departure, Lyon continued to dominate at home but show inconsistency in Europe. A 2-1 win over Inter in Milan was followed by defeat in freezing Trondheim. Over the next four years, Lyon topped their groups that featured Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Real Madrid (twice), with key performances from stalwart winger Sidney Govou and free-kick specialist Juninho – only to fall in the early knock-out stages. Most memorable was victory over Real Madrid, mainly thanks to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, in 2010. Bayern then proved too much in the semi-final.
Awash with Qatari money, PSG now have the firm grip on La Ligue that Lyon did. All the same, OL haven’t finished below the top five this century, a quite remarkable record.
2015-16, though, could have been a different story. Falling out of the top ten around Christmas, Lyon brought in ex-OL midfielder Bruno Génésio as coach.
Transformation isn’t the word. First came the unveiling of the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, the long-awaited new stadium due to host six matches at Euro 2016.
Then, from February, OL went on a 14-game streak of 11 wins, two draws and one narrow defeat, a run that culminated with the 6-1 destruction of Monaco, Lyon’s nearest rivals for a group stage spot in the Champions League 2016-17, behind Paris Saint-Germain. Although OL barely laid a glove on PSG all season, their 2-1 win over the nouveaux riches from Paris was voted ‘Match of the Season’ by readers of Lyon daily Le Progrès.
In a tight group, Lyon narrowly lost out on a knock-out spot in the Champions League but went on a scoring spree in the Europa League. Victories by 4-1 and 7-1 over Alkmaar, 4-2 over Roma and a penalty shoot-out at Besiktas swept OL to the semi-final. Two goals in as many minutes by an irrepressible Lacazette almost pegged back the aggregate score after a heavy defeat to Ajax but it wasn’t enough.
With Lacazette sold to Arsenal, Génésio still had the coaching chops to coax match-winning performances from Memphis Depay, whose hat-trick against Nice assured Champions League qualification for 2018-19. Depay them combined with captain Nabil Fekir, another Lyon graduate, to embarrass English champions Manchester City at the Etihad. The 2-1 win was no more than Lyon deserved – although three subsequent draws exposed defensive frailty.
At the height of Lyon’s hegemony, shortly after the last of seven consecutive titles in 2008, club president Jean-Michel Aulas revealed his plans for OL Land. Comprising a 59,000-capacity stadium, hotels and a leisure centre, it was sited at Décines-Charpieu, out towards the airport.
Costing some €410 million, the project was announced nearly two years before France won hosting rights for Euro 2016. Under several working titles – Stade des Lumières, Grand Stade de Lyon – the arena was eventually given the name Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
Work began in 2012, the first stone was laid in 2013 and OL opened the stadium against Troyes in January 2016. Crowds have often surpassed 55,000 – only Marseille can claim better. The stadium has also hosted major international rugby.
End to end, though, this is a soccer arena, with home fans behind each goal and the AirFibr hybrid grass pitch up close to the spectators. Sound bounces off the photovoltaic roof to create a cauldron of noise for the match-long call-and-response chants of local Gones supporters – OL have a stadium they can be proud of.
Construction of the rest of the complex will be completed after Euro 2016. The arena also took the sponsor’s name of the Groupama Stadium.
On match days, 2.5hrs before kick-off and 1hr after the final whistle, shuttle trams serve the stadium. Look out for the red N (‘Navette Tramway’) sign near Part-Dieu station (exit on the Rhône Express side, walk about 350 metres to the right, it’s signposted) and from Vaulx-en-Velin La Soie at the end of red metro line A. Journey times 25min and 10min respectively.
There’s also a Navette Bus from EurExpo at the end of Tramway line 5.
For these services, if you have already have a match ticket, you can obtain transport tickets by registering at acces.parc-ol.com – or use the regular TCL ones.
You can also reach the stadium every day of the week by Tramway 3 from Part-Dieu (Rhône Express side; every 7-15min, evenings every 30min) to Décines Grand Large (journey time 20min). Signs for the Parc lead you down rue Francisco Ferrer, to Turkish restaurant Le Mevlana, by a roundabout, where you turn left. After 200 metres, the stadium will appear on your right. Allow 10min from the tramway stop.
With a stadium capacity of just over 59,000 and attendances now often surpassing 55,000, availability is at a premium for big games.
Online is the best way to obtain tickets, through billetterie.olweb.fr/ext/ol/index.php or, for international sales, the club recommends viagogo.
The club’s main store is now at the Parc Olympique, at the main entrance approached along the allée des Lumières walk of fame directly opposite Le Couëron restaurant. The club has also recently opened a two-floor store downtown (104-106 rue Edouard Herriot), a minute from Bellecour metro station while, for the time being, an outlet is still in place at the Stade Gerland.
Opening times for all are Mon-Sat, 10am-7pm, plus match days at the new stadium.
Within the stadium, the Brasserie des Lumières requires reservation on match days. Nearby, Le Couëron is an affordable, unpretentious, two-room restaurant run by Véronique and Jean-Jacques Mirzoian for more than 30 years. For match days, they put a makeshift bar on the forecourt to create a real pre-game atmosphere, with the stadium just opposite.
Nearby, on a corner by the roundabout towards Décines Grand Large tramway stop, Le Mevlana is a standard Turkish restaurant, with kebab platters at €10. It has a back yard with tables but no booze – it’s a dry ship.