How Lucy Bronze was polished at Lyon, the ultimate finishing school | Sean Ingle

It was a shot heard around the world, and it sent Lucy Bronze’s name hurtling dizzily into the mainstream. Now, two days on from that wonder strike against Norway, she is back on terra firma in Lyon, the French city that has long been the ultimate finishing school for her and other world-class players, preparing for England’s Women’s World Cup semi-final against the USA on Tuesday.

When Bronze moved to France from Manchester City in 2017 she was already an excellent player. Now she is an elite one. And she knows why. “The standard across Europe is set by Lyon,” she says. “We’re so far ahead of so many teams. In training every day it’s 11 internationals v 11 internationals, so I’m having to defend against the world’s best strikers every day.

“At the start it was hard, and for the first month I couldn’t get near the ball in training. Then I got up to speed. It’s definitely been the right move.”

The bald statistics are striking. Lyon have steamrollered their way to the last 13 titles in France’s Division 1 Féminine, as well as the last four Champions Leagues, making them without any doubt, the greatest club team in women’s football history. For good measure they also have 16 players at this Women’s World Cup, including England’s Nikita Parris, who recently joined from City, as well as the Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg, who declined to play because she did not think Norway’s setup was professional enough.

Hegerberg’s tone is very different when it comes to talking about Lyon, calling them “the perfect model of how you should run a modern club”. You can see why. While many other clubs pay lip service to women’s football, Lyon push it at the front and centre.

The women’s teams from the academy upwards, for instance, share facilities with the men – including training pitches, medical staff and a cryotherapy chamber. There is also “the mental cell” which helps with the psychological pressures of performing. And as Dahbia Hattabi, the Lyon correspondent for Foot Mercato in France explains, ideas are exchanged and fermented between staff too. “There is a lot of interaction between coaches of both teams, and the players know each other well too,” she says. “Everything is together for both teams to think only football. The only difference is that the men play at Groupama Stadium, while the women only play there for big matches, usually in the Champions League.”

Lyon’s president, Jean-Michel Aulas, who started the women’s team in 2004, also regularly comes to watch and provides charter jets for the players. Recently he also recruited a new coach, Jean-Luc Vasseur, who has managed in Ligue 1 with Reims. It is difficult to imagine an English Women’s Super League club attracting – or being able to pay – someone with such experience.

“But you notice the little things at Lyon too,” says Laetitia Béraud, a women’s football writer at Le Monde. “For instance they will often weigh each player before and after training and matches to track hydration levels in order to make sure each player is at their best level. That shows how professional the club is.”

But Béraud insists there is something else as well: an understanding that both sexes are treated the same way from the top level down to the kids. “I am 26 now, but even when I was growing up in Lyon we knew the club was scouting girls as well as boys to join their academy,” she says. “It seemed normal to us. Only later did I realise how radical that was. It allowed girls to dream they could make it as a professional too.

“I’d also highlight the attitude of the men’s team too. At training it is not unusual to see them happily watching and waiting for the women to finish. In many clubs the women would be not be allowed to use those same facilities – they would be for the men’s teams only.”

Crucially, they pay well, too. When L’Équipe published the salaries of the top French players at the World Cup they were led by Lyon’s Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry on €29,000 (£26,000) a month, with several other Lyon players on between €10,000-€18,000. Meanwhile Hegerberg is reportedly on somewhere around €34,000 a month. True, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will earn about 70 times that much. But for the women’s game these are extraordinary figures, especially for a team that does not regularly attract more than a few thousand supporters each week.

It is also telling that Lyon recently sold their TV rights to Canal+ for €1.2m a year. In 2017 that same deal was for €200,000 leading you to wonder what it might be in another two years’ time.

So how have Lyon been so successful? It helps that they established a women’s team early. They were not quite the first movers – Montpellier established their women’s team before them – but they were up and running in 2004, while most English clubs only started to merge their operations when the women’s domestic league turned professional in 2010. Incredibly, two of the biggest clubs in Europe, Manchester United and Real Madrid, have only launched women’s teams in the past year.

Lyon’s men dominated French football in the early 2000s but a sharp dip in their performances coincided with the national women’s team reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2011. “That was a revelation,” says Béraud. “We had never seen women’s football on public TV and when the semi-final happened a lot of people got interested, they saw a lot of players were from Lyon. That definitely sparked a massive interest in the women’s team. Now they are very popular.”

Aulas increased his investment in Lyon’s women’s team. As Anthony Hernandez of Le Monde explains, he was motivated by a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. “I think Aulas understood earlier than most this was the right thing to do but also that he didn’t have to put [in] too much money to dominate the women’s game.”

Hernandez also cites the smart recruitment policy – which has included bringing in the captains of Germany and Japan, Dzsenifer Marozsán and Saki Kumagai, as well as players such as Bronze and Parris – as important factors. However, he insists it is not just about money.

“PSG and Manchester City could spend more money on the women’s game than Lyon, and maybe one day they will. But can they replicate the culture?” he asks. “That is the big thing here. The women’s players really feel like they are part of the club. Other teams might let them wear the shirt but otherwise they make them feel like second-class citizens.”

And Hattabi, who follows Lyon more closely than most, does not see their superiority ending any time soon. “They always want to win and they plan to dominate France and Europe for several more years,” she says.

“And it’s not like they are resting on their laurels. There are young players like Selma Bacha and England’s Nikita Parris arriving so the next generation is ready – and waiting to fire.”