XI from ’12: [No. 9] The best club team of all-time

Richard Farley December 28, 2012 40

Olympique Lyonnais Feminine have established themselves as the best women’s club team of all time, completing a 2012 that’s left us in need of new standards to measure their excellence. With a perfect year in France and the most dominant run in the history of a young UEFA Champions League, OL have created a benchmark against which all future club teams will be measured, a seemingly impossible standard that time will hopefully cast as the comical artifact of a sport’s infancy.

The year began innocuously enough with a 1-0 home win over Montpellier, a result which, given MHSC’s quality, would be a satisfying victory for any other team in the world. Instead, being held at arm’s length for 87 minutes after Rosana’s early goal seemed to antagonize the Fenottes. They’d go the next 11 months without allowing a league goal, would concede only three times in the calendar year, and only once (at Paris Saint-Germain on Nov. 17) came within a goal of dropping points. After a 22-0-0 year on the domestic front, Lyon’s gone 390 days without being drawn. Their last loss was at fellow Champions League side Juvisy in March 2010.

The team’s otherworldly dominance fosters a perception the Feminine Division is a low quality league. It’s a fallacy. Like most leagues in the world, France’s has become top-heavy, Lyon leading a pack of four teams (with PSG, Montpellier, Juvisy) better suited for a super league than their own. A circuit with four Europe-level teams is depth England’s league would envy. While Lyon’s ridiculous results (scoring 125 times at a +122 difference) provide easy targets for skeptics, their ability navigate their fellow elites without threat of a loss is astonishing.

On the European front, Lyon made an implicit case for France’s quality by taking their dominance to Champions League. Their only blemish in nine continental matches was a 0-0 draw at Frauen-Bundesliga titans Turbine Potsdam. That the tie came after Lyon had gone up 5-1 in their semifinal’s first led made the result more obligatory than a disappointment, leaving the impression Lyonnais could have gotten any result they wanted. It was another symptom of their dominance.

Over the course of 2012, Lyon would go 8-0-1 in Champions League, a run that included a comfortable 2-0 victory in the May final over Frankfurt. Scoring twice in the first half hour, Lyonnais were never threatened. Awnother German titan was unable to prevent OL’s second straight title.

OL’s nine Champions League games produced 38 goals and a +37 difference, rates in the same neighborhood as domestic performance that tends to be dismissed.

But is Champions League really no tougher than France? Surely not. Instead, it’s more likely Lyon has reached some kind of theoretical peak – the best performance possible in today’s environment. Perhaps their gaudy numbers would diminish were they in Germany, but given what they did this spring against German competition, there’s little reason to think so. Lyon is the real deal. We’re out of reasons to dismiss them or the league they play in.

And when you look at the talent on their team, the results make sense. The core of a French national team that’s produced their confederation’s best combined results over the last two major tournaments seem to play on an even higher level for their club. For whatever reason Bruno Bini has failed to produce the expected results for Les Bleues, Patrice Lair suffers no such failings at OL.

For that he can thank Sarah Bouhaddi in goal, Lyon’s prestige able to pry her from rival Juvisy three years ago. Defenders Laura Georges, Sonia Bompastor, Corinne Petit-Franco and Wendie Renard would play for any team in the world, while the midfield talents of Louisa Necib, Lara Dickenmann (Switzerland), and Amadine Henry explain a playing aesthetic that parallels their results. And in Lotta Schelin (Sweden), Eugenie Le Sommer, Elodie Thomas, and Laetita Tonazzi (lured from Juvisy this year), the power in Lyon’s attack dwarfs any possible club competitor. The four have combined for 50 goals in 43 appearances this French season.

But their most productive player is a familiar one to North American readers, with Camile Abily’s output at Lyon bringing into question whether she was ever properly utilized during her time in Women’s Professional Soccer. Though she was one of the best (or, in soccer teams, classiest) players while stateside, she wasn’t the goal scoring machine she’s become at Lyon. In 22 league matches this calendar year, Abily has scored 20 times, a total that coincides with the eight the attacking midfielder’s buried in nine Champions League matches. Were the women’s Ballon d’Or a serious award, Abily would have gotten more serious consideration.

