Seven seasons is an awfully long time in football. In that same time frame, Graham Potter took Östersund from the fourth tier of Swedish football to the first and into Europe, Leicester City went from League One to Premier League Champions, while Sevilla went from the Segunda to two-time UEFA Cup Winners.
But in France between 2002 and 2008, everything (at the top at least) seemed to stand still. Olympique Lyonnais embarked on an unprecedented streak of winning seven straight French titles – a run never seen before in all of Europe’s major leagues. It would require something special to break the greatest spell of dominance the continent’s best leagues had ever seen – and that is exactly what it got.
Bordeaux were, at the time, the sixth most successful club in France for titles won following their five previous successes, with the most recent of those coming in 1999. While they may have come second in 2006, the yawning chasm of 15-points to Lyon meant they were about as close to 9th-placed PSG as they were to the table-topping juggernauts.
The last time a team other than Lyon had won the league, the iPhone hadn’t been invented and Kosovo was still a part of Serbia, but in 2009, Girondins de Bordeaux shocked all before them and took home the Ligue Une title and defeated the then greatest monopoly in European football.
They did so on 80 points, ending the season with 13 consecutive wins (which became 14 in 09/10 to break the Ligue 1 record), to take the Hexagoal to the port city of Southwestern France, with Yoann Gourcuff as the jewel in their crown.
At six-foot-one, the Frenchman bore more than a passing resemblance to the great Zinedine Zidane who made his name at Les Girondins all those years earlier – taking the club to where Zizou couldn’t during four hugely successful years at the club. Gourcuff was initially on loan from AC Milan but joined that summer in a deal worth £12m and hit nine goals as Bordeaux finished a disappointing sixth – but a European galavant made it a worthwhile year.
They topped their Champions League group undefeated, doing the double over Bayern Munich and Maccabi Haifa, while taking four points off of Juventus to send the Turin club crashing into the Europa League. Olympiacos were next up and were duly swatted aside in the first knockout round, paving a way to Lyon in the quarter-finals.
Bordeaux hadn’t been to the semi-final of a major European trophy since Zidane and the boys went all the way to the 1996 UEFA Cup final and hadn’t seen a European Cup last four since 1985, but with Bordeaux ending their stranglehold on French football they were out for revenge, and edged out Laurent Blanc’s side 3-2 on aggregate.
That was as good as it got for the Marines and Whites. Blanc departed at the end of the season to take charge of the national team, while Gourcouf left for arch-nemesis Lyon and Marouane Chamakh – a routinely ridiculed individual at England but one the French side’s best performers at the time – joined Arsenal for free as their title-winning spine was torn apart, and replaced with lesser players.
And yet, they still remained competitive in the top half of Ligue 1 (finishing between 7th and 5th each season between 2010/11 and 2014/15), and enjoyed several European trips, all while maintaining modest spending.
They landed in the green in all but one of the above seasons while developing young players and competed in a league that was quickly saturated by the wealth of Paris Saint-Germain. The 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons brought further European finishes, but as Bordeaux set sail on another continental road trip, the wheels started to come off.
Gus Poyet is a nomadic manager who has enjoyed success (at times) with the likes of Brighton, Sunderland and AEK Athens, and was the mastermind behind Les Girondins’ 6th-place finish in 2018 after taking over in January. But by September, he was gone following comments made against the club’s transfer policy, as Bordeaux sold Gaëtan Laborde against his knowledge.
This sent the club’s latest galavant off course, with Ricardo Gomes coming in to little effect that August. The club failed to pick up a point from their first three Europa League games and were sat 11th in the Ligue Une table at the start of August, and as the engine light entered a permanently lit state, the road ahead became bumpier and bumpier.
General America Capital Partners (GACP) splashed out $82m to acquire the club at the start of November, two days before Bordeaux earned their first European point of the campaign with a draw against Zenit. It sparked protests amongst sections of the fans as they believed the American hedge fund were only there to make a ‘quick buck’ without any knowledge (or care) for football, and the ill-feeling around the club only grew as the season slogged on.
A third-placed finish in the Europa League sent them crashing out at the group stage, before Gomes himself was dismissed in March with the club sat 13th in the table. Paulo Sousa was brought in but won just two of the final eleven games that season (including six straight losses through April and May), and finished a lowly 13th place.
Despite several years of steady building (or rebuilding) since their last Ligue Une crown, Bordeaux seemingly had managed to undo all of it after a couple of poor decisions. Fans knew that GACP had little interest in the club or knowledge of the sport, while the prior decision to up sticks from Stade Chaban-Delmas (their charming home of almost 80 years) and move to Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux in 2015 was detrimentally affecting the club.
It might not have been too bad; their still relatively new stadium is state-of-the-art, but they had abandoned the heart of the city to move north to the tip of it, housing a ground that they could not fill in a location that fans would not reach at a time when the only way was down. As performances dipped so did attendances, as a once smartly run club began to haemorrhage money at a rate of knots.
To arrest the slide, the likes of Malcom, Wahbi Khazri and Adam Ounas were sold between 2016 and 2018, but the ones which hurt most came during 2019/20. A product of the famed Bordeaux youth ranks, Jules Koundé was sold to Sevilla for £31.5m – a strong fee for somebody who had played just over 50 league games by that point, but one that reeked of poor future planning.
