Sonny Side Up: Lyon’s Brazilian Revolution

WORDS: MATTHEW RICHARDS

When Lyon splashed the cash to bring Sonny Anderson in from Barcelona in 1999, a few questions were asked about the striker’s form. By the time he left in 2003, the club were in the midst of a run of seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles. We look back at how the Brazilian’s arrival kick-started a dynasty

Image: Press Association Images

Football dynasties are often synonymous with one influential figure, a poster boy for that successful period.

Prior to the early 2000s, Olympique Lyonnais had no such figure and not much success either. As the start of the 1999/00 approached, an €18 million move would begin to change that. The record signing of Sonny Anderson from Barcelona was the catalyst that kick-started Lyon’s dominance of French football in the following years. Although, with hindsight, the transfer was clearly a fantastic piece of business, such things weren’t always a certainty.

The reality was that €18 million, for the Brazilian forward with the sunny disposition, was a risky bit of business. The two years he had spent in the Catalan capital were a mixed bag. His first season saw him score 10 times, but competition for places reduced playing time come his second season.

Los Culés never seemed to take the striker to their bosom, treating the hit-man more as a gun for hire than a cog in their machine. On the other hand, Anderson’s record in French football, prior to that move to Barcelona, was impressive. Signed by Marseille in 1994, the forward managed an impressive 16 goals in 20 appearances, spending six months with the club before L’OM’s enforced relegation saw Anderson move onto pastures new.

A move to the principality of Monaco further increased the Brazilian’s stock as he netted 21 league goals in 34 appearances in his début season alone. A second season with Les Rouge et Blanc would bring about Anderson’s first success in France, as he aided Jean Tigana’s side with another 19 goals and the team secured their first league title since 1988. Sonny was an integral part of Tigana’s side playing alongside Victor Ikpeba and a young Thierry Henry but, with the Catalan giants casting a watchful eye, a move was imminent.

Despite a less-than-settled time in Spain, Anderson did enjoy some success. The frontman won both La Liga and the Copa del Rey during the 1997/98 season, but he was hardly the influential figure he had been during AS Monaco’s triumph. Nevertheless, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, manager Bernard Lacombe and technical director (and soon to be manager) Jacques Santini all agreed the Brazilian was worth the risk. With Lyon finishing third the previous season, nine points away from winners Bordeaux, Aulas clearly felt Anderson could provide the fire power needed to drag OL back into contention.

As he had done during his first seasons in Monaco and Barcelona, Anderson showed that he knew how to find the back of the net. In only his second league appearance, the skilful striker opened the scoring (as well as his own personal account) against Rennes, during an eventual 2-2 draw. Two games later and the jovial Brazilian made sure a rapport was struck up between himself and the OL faithful as he netted a 51st minute winner against fellow title contenders Paris Saint-Germain.


Image: THEfunkyman (via Flickr)

In the following weeks Anderson would go onto score a brace against the previous season’s champions, Bordeaux, as well that season’s Coupe de France winners, Nantes. The return to his former stomping grounds early on in the season were a mixed bag, though. Lyon fell 1-0 to Anderson’s one-time employers, Monaco, but the Brazilian did put Marseille to the sword, scoring the winner at the Stade Vélodrome in October. He went onto score another four goals during November and five more in December and January (including a brace in the Coupe de la Ligue game against Amiens) before experiencing a frustrating February for both himself and Lyon.

A red card in the return fixture with Monaco brought around personal disappointment and his misery was compounded by the side’s simultaneous dip in form. Defeats to Strasbourg, Bastia and Nancy no doubt cost Lyon in the long run, as the side finished third for the second consecutive season. However, the positive start made by Anderson (he netted 23 goals in 32 league appearances) and a Champions League qualification spot suggested the initial financial outlay on the striker may well pay dividends.

Success would finally be achieved in the upcoming seasons as the “Brazilian backbone” was set in place at Lyon. If Anderson was a risk, the signing of Juninho Pernambucano was an oddity. The Brazilian midfielder was a unknown within European circles but manager Jacques Santini trusted his instinct once again.