There is an element of incredulity to Abily’s totals, just as her team’s dominance is hard to understand. Perhaps that’s why more people didn’t talk about Lyon, though their success has been impossible to ignore. Even a world away with no reasonable ability to access their matches, Lyonnais is becoming the standard in the States. When a player like Megan Rapinoe is linked to the club, the reaction isn’t one of protectionism or doubt. It makes sense that a player with Rapinoe’s quality would play at the highest level of soccer.

And that’s what Lyon is. Their results speak volumes, and with squad depth that keeps international quality players like Elise Bussaglia, Sabrina Viguier, and Céline Deville from seeing regular time, Lyon’s become the go-to place to test a player’s true quality.

They’ve also transcended their competition. The best comparisons for Lyon are no longer at the club level. Lyon can only be compared to the best national teams the United States and Germany have offered.

That Les Bleues have disappointed mades for a vociferous debate, but were the U.S. or Germans to face Lyon tomorrow, would you know who to pick?

That’s where we stand after 2012. Olympique Lyonnais Feminine has established themselves as the best club team of all time. Now, it’s time for a new standard.

Over the final few days of 2012, the staff at The Equalizer will countdown our 11 most memorable moments of 2012. Some were spectacular and some were disappointing, but one thing is common amongst all of them: they will be remembered for years to come.

No. 11: U.S. U-20 women win World Cup
No. 10: North Carolina wins its 21st NCAA title

Next up, moment No. 8: Rapinoe comes out

  • Steglitz49

    I respectfully disagree. You have bought the Lyon propaganda hook, line and sinker.

    Umeå was the first club to take two CL in a row. This year Lyon equalled that. Umeå also played 3 other finals losing by the narrowest of margins. Lyon has only played 1 other final.

    Frankfurt has won 3 CLs and played in 2 losing finals while Potsdam have won twice and played in 2 losing finals.

    Any Americans who have won the CL have not done so with Lyon.

    What Lyon has shown is that provided you spend you can win. In ladies’ football you do not need to spend very much. The big spenders seem to have taken note.

    In short, a poor call.

    • OL’s European and National Leagues stats speak for themselves though.

      • Steglitz49

        Only the blind are taken in by the siren voice of this red herring.

    • I completely agree with this comment! good fact check!

      • Steglitz49

        Thank you kindly for your support. I will wear it always.

        When a young Marta decided to leave Brazil she chose Umeå. Umeå is a small university town in the north of Sweden at 63N (Fairbanks in Alaska is at 64N). Umeå is neither the gastronomical capital of the world nor known for its haute couture. When the USA league collapsed, Marta returned to Sweden and with her Tyresö won the Damallsvenskan for the first time.

        Today D1 Féminine has a second team that is spending money like water and no tomorrow. Other teams around Europe might open their wallets for their ladies sides. Who knows?

        Pete Rozelle is rightly recognized as the man who made a trivial sport into USA’s biggest. Obviously he did not invent all its features, but Rozelle made them gel. A fundamental tenant of grid-iron (aka American soccer) is to even out between the teams so that the rich do not get richer and no-one can buy the Superbowl. The NFL is communism by the back door, you might say.

        Is it too late for FIFA and all the other FAs to take a leaf out of the NFL’s book at least for ladies’ soccer?

        • “Today D1 Féminine has a second team that is spending money like water
          and no tomorrow. Other teams around Europe might open their wallets for
          their ladies sides. Who knows?”

          That is what you fear the most? great clubs doing what great clubs are on the habit of doing.

          yes Liverpool, Ajax, Munich, Barcelona, Wolfburg, Francfort, Man City are likely to take the same route…and they are historically greater than Lyon

          • Steglitz49

            According to WSU, an entry in Nahomi Kawasumi’s blog shows Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux in Tokyo recently. They are probably only sightseeing and hosted and being looked after by Japanese colleagues. Global soccer at its best. Nevertheless, one cannot escape wondering whether Japanese clubs might not redeem their time and grasp the opportunity to make them offers? Anyone read Japanese?

