- Jean-Luc Vasseur is nominated for The Best FIFA Women's Coach 2020
- He led Lyon to UEFA Women's Champions League glory in his first season there
- "I came here to maintain the level of excellence," he says
Everyone agrees that the hardest part is not reaching the top but staying there. It is a tenet that has guided Lyon for many years and one that Jean-Luc Vasseur was fully aware of in 2019 when he took up the reins of club that expects to win everything, every year. That is quite some pressure to have to deal with, especially for a coach embarking on his first experience in women's football.
"When I arrived here, Lyon had won the Champions League in the four previous years, so yes, I had that pressure right away," Vasseur told FIFA.com. "However, I still managed to make it five in a row.
"I came here to maintain the level of excellence demanded by the club. Other teams are improving and have been chasing us relentlessly for a while now. Plus we've had significant players absent. We had everything thrown at us but we're still here."
'Here' is the round of 32 of the 2020/21 UEFA Women's Champions League, in which they secured a 3-2 first leg victory away to Juventus, as well as being on course for a 15th consecutive French league title. At an individual level, 'here' means being nominated for the The Best FIFA Women's Coach award. Suffice to say, the 51-year-old has met, or even surpassed, expectations in his first year-and-a-half in women’s football.
"It's a nomination for an individual award, but it’s recognition for the entire team, the staff, both technical and medical," Vasseur said. "This nomination has to be shared with all my colleagues.
"Navigating this terrain without them would have been difficult. They’ve helped me and contributed a great deal. Some of them were already at the club for a good while, and I also got Camille Abily back here as my assistant, all of which inevitably speeds up my integration."
Suddenly at the helm of a women's team with a mix of established players and some of the biggest names in the discipline, it has indeed been a voyage of discovery for Vasseur, whose prior experience was all in the men’s game, first as a player then as a coach.
"If you’re no longer looking to improve yourself, whatever your age, then you’ll soon be a has-been," said the former Paris Saint-Germain, Rennes and Saint-Etienne player. "I’m still learning about this every day. I'm learning all the more because I'm with this team of champions. Even though I'm dealing with some players in their 30s, they can still learn and in fact need to in order to stay ahead of the curve nowadays.
"I coach women players as I would the men. Male or female, it's still football. I have exceptional players who are attentive, responsive to our requests and, above all, really committed in what they do. They’ve managed to acquire tactical versatility, which is an extraordinary quality, and the desire to keep achieving results, since their goal is to maintain the team’s level of excellence."
And while the club did that in 2019 by retaining the three titles won the previous year, the task was not so simple.
"Opponents are better organised, and we have some stars who are getting older, so we have to think about rebuilding," Vasseur said. "Lucy Bronze, who was an extraordinary player for us and for football in general, decided to take on another challenge. So, we had to find alternatives. If you put these restraints into any side, male or female, it's very hard to maintain the required levels of demand, productivity and performance."
This may explain why on 19 November, for the first time since 2016 and in 76 games, Lyon lost a league game, going down 1-0 to Paris Saint-Germain.
"It's a sensation I'd forgotten," said Vasseur. "This is an opportunity to restart, rework and innovate, isn’t it? I have a team of champions and they hate losing too. It's part of the club’s DNA. But when it does happen, then it has to be an opportunity to get back on track and start another winning streak."
And no sooner said than done: the Fenottes immediately bounced back in Le Havre (3-1) and Turin (3-2), even if that Champions League duel still has the second leg to go. Vasseur interprets this slight shift in the balance of power as an encouraging sign.
"We're not unbeatable because we lost," he said, laughing. "Our games against PSG have all been very close in recent years, while against Juventus, a professional outfit that works very well, we rediscovered a spectacular side of our game: an enthusiasm for what is at stake and the emotional element. And yet, it was ‘only’ the round of 32 in the women's game. But that's what people passionate about football really love."
In other words, the best possible advertisement for women's football, even if there is still quite a way to go.
"We need to get closer to professionalisation, so as to narrow the gap [between teams]," Vasseur said. "That's what will create competition. If competition is unfair, what's the point?
"How does France beating Kazakhstan 14-0 enhance women's football? Instead, you find it at games like the France-Austria one, with two teams almost at the same level. PSG-OL, OL-Juventus and all the other tightly contested games provide that measure of sporting uncertainty."
Yet according to Vasseur, this will not be the year that Lyon surrender their continental crown.
"We made history by equalling Real Madrid's sequence of European Cup victories," he said, referring to Los Merengues' five consecutive crowns in the men's game between 1956 and '60. "We have an amazing chance to go one better this year. The pressure is on us because we’re the defending champions, but we don't mind: it's our goal to make footballing history with a sixth title."