Koundé (as shown this summer) was destined for the very top, but the figure places him 29th in the list of Ligue Une exports at the time of writing, behind the likes of Geoffrey Kondogbia, Michy Batshuayi and Michael Essien (a transfer which took place almost 15 years prior).
In December 2019, Bordeaux found themselves in the heady heights of third following a rampant 6-0 victory over a beleaguered Nimes side, but four straight defeats sent them tumblings towards 13th and later in the month things only got worse as the plot behind the takeover thickened.
As it turned out, GACP were heavily bankrolled by investment firm King Street Capital (KCP) and Fortress Investment Group (FIG), and so only retained a 14% stake in the club but all ‘veto rights’ on major decisions. The groups fell out about the running of the club and so KCP bought out GACP – the nightmare before Christmas.
In January 2020, Bordeaux said goodbye to their second world-beating youth product in the space of just six months, as Aurélien Tchouaméni departed for fellow Ligue 1 side Monaco for just £16m as the club’s faithful’s worst fears were being realised right before their eyes.
Foreign investment groups and hedge funds getting involved in football clubs brings plenty of scepticism, but especially in France at that time. They were around the corner from a lucrative television rights deal between Media Pro and the Ligue de Football Professional (LFP), meaning that clubs could afford to borrow money (as GACP did from KCP and FIG), safe in the knowledge that a mouth-watering €780 million was headed their way each season.
But 2020 was tortuous for not only Bordeaux but the entirety of Ligue Une (PSG aside). The Covid-19 pandemic sunk practically all other teams to their knees and curtailed the campaign which ended with the club in 12th, before the Media Pro deal was terminated as they failed to cough up the necessary funds by the end of the year.
KCP pulled all funding in preparation for this and, to only add to their popularity, took it upon themselves to change the historic ‘Girondins de Bordeaux’ badge to one which simply read ‘Bordeaux Girondins’, further infuriating a now disillusioned fan base.
They received £15m from player sales but signed nobody for a fee, as the once sustainable and profitable summers which saw Bordeaux compete and reinvest had morphed into a desperate bid to survive. Sousa resigned shortly before the season started and was replaced by Laurent Blanc’s former assistant manager from the league-winning days, as Jean-Louis Gasset took charge.
Tasked with reinvigorating a mish-mash of a squad amid a backdrop of ownership difficulties and a fractured fan base, Gasset presided over another difficult campaign which saw a run of just two wins from 15 plunge the club into danger. Towards the end of that run, KCP officially placed the club into administration to make an already dire situation seemingly fatal.
Gasset managed to arrest the slide, however, as Bordeaux won three of their final four games to steer clear of danger, but choppy waters still lay ahead. Now in administration, the club had to find a buyer promptly or would suffer immediate relegation to Ligue Deux (a move already postponed due to the effects on clubs by Media Pro and Covid-19), finding their man in the shape of Gérard López.
López had recently presided over a successful time at Lille where he oversaw the club’s rise from relegation-threatened to title-challenging, and many Bordeaux fans were hoping for something even half as good as that – but they were too far gone.
Vladimir Petković was brought in from the Swiss national team and was afforded £8m as the club shopped in the bargain bin of free agents, loans and modest fees for players, all while López worked frantically in the background to trim the squad.
But it didn’t work as successfully as it did at Lille, with many senior members of the squad departing or dragging their heels in the youth setup while the club looked to sanction moves away. Squad morale plummeted, and by February Petković was gone with the club second from bottom.
Jaroslav Plašil temporarily took charge, a legendary Bordeaux midfielder who played over 300 times for the club after signing in 2009 – the end of the club’s golden era, and he was now witnessing the end of a very different one before his very eyes.
He lost his only match in charge 3-2 to Lens before David Guion was tasked with saving a club that had now reached the bottom of the league and were in terminal decline. Just two wins from 14 games followed, with relegation all but confirmed as they kicked off against Stade Brestois on the final matchday. Bordeaux were down, shaken, and the referee’s long count was ticking along like a bomb at the heart of this once-great football club.
They may have survived enforced relegation at the beginning of the season, but they managed it all on their own during the campaign with the worst yet to come; relegation to the third tier was looming large as debts racked up to €40m. The Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion (DNCG – it’s the last initialism, I promise) are the country’s financial watchdog, and had initially decided to demote the club even further, but the club’s future was saved by its illustrious past.
As Koundé and Tchouaméni moved to Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, the club netted a windfall of around €13m, while selling Sekou Mara to Southampton for €11m, as the club’s youth setup accounted for over half of the outstanding debt. López added an additional €10m from his own pocket, meaning the decision was reversed and Bordeaux lived to fight another day in the second tier.
But how is that fight going? They returned from the most turbulent of all summers with Guion still at the helm and a raft of players arriving on the cheap, for free or from the youth setup to top the division at the time of writing – all while fellow fallen giants St-Étienne are languishing in the bottom three.
They’re on course to bounce back at the first time of asking, and with López at the helm, the fans know they have a man capable of turning a tanker around. The days of titles may be far off yet, but they’ve bucked a trend even more remarkable than trouncing Lyon’s monopoly; they’ve returned from the very brink of existence, and have given a city the chance to dream again.
By: James Pendleton / @jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / @GabFoligno / Scoop Dyga / Icon Sport