          • randomhookup

            It’s no secret. Both Abby & Sydney are tweeting photos from their adventures. They sent out pics wearing jerseys labeled “Dream Team” and talking about a “robo-keeper”. No idea what the event was about.

          • Steglitz49

            The robo-keeper presumably is Ayumi Kaihori, who plays for Kobe Leonessa. Kobe likely is the “Dream Team” for whom two Americans already play and where Ohno was captain and Kawasumi plays.

            Maybe Abby and Sydney were over for the charity match that raised money for the tsunami/earthquake? Abby and Sydney wearing the colors of the lionesses in their den? Time will tell.

          • randomhookup

            Unless “robo-keeper” is Kaihori’s real nickname, I don’t think that’s it. Here’s the photo Sydney posted. Looks more like they went up against a “Robo-keeper” (there is such a thing – http://robokeeper.com/en/). I assume it was some kind of promotional trip as they aren’t really decked out for even an exhibition match.

          • Steglitz49

            What a delightful picture. Thanks for sharing. Your explanation seems sensible. Nevertheless, I hope they take the Yen and play a season or two in Japan, not necessarily for the same team. If nothing else, it would open two defrayed slots in the DPs roster!

          • randomhookup

            I don’t know if this photo helps add to the story, but it was RT’d by Abby. All the accompanying text is in Japanese.

          • Steglitz49

            Thank you. I am not very good at recognizing the Japanese players but assuming that their numbers are as for the Nadeshiko, then I think that they are Takase, Maruyama, Kumagai, Tanaka and Kawasumi, but don’t quote me on it. Maybe they were playing some Futsal or attending a best-in-show?

            Maybe they are Abby’s and Sydney’s future team-mates?

          • necron99

            They took shots at it last year before the Kirin Cup as well. In fact the only player who scored on it was Hope Solo.

          • And I don’t think we’re yet at a place where we should be so cavalier about clubs willing to spend money on women’s soccer, even at disproportionate rates to others. That seems something to be lauded – an enhancement of their credentials – rather than denounced.

          • Steglitz49

            Your point is well taken but I think that the Commander has a point. Forbes each year publishes a list of the wealthiest football clubs in the world. Should they support their ladies side the way Lyon has, European soccer will be owned by England, Germany, Italy and Spain, and France would hardly get a look-in let alone teams from Norway and Sweden.

            — Man Utd — is the richest — they infamously closed their women’s division 7 years ago but might start anew;
            — Real Madrid has a soccer academy for girls but the Madrid ladies’ team is Atletico’s;
            — Barcelona has a women’s side now coached by the man who trained Messi as a youngster;
            — Arsenal — have always supported their ladies and have won the CL (beating Umeå 1-0);
            — Bayern-Munich — won the German cup this season beating Frankfurt with Sarah Hagen scoring the first goal;
            — AC Milan have a ladies’ side;
            — Chelsea — infamously were going to divert money from their ladies to buy more male players (sounds familiar) when John Terry (of all people) opened his wallet and got his male colleagues to chip in to keep them going;
            — Liverpool — broke ranks this year by signing non-British isles ladies;
            — Juventus had a ladies’ side 40 years ago but today it is Torino;
            — Schalke — collaborate with a team in D2S;
            — Spurs have a ladies’ side;
            — Inter Milano — no women’s side;
            — Man City — a ladies’ side was started 25 years ago but only 4 months ago was acquired by the men’s club and will now play in City’s light-blue colours;
            — Borussia Dortmund has no women’s side;
            — Lyon — has a women’s side (obviously);
            — Ajax is not in the top 20 but started a ladies’ side this year and we have to wait for next year’s list to see where PSG (with Lindsey Horan & Kosse Asllani) rank financially.

