French Soccer’s Renegade President Would Like a Word. With Everyone.

Jean-Michel Aulas has been watching a lot of soccer in recent weeks. His emotions have been mixed.

On the one hand, Aulas, the president of the French club Olympique Lyonnais, loves the sport. And even though games across Europe are being played against the surreal and sterile backdrop of fan-free stadiums, he says he cannot get enough of it.

On the other hand, with each passing game, with each passing week that soccer’s return from its monthslong pandemic pause passes without incident, Aulas’s fury has mounted.

For weeks, Aulas, 71, had been the loudest voice — and at times the only voice — pressing for the French league to stay the course, to not be so hasty in declaring its season over while other leagues across Europe were still plotting ways to resume their schedules.

Aulas did not get his way. As early as April 30, officials from France’s top league voted to rubber-stamp an announcement that the country’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, had made in Parliament days earlier that effectively ended the season. Aulas then failed to successfully appeal the decision in court.

“It’s a massive frustration for us because football started everywhere,” Aulas said in a telephone interview earlier this week.

Aulas is well known in France for speaking his mind — he used to use Twitter to try to lure top women’s players to sign with Lyon — and ever since losing the fight over the season he has lashed out at everyone from government officials to league administrators to rival executives. He has issued withering put-downs and he has lectured them about what he views as a huge blunder, one with ramifications that he contends will be long lasting, and deeply damaging, to French soccer. The word “stupid” was invoked.

Aulas’s critics accuse him of being a blowhard, a man whose fury is borne entirely out of self interest. His team, a regular Champions League competitor, one that had played in Europe for 23 consecutive years, will be perhaps the hardest hit by Ligue 1’s decision to end the season. When the season stopped, Lyon was in seventh place, outside of the European places for next season.

“You have to understand he is really hurt, really injured, and he worries about the financial situation, but he is trying to change reality,” said Bernard Caiazzo, the president of another club, Saint-Étienne, and the head of a group that represents Ligue 1 clubs.

Credit…Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Aulas’s fiery remarks have created damaging fissures with other leading figures in French soccer, including Caiazzo and Didier Quillot, the chief executive of Ligue 1, which is known as L.F.P.

Quillot declined to discuss Aulas. “L.F.P. management has decided to work instead of speaking,” he said in an email provided by a league spokesman.

Caiazzo, who sits on the board of the Ligue 1, suggested Aulas was trying to rewrite history.

The comments by Philippe, the prime minister, in Parliament on April 28, in which he declared the season over, had set off a chain reaction, Caiazzo said. Within hours, the president of France’s soccer federation declared amateur and professional soccer over, and the top division’s main television partner announced it would cancel the remainder of its contract. Then came the league’s board meeting.

“At this time there were 1,000 deaths per day,” Caiazzo said. “Do you think somebody will put their hand up and say, “Sorry, I don’t think we will stop.’ We would have been outlaws.”

The league, in Aulas’s view, panicked. He said he was actually defending France’s interests when he argued against ending the season; the league, he said, now risks punishment by European soccer’s governing body for not trying to finish its campaign.

And events in the weeks and months that have followed do appear to support at least some of Aulas’s claims. France’s sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, surprised many recently when she suggested it was ultimately the league’s call to end the season, and UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, has described the decision as “premature.” The easing of restrictions in France, where shops and restaurants have gradually started to reopen, along with the resumption of play in Europe’s other top leagues, have made French soccer’s decision the exception rather than the rule.

“I publicly said that this is a mistake, and a big misunderstanding of the real situation, so I was alone to express myself, yes,” Aulas said. “Often in France people who speak out are right, but are often only seen to be right after it is too late.”

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French clubs continue to add up the costs of the season’s early end. The government has backed a loan of 225 million euros (just over $250 million) to replace the amount television companies would have paid for the remainder of the season, but talks continue over how it might help teams cover losses like lost ticket and sponsorship revenues. Estimates of those costs vary; French soccer’s financial body estimated next season’s deficit might be as high as 1.1 billion euros, or $1.2 billion, before accounting for player trading income.

Set against that bleak backdrop, clubs in France are certain to see their values tumble, and for bargain hunters hoping to take advantage of the grim financial situation, to start to circle. Aulas expects prices, both for clubs and for the players that are their most valuable assets, to plummet.

“I think the way things have been managed has really destroyed French football,” he said.

Credit…Jeff Pachoud/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Under Aulas, president of the team for more than three decades, Lyon emerged from a relatively modest past to become the main force in French soccer during the first decade of the century, winning all seven of its league titles and serving as France’s flag-carrier in the Champions League. It has since been surpassed by Paris Saint-Germain, the perennial league winner backed by Qatar.

Aulas said P.S.G.’s president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, had provided quiet support to his ultimately doomed attempts to keep the season going. The teams will meet in the delayed French League Cup final next month, and both remain in the Champions League, which will conclude in August in Portugal. Should Lyon get past Juventus, which it leads by 1-0 after the first game of their two-legged, round-of-16 playoff, it will join P.S.G. in Lisbon.

By the time those games happen, most players on French teams will not have played competitive soccer since early March. (P.S.G. will also contest the French Cup final, France’s top knockout event, against Saint-Étienne, in July).

In Aulas’s mind, as the virus raged in April, France’s government alighted on the soccer industry to make a point, to demonstrate it was acting decisively to tackle a virus that had been devastating the country. In short, he said, the decision to end the season was a piece of theater.

“They have used football as a political tool in the middle of this public health crisis of coronavirus, and I have to admit this is a shame for football people,” he said.

For now, Aulas can do little except continue to watch soccer on television, and continue to fume. The club’s legal battles will go on, he said. And Aulas is sure to keep insisting that he was right.

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