IT IS hard to shake off the feeling that Ligue 1 is a one-horse race, despite France being the home of the World Champions and French football’s status as one of the breeding grounds for nurturing talent. Paris Saint-Germain’s dominance of Ligue 1 has become a little tiresome for onlookers. France, after all, has some sizeable clubs that have made their mark on Europe – Olympique de Marseille (OM) is one such club. Champions League winners in 1993 and runners-up two years’ earlier, this is a club with a continental pedigree that PSG cannot currently buy. Only last season OM were beaten finalists in the Europa League.
OM have started the new season well, a resounding 4-0 victory against Toulouse. In terms of financial clout, OM are among the group immediately behind PSG, but the distance is considerable. Nevertheless, Marseille are viewed as one of the clubs that could make life difficult for the team from the capital in 2018-19.
Marseille is France’s second biggest city with a population of more than 850,000. Because of its location, it has always been one of the gateways into France. It has long had a crime problem, notably in the quartiers nords, a deprived area of the city where France football legend Zinedine Zidane grew up, on the La Castellaneestate. In this area are some of the poorest districts in mainland France.
Some people consider Marseille is to France what Naples is to Italy and, to a certain degree, what Liverpool is to England. In football terms, that can be roughly translated into passion, for OM are one of France’s best supported and most intense clubs. Where there is deprivation, there is invariably a huge obsession with football.
Marseille has some remarkable buildings, including Le Corbusier’s famous Unité d’habitation, an 18-storey concrete construction that was supposed to be a “machine for living”. But the building, or creation, that captures the imagination of Marseille’s sporting fraternity is the Stade Vélodrome, described by many as “the lungs of the city”.
As the name suggests, cycling was a feature of the stadium, but the slope that characterises a venue of this type was often used as a slide by fans to invade the pitch! The stadium, with its very notable roof, has been used every time France has hosted a major competition – 1938, 1960, 1984, 1998 and 2016.
OM’s glory days were in the 1990s. They won Ligue 1 in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992 and also reached those two European finals. Their star striker, Jean-Pierre Papin, was named European Footballer of the Year in 1991, and OM also broke new ground when they signed Tottenham’s Chris Waddle in 1989 for £ 4.5 million.
This was the era of Bernard Tapie, who became president in 1986 and spent heavily to build one of France’s best-ever club teams. As well as Waddle, OM signed big names like Germany’s Klaus Allofs, Uruguayan Enzo Francescoli, Ghana’s Abedi Pele, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps and one Eric Cantona. Tapie also lured top coaches like Franz Beckenbauer and Raymond Goethals to the club.
But in 1993, OM, and its President were involved in a bribery scandal that saw them stripped of the 1993 Ligue 1 title. Tapie spent six months in prison and the club suffered enforced relegation to Ligue 2. It didn’t take long for them to return to the top flight, but the reputational damage was considerable. In 1992-93, they were France’s best supported team with an average of 27,000 – by 1996, crowds had dropped to 17,000. However, once they were back in Ligue 1, OM were drawing big attendances once more, averaging 51,000 in 1998-99 when they finished runners-up to Bordeaux.
OM’s last Ligue 1 title was in 2009-10 when they finished six points ahead of Lyon. This was a team that included winger Hatem Ben Arfa, Senegalese striker Mamadou Niang, who topped the Ligue 1 scoring chart with 18 goals, influential Argentina midfielder Lucho Gonza and promising Zaire-born goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. Their manager was none other than Didier Deschamps. A few years later, OM appointed Marcelo Bielsa, who started well but his team faded and finished outside the top places. Bielsa left at