            So you can see the Commander’s concern.

    • To each his/her own on whether or not Lyon is the best of all-time, but it’s place on this list as winning a second-straight Champions League title is absolutely justified. You really think that isn’t a top moment from the year?

      • Steglitz49

        The claim was: “The best club team of all-time”. I think we can agree that that is not true.

        (The mention of the second straight win in the CL comes in the last sentence of the 5th paragraph. A bit tardy if it was the point of the piece.)

        • Men FC Milan has won the more titles as a men club and yet Soccer lovers or specialists tend to like the idea of Barcelona FC being the best club of all time.

          What the criteria of being the best club of all time?

          a piece of answer : (to me) the capacity of inspiring and leading a improvement as a whole in a sport.

          • Steglitz49

            Your point is well taken. Comparisons between teams and countries over time are fraught with difficulties which render them uninterpretable.

            Lyon has, indeed, broken new ground in being a (relatively) wealthy men’s team willing to spend real money on its women and thereby been successful. It would appear that other men’s clubs already are putting in more money which ought to be good for the women provided all clubs will follow suit. I would prefer to see NFL-type equalizing systems, such as a team salary cap like the NWSL and Australian leagues apply, to even out (please see other post).

            The development in the ladies’ game may be going too quickly. Of the four semifinalists of last year’s WC, Sweden with 9 million inhabitants was the only small country while in this year’s Olympics the smallest SF was Canada with 35 million inhabitants.

          • When I saw the Abily goal, I thought of the goal Dejan Stnkovic scored against Schalke in Champions League three years ago – Neuer coming, caught out. Stankovic buried it from about 40 yards.

        • Did you miss the second sentence of this piece?

          As far as we can all agree the thesis isn’t true, clearly that’s not the case. And while it may very well be wrong, there hasn’t been any good rationale provided as to why is isn’t true.

          OL’s accomplishments and dominance are unparalleled, and given women’s soccer in 2012 is played at a higher level than ever before, the history of Marta moving to Umea or the feel good story of a modest club come good are thin compared to what’s in the article.

          • Steglitz49

            “With a perfect year in France and the most dominant run in the history of a young UEFA Champions League, OL have created a benchmark against which all future club teams will be measured, a seemingly impossible standard that time will hopefully cast as the comical artifact of a sport’s infancy.”

            There is no statement about doing a double.

          • The double didn’t happen in 2012. It would be strange to lead with it, given the nature of these posts.

            When replying, I assumed you couldn’t mean you wanted me to lead with a 2011 factoid in a piece about 2012 stories. Excuse my assumption.

    • Most of this reply seems off topic. You’re giving club histories for Umea and Frankfurt. The post is about a single team – on collection of players. Presence of Americans and how much money was spent? Sorry, those are really irrelevant to the piece.

      • Steglitz49

        It may be time to invoke Healey’s first law of politics.

  • Les bleues disappointment could be explain for many reasons,

    The community inside les Bleues has always been rotten by clubs rivalries; namely Juvisy vs Lyon players/supporters. Both captain of each club : Sandrine Soubeyrand and Sonia Bompastor are known not to be kind on each other, they have created clans inside the national team. It is somewhat a classic in Europe especially in men National teams for instance the 90’s Men Spain National team and the well know Barça/Madrid clans which, fortunately, does not preveil anymore today. Like no exception in Latin countries; French are more dedicated to their clubs than to their national squad.

    Many little wars inside the France NT have pushed Bruno Bini to getting rid of some of the best players that the french championship could have right now, unfortunately a lot of Lyon players : Amandine Henry who is arguably one of the best 6 (holding midfielder) in Europe and Laetitia Tonazzi who is one of the top strikers in France for half of a decade, and even most lately Sonia Bompastor who was considered by Bini’s (and Wambach) voice(s) as the best left outside back in the world one year ago.

    Still, Bini is known to be a stubborn and enigmatic coach who forgets intentionally some really good players who served well the NT and never calls them back in an uncivilised and brutal way. His tactical choices are less and less arguable when for instance, he choosed to start most of the Olympic games with players like Abily and Le Sommer on the bench.

