n 14 October, thousands of Lyon fans piled into an online campaign for the club’s manager, Rudi Garcia, to resign. He had been appointed that afternoon. The man who appointed him, Jean-Michel Aulas, defended the decision, even though the Lyon president himself had once accused Garcia of “demonic” tendencies.
Then, on the night in December when Lyon secured qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League, players rowed with fans on the pitch over a banner depicting the club’s Brazilian centre-back, Marcelo, as a donkey and ordering him to “get lost”. Marcelo, who a month previously was accosted by fans at an airport, made a righteous “up yours” gesture to the club’s ultras and was soon said to be dead-set on leaving France.
And now here we are. Garcia has led Lyon to only the second Champions League semi-final in their history thanks to a defence built around Marcelo and an esprit de corps so powerful it makes one wonder whether all that ballyhoo earlier in the season happened at all. Maybe it is a false memory? Fake news? Some kind of hallucination? Or maybe the flak hardened Lyon’s focus, inspired them to defy the mewling critics and helped forge the unity and sense of purpose that enabled them to overcome Juventus and Manchester City and might just lead to another shock in Wednesday’s showdown with Bayern Munich.
That last bit may seem especially far-fetched but it would not be much stranger than what has happened so far, particularly in the case of Marcelo, whose clash with a section of Lyon fans made Granit Xhaka’s beef with Arsenal supporters seem like pub banter.
It started with a series of on-field errors by the player or, if you prefer, with some people’s belief that they can abuse underperforming players as much as they want. It turned especially ugly just after Garcia’s appointment, which was interpreted by many Lyon fans as proof that the club had entered terminal decline. Garcia had previously managed their bitter rivals Marseille.
In one sense he had not been a very bothersome opponent – his Marseille lost five of six matches against Lyon – but he had a knack for getting under the club’s skin by intimating that Lyon were a part of the establishment that always seemed to benefit from refereeing mistakes. That was what led Aulas to denounce a “demonic lack of respect” and a base attempt to turn officials in his own favour. So it was a surprise unwelcomed by most Lyon fans when Aulas hired Garcia in October at a time when Lyon were flailing badly and five months after Marseille had given him the heave-ho.
The week after Garcia’s arrival, Lyon travelled to Benfica for a Champions League duel which they lost 2-1. Some members of the Bad Gones ultras group berated Lyon’s players in Lisbon airport on their way back from the game. Forceful exchanges ensued, though of what nature is not exactly clear; what is sure is that some ultras came away with an even more intense disliking of Marcelo. The abuse of him on social media grew more sinister. His wife’s car was vandalised in the street by persons unknown.
Marcelo did not start when Lyon beat Benfica at home two weeks later. But he played 90 minutes when they lost to Zenit St Petersburg in their next group game. In their final group match, against RB Leipzig, he came on in the 87th minute as Lyon held on for a 2-2 draw that confirmed their passage to the last 16.
Celebrations turned into a melee when some fans lambasted Marcelo, anyway. Memphis Depay, the captain, wrested the donkey banner from one offending supporter as other players and fans bawled at each other. Marcelo departed the scene after expressing his views to the Bad Gones through the medium of an upright finger. The centre-back’s wife later took to Instagram to thank Depay for his support and make disapproving reference to Lyon’s goalkeeper, Anthony Lopes, a member of Bad Gones in his youth. Some kind of split looked inevitable.
But Aulas made it clear that Marcelo would not be sold and Lyon gradually grew more solid on and off the pitch. Garcia’s defensive instincts are not always admired but his tactical acumen is recognised and he, in turn, appreciated Marcelo’s qualities as a leader and a defender. Together they have helped make Lyon tough to break down.
After a 2-1 win at Bordeaux in January, Marcelo approached the travelling fans and applauded, a goodwill gesture some of them hardly deserved. “I am a Christian,” said Marcelo before apologising for that one-finger salute and absolving others of their sins. “We learn to forgive even when we are not in the wrong. We close the door to hatred and vengeance. This gesture was an act of forgiveness, it puts an end to a lot of things.”
After February’s 1-0 win over Juventus in the first leg of their last-16 tie, when Lyon’s new rigour and solidarity really came to the fore, Marcelo went directly to the Virage Nord – the part of Lyon’s stadium that the Bad Gones consider to be their fiefdom – and was loudly acclaimed.
“I think I have progressed this year as a player and a person,” Marcelo explained in February. “I have grown up as a human, a father and a player. Sometimes things go badly, you go through moments of doubt, but things are going well now and I want to make the most of the good times.” No matter what happens on Wednesday against Bayern, Marcelo, 33, will emerge from the toughest season of his career with his reputation enhanced.