Hardly short on success in his native country, Reizinho de São Januário had been part of a successful outfit before. He already boasted two Brazilian championship winners medals and had tasted Copa Libertadores and Copa Mercosur success. He had made 265 appearances for Vasco da Gama and was obviously torn over whether or not to leave his own country. But the presence of two more Brazilians at Lyon – Edmílson and Caçapa – was no doubt a key factor in his decision to make the move to France.

The duo had been brought in to solidify the defensive unit at the Stade de Gerland, with Edmílson arriving in 2000 from São Paulo and Caçapa in 2001 from Atlético Mineiro. The latter arrived during the same period as Juninho and had certainly attracted more attention prior to his transfer. Several top European clubs were rumoured to be interested in capturing Caçapa’s signature, but the centre-back ultimately settled on Lyon.

Although the Brazilian quartet only spent two years together at the club, their influence was unquestionable. During their first season together, in 2001/02, the South Americans helped Lyon, Aulas and Santini to finally capture that elusive Ligue 1 title. Making 25 league appearances, Anderson chipped in with 14 goals, scoring crucial winners against Monaco and Bordeaux to help the club’s cause.

New boy Juninho, meanwhile, contributed a total of five goals in his 29 appearances throughout the campaign, including a brace against Rennes. His pinpoint passing accuracy, composure on the ball and, most strikingly, his incredible free kick technique, endeared him to the crowds at the Stade de Gerland almost instantly. Lyon’s adopted Brazilians, as well as French talents like that of Sidney Govou, were feted for delivering the city their first-ever Ligue 1 title, but the dominance that followed was beyond even the most faithful of fans imagination.

As the 2002/03 season rolled around, a 31-year-old Sonny Anderson could already be considered a club legend, but the forward still had a part to play in another significant season in the club’s history. Anderson’s final season would prove to be the second in a dominant seven-year run of consecutive titles, and this campaign saw the club finish 13 points ahead of second-placed Monaco.
Anderson may have lost his once-game-altering pace but the wily striker still managed to chip in with an important goal every now and then. Despite Lyon failing to qualify from the opening group stage in the Champions League that year, Anderson managed to score a handful of memorable goals.

The forward enjoyed his evening at the San Siro as his goal in the 60th minute saw off Inter Milan in a memorable 2-1 victory, before the Brazilian struck twice in the return fixture, including a 75th-minute equaliser to level the game at 3-3. His most memorable Champions League goal, though, may well be his juggling act against Ajax in Lyon’s opening group stage fixture in Amsterdam. Not wishing to be outshone by a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s brace, Anderson effortlessly controlled a hopeful long punt on the edge of the Ajax area by flicking the ball over a bewildered André Bergdølmo and immediately lobbing the oncoming Maarten Stekelenburg with his second touch in an audacious juggle to grab his side an 84th minute consolation.

In the league, Anderson grabbed winners late on in the season against PSG and Bordeaux, having also netted his first Ligue 1 hat trick for Lyon in a 4-1 win over Bastia early in the season. Despite the fact that he clearly still possessed skill in abundance and an eye for goal, Anderson’s time at Lyon was coming to an end.  The emerging figures of Govou and Peguy Luyindula meant less game time for the older Brazilian and the 2002/03 title win would be Anderson’s parting gift.

The honour of the “South American favourite” tag was unquestionably handed to Juninho, who led his side, much like Anderson prior to his arrival, through pure inspiration. A fairly successful, but brief, stint with Villarreal followed, before two years in Qatar closed the book on Anderson’s 19-year-long playing career.

His goalscoring record speaks for itself. 233 goals in 457 appearances is an impressive legacy during any era, but for all the statistics and the silverware, it was the sheer joy that Anderson exuded that made him a favourite with OL fans. Hardly ever without that trademark smile on his face, it was the love of the game that appeared to fuel Anderson more than anything. His boyish approach, as well as natural skill, made him a joy to watch. So many strikers these days play with their heads and not their hearts, but Anderson was a perfect example of how passion and instinct can be just as important. Whether in the colours of Marseille, Monaco, Barcelona or Lyon, it was always a delight to watch Sonny Anderson play.

Matthew Richards is an English Ligue 1 blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewAnthony9 and visit his blog at lepetitcarremagique.wordpress.com
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One thought on “Sonny Side Up: Lyon’s Brazilian Revolution

  1. john says:

    Lovely piece u sexy ginger man

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