The last time Lyon won the French league title in 2008, the club’s new American owner was celebrating a prize of his own.
John Textor’s visual effects company won an Academy Award for its groundbreaking work on the making of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a huge box office hit starring Brad Pitt.
Lyon’s fans will be hoping Textor’s arrival has a special effect on the club’s flagging fortunes.
In the years since the last of seven straight titles, Lyon has faded as Paris Saint-Germain’s grip on French soccer tightened under its cash-rich Qatari ownership. Since QSI’s takeover in June 2011, PSG has won eight titles and Lyon has finished runner-up only twice.
Lyon’s run of titles from 2001-08 made it the powerhouse of French soccer as players like Real Madrid great Karim Benzema emerged through the club’s renowned youth academy, and others like free-scoring Brazil midfielder Juninho or Ghana’s ball-winning Michael Essien made their name.
But after Bordeaux ended Lyon’s run in 2009, the club’s fortunes dipped — despite a continuous flow of young talent. Juninho’s spell as sporting director didn’t work out and he left last December.
The club finished in a dismal eighth place last season and 25 points behind PSG. Ten league losses and 51 goals conceded — the most goals allowed by any club in the top 10 — made for grim statistics.
Something had to change and longtime owner Jean-Michel Aulas — who bought the club 35 years ago and oversaw its rise — gambled on Textor.
Right away, Textor endeared himself to Lyon’s fanbase with a timely swipe.
“I don’t like these models like PSG,” the 56-year-old Textor said at a news conference. “Great team, whatever, great athletes, we all love to watch them.
“I think over the few years we want to go after them. We want to win titles here. We are going to show up and we are going to spend.”
Player transfer spending was promised in a capital injection of 86 million euros ($90 million) as part of Lyon’s deal with Textor’s Eagle Football Holdings that valued the club at about $840 million. The club owns its 59,000-seat stadium and the women’s team has been European champion six of the last seven seasons.
According to a report from the club’s board of directors sent to Lyon shareholders that was seen by L’Equipe newspaper, $41 million will be dedicated to boosting both the men’s and women’s teams, with an extra $47 million for the repayment of securities and improving infrastructure. Under the deal found with Textor, the American businessman is expected to invest more than $530 million in the coming months.
Aulas said Textor “really ticks all the boxes.”
Textor made his fortune in the digital media industry after an injury put an end to his career as a freestyle skateboarder. He was chairman and principal owner of Sims Snowboards, a leading brand, and chairman of Digital Domain Media Group.
He resigned from that position 2012 after the Oscar-winning digital production company defaulted on loans totaling $35 million.
“I think we are defined by our failures,” Textor said. “I had one of those failures … All of the fake friends left when success left, when wealth went away.”
It’s not the first time that Textor, who bounced back by launching virtual entertainment company Facebank, has ventured into soccer. The former leading shareholder of streaming service fuboTV has stakes in Crystal Palace, Belgian second-division club RWD Molenbeek and Brazilian team Botafogo.
“I really do have a sincere love of the sport of football,” said Textor, who is bringing two associates to Lyon, Authentic Brands chairman Jamie Salter and businessman Bill Foley.
Textor pledged continuity rather than overhaul.
“Olympique Lyonnais has already stretched its wings, it’s got a women’s team in the United States, it’s got a brand that is known everywhere, and it is one of the 20 biggest clubs in the world, so why would I show up and want to change any of that,” Textor said.
Lyon has also brought back fan favorites Corentin Tolisso and Alexandre Lacazette. Both are homegrown players.
“I believe in dreaming with your eyes wide open,” Textor said. “We really, really, really want championships. Jean-Michel wants to get back in Europe and win in Europe. I think anything is possible.”