    • Steglitz49

      It sounds a bit like the USWNT when a certain Swedish lady took over. The rest, as they say, is history.

      One wonders how Bini could get enough votes to be one of the 3 coaches in FIFA’s poll? Soon, after the gala, we shall know who voted for whom.

      The problem for the Bleues is not that they failed twice — which invites an obvious quotation — but that they did so so spectacularly. In 2011 Sweden played with 10 ladies and beat them while in 2012 Canada beat them with a late free-kick. Worse in the group game the Bleues gave up a 2-0 lead only for the USA to swat them aside like an irritating fly, whereas in 2011 Sweden beat the USA 2-1 in their group game.

      Maybe all will go the Blue Hens way in Euro-13? (Apologies to Delaware.)

  • Is OL Féminine the best women club of all time? It is too early too say so (there is still the 2012/2013 CL and French D1 going on) but I sure agree that OL is the best women soccer club in the world right now….its recent National, European and World titles do tend to approve that.

    It is not quite difficult to explain the reason why OL Féminine reaches the top of world women soccer : OL féminine is managed like a fully professional men club :

    1. They’ve forged their identity within a very long period of time : like some famous men clubs (Barcelona, 80’s/90’s Ajax Amsterdam), they managed to retained their players playing together for 5-6 years; 3/4 of the squad are french, embracing the french philosophy type of playing (technical, short passing, keeping possession).
    2. They always aiming at the supremacy on its home soil : they are always trying to lure the best players in France first. Scouting the best players in France, buying them at all cost (which is – in women soccer – very cheap) and keeping them what are the strong ways; it is even better when you lure them with the best bait you can get : Ambition (nothing wrong with this; every great men club does that)

    3. They do not hesitate hiring abroad talents who might help complete the team better or fill out where the squad lacks : Schelin, Steinsland, Brasilians Katja and Rosana, and now Shinobu Ohno (confirmed today) and Rapinoe ( again nothing wrong with this for a big club) and again they using the biggest bait called Ambition.

    4. They started to rely more and more on their formative policy : Cruz (the costa rican now playing for PSG after 6 years at OL), Renard, Henry, Thomis, Necib has started to play for OL very young (18-19 years old), the clubs even allowed them to finish their studies while they had been training and playing; The 2012 World champion U17 France NT have numerous OL young players setting up, right now, what would be the OL squad for the future. The next U17 France NT, rumoured to be even stronger, has countless young ‘Lyonnaise’ players (it remains to be seen though)

    For those points I agree with this article main statement: the most important is what they should inspired to other clubs, this club like many other clubs should lead the movement. And the stronger this club domination will be the better the other club should stick to this model. Because that is what would lead the way to a modern and always on improving women soccer.

    • Steglitz49

      These are all excellent points. Thanks for making them. It reminded me that this year Ajax started a ladies’ side. It is strange that the ladies’ game has lagged behind in many countries otherwise known for their equality.

      Maybe Spain playing Sweden in the Euro U-19 final and an Italian team being left in the CL also are markers of the growth of ladies soccer. Barcelona, though not Real, has a women’s division and their coach is the man who trained Messi as a youngster!

  • Kernel Thai

    I have no problem with the OL story making the list or its placement. My only question is why do u believe a story about a team who buys championships by collecting every good player they can get their hands on is a better story than either of the two u placed below it?

    • Again, I wouldn’t read into the ordering too much. These are 11 stories/memories we chose. Just because one is at No. 11 or No. 10 doesn’t mean we don’t respect the story.

      • Steglitz49

        Isn’t the real news story in this context that >50.200 filled the Olympic stadium for the CL final?

        This was a massive improvement on the year before when 14.300 showed up. Indeed, that year Lyon’s home semi-final gate was >20.000, no doubt embarrassing for UEFA.

