If you have read any of my previous groundhopping blog posts, you probably know that there is a running theme of me being late to the football. For this trip to Lyon, my friend Anthony (fellow groundhopper and study abroad classmate) and I took it to another level – we barely even made it to the city. We were due to board the 4:42 PM train to Lyon, from Geneva, but we only left our apartment at 4:25. After a mixture of running and bus hopping, we made the train in the nick of time.
Our view of the pitch, from the corner between the east and south stands.
Lyon is only two hours from Geneva, so it provided us with the perfect opportunity to watch Olympique Lyonnais play midweek. OL’s Coupe de France (French Cup) quarter final against nearby Grenoble Foot 38 proved to fit our schedule best so we took off for the French city as soon we got out of classes on that particular Tuesday.
Fast forwarding past the commute, we arrived at Groupama Stadium with about 45 minutes to kick-off – not so late after all. Completed for the Euros in 2016, the stadium is a typical modern multimillion-dollar sporting arena – not unlike an NFL stadium in the US – with connected stands and continuous seating. The large three-tiered structure loomed large over the surrounding apartments and its brilliant lighting made it stand out in what was otherwise a quiet suburban neighborhood.
The OL fan shop was waiting for us at the main entrance, and I got a Lyon scarf with the entire OL anthem sewn onto it – decent! A lot of the clothing in the shop reminded me of PSG merchandise – designed to be ‘fashionable.’ This is definitely common with American Sports teams, but it is not something I felt with any of the other football club shops that I have visited so far in Europe (an interesting difference in culture?).
When we got into the stadium, the players were warming up, so I was able to catch some of that. I had not eaten anything since lunch, so I got myself a pizza at one of the concourse food stands, before moving to our seats in the corner between the ouest and sud stands. I noticed that the OL ultras occupied the sections behind both goals. The ultra supporter group Lyon 1950 sat adjacent to us in the Virage Sud (South bend), while the Bad Gones occupied the opposite Virage Nord (North bend). Meanwhile, the away fans sat high up in a corner to our left, far away from the action. Just before kick-off, the floodlights were dimmed, and a spectacular light show ensued. The Grenoble fans took the opportunity to light pyro, and if you did not know already, pyro and darkness are a match made in heaven. For a 9.10 PM kick-off on a Tuesday night, the pre-game festivities surpassed our expectation by some margin.
Being a mid-table Ligue 2 team, Grenoble were bossed by Lyon (possession-wise at least) for the majority of the first half. However, the visitors - through their very direct, counter attacking approach – did create a few chances. In the 5th minute the ball was lumped forward and found its way to the feet of Grenoble’s skillful winger Matthias Phaëton. He took his defender on and fired a shot, but it was well saved by Anthony Lopes.
In the 24th minute, OL’s dominance bore fruit as their 20-year-old winger Bradley Barcola found the net with a perfectly guided flick header. The goal sent the crowd around us into a frenzy, but Anthony took it a little far by grabbing this kid’s jacket and ripping it (unintentionally, while celebrating). The kid immediately gestured to us that he wanted monetary compensation. The elation of the goal died away as we realized that we were in for a long awkward 60 minutes plus halftime.
Smoke from pyro lit in the away section, during the pre-game light show, clouding over the field as the players line up.
While the Lyon Ultras were still jumping up and down to the tune of ‘qui ne saute pas n’est pas Lyonnais’ (Who does not jump is not Lyonnais) Grenoble nearly scored, just a few seconds off the restart. Once again, their direct approach penetrated the Lyon back-line, but Lopes thwarted Pape Meïssa Ba to keep Les Gones’ lead intact.
OL retaliated ferociously and had multiple massive chances to further their lead. In the 28th minute, a series of exquisite tiki taka passing led to another Barcola header, but this time GF38’s goalkeeper Esteban Salles was able to parry it away. The next minute, Maxence Caqueret split the Grenoble defense with a brilliant pass to Barcola but Salles came flying off his line - like superman - and made a ridiculous save.
Lyon’s Jeffinho was causing havoc down the left wing throughout the first half and his exploits led to Les Gones’ second goal in the 34th minute. The Brazilian got on the end of a Tagliafico through ball, beat his man for pace and poked it past Salles for OL’s second. As we were celebrating, more moderately this time, I caught a glimpse of Jeffinho’s cartwheel/backflip celebration out of the corner of my eye.
Lyon continued to dominate but could not add to their lead before halftime. During the break, the kid and his brothers/friends began pressing Anthony for money, for the torn jacket. I was in a very unfortunate position, so I decided to just hang around by my seat without getting involved in the argument.
The second half was overshadowed by the crisis at hand, which got more heated as the half progressed. Nevertheless, I was able to focus enough of my attention on the match to catch some of the more significant moments.
In the 53rd minute, for example, Salles made another fine one-on-one save to deny Moussa Dembélé from scoring OL’s third. Unfortunately, the French goalkeeper got hurt in the possess and had to be subbed off. Caqueret, a Lyon academy product, was phenomenal in midfield throughout the game and he created so many big chances for Les Gones, including this one.
During the latter part of the second half, Grenoble began pushing harder for a way back into the game. In the 69th minute, they nearly pulled one back but a few mishits from inside the box saved Lyon some blushes. Three minutes later, GF38 almost capitalized on an OL mistake in midfield, but Abdoulie Sanyang’s first attempt was saved by Lopes (who came flying off his line) and his second was blocked in front of the goal by Sinaly Diomandé. However, the visitors continued to exploit Lyon’s weaker right side and a combination of luck and perseverance led to their first goal in the 75th minute - Cacqueret’s attempted tackle diverted the ball straight to the feet of an otherwise offside Amine Sbaï, who rounded the keeper and scored.
The OL Virage Sud Ultras, who we were sitting adjacent to, were in great voice all game long.
It was a nervy end to the match for Lyon, but they held on for another successful Coupe de France outing (A few days later, they were drawn to play FC Nantes away in the semi-final). The Virage Sud was once again bouncing to the tune of ‘qui ne saute pas n’est pas Lyonnais’ as the players came over to acknowledge them.
Even though OL looked slightly sluggish in the second half and were missing some big names like Alexandre Lacazette, Jérôme Boateng, and Dejan Lovren, they played some quality football. I particularly enjoyed watching the Cacqueret masterclass in midfield and the goalkeeping showdown in both ends. It was my first French football experience, and though it was stained by the torn jacket saga, I must say the OL ultras (and the travelling Grenoble fans) were fantastic – I can only imagine what the atmosphere would be like for a Saturday evening kick-off against a big league opponent.