        The Munich number was exceeded when Wembley stadium was full (>80.200) for the ladies’ olympic football final. Finally, this Christmas Eve 30.000 watched the Japanese ladies play a charity match in the Tokyo national stadium .

        The challenge becomes for soccer to build on these fine numbers and establish a marketing and business base for ladies’ football, not outspending less financially placed competitors.

    • When I read for the second time my post about how has OL Féminine reached its level I noticed that I forgot to mention that OL féminine was at the time in France, the first women club to be fully professional.

      Being the only ambitious french club toward the women’s game, it was not difficult to convince the best french players to come. Good wages, excellent training facilities, professional and experienced staff would be provided to them. Today Amsterdam Ajax FC or Liverpool FC start to establish the same approach to its women team.

      Criticisms pointing that OL rely to much on abroad talents turned out to be wrong when in both final 2011/2012 CL finals Lotta Schelin and Shirley Cruz were the only non french players in the starting XI (Eventhough, the costa rican playing in France since her 18 is considered for many as french)

      Today PSG is relying heavily on a core of abroad players and more are likely to come as the winter market just opens today

      • Steglitz49

        Your point about the difference between the approach of Lyon compared to that of PSG is well taken. Unfortunately, the PSG approach seems to be gaining ground. Let’s trust that that is an illusion or at worst a transient phenomenon.

        Nevertheless, in the Swedish league (Damallsvenskan) there are on average 6-7 foreign players per team, a completely incomprehensible approach for a small country to take. They need to develop local talents who can then get foreign contracts. There are also signs that the various FAs of the UK may be abandoning their gentlemen’s agreement of only signing British isles players.

        I hope that UEFA brings in some team salary cap even if it were quite a high one to start with.

        • Last reports said 3,5M was allocated for the OL feminin section but it was before this section alone has signed new partnerships with April (French bank and Insurance working thightly with Japan) and GDF Suez (Gas of France) for an estimated 4,5M Euros budget over the next 4 years. There is no official claim about the men’s budget, last report estimated it about at least 80-90M Euros

          • Steglitz49

            Thank you commander. Thus, about 5% of what Lyon spends on their men’s side is spent on their ladies. I selected four of the teams in Forbes list (please see other post). According to that Lyon had a value of $385m and revenues of $193m. Those figures were for:
            — AC Milan $989m & $341; Bayern-Munich $1230m & $466m; Arsenal $1290m & $364m and Barcelona $1310m & $653m.

            Thus, should the wealthy clubs of Europe move seriously into the ladies’ side of the show, we will be in a whole different ball-game budget-wise.

            It will be interesting to see if some club will counter Lyon’s two recent signings by bringing Alex Morgan onboard, though neither Wolfsburg nor Arsenal are known for signing foreign players, while the obvious candidate Göteborg, who lost Press and Wells, probably cannot afford her services – though Tyresö’s supporters sprung for Marta, so who knows? (After all, Gbg is a west coast sea-port with an industrial base where it rains all the time, not so different from Seattle.)

            Maybe Jeff can ask one of his writers on the Equalizer to look into this and report for us?

  • Quick As A Flash

    Best current team but no match for the 2010 and 2011 WPS champions

    Lyon in 2012 was of course as good as top national teams. However the 2010 Gold Pride and 2011 Western NY Flash were loaded with the best players in the world. Either of those teams would crush Lyon.

    • Well, 2011 OL was already pretty good as they won its first UEFA Women Champions League title…and they were pretty strong in 2010 as they reached this competition final that they lost on penalties against Postdam ( without two of its best players injured Schelin and Henry)

      Like I said OL stats at National and International level speak verily for themselves, this is leading to my main point:
      it is much more easy to rate and evaluate European Clubs among themselves (and among the world) because they play at least one international competition.

    • Steglitz49

      I think that the Commander has a point. Seeing that the teams did not play each other we shall never know.

      In this context it is worth pondering the Wonder of Bern — or, if you prefer, this year’s Wonder of Tokyo for the USA U-20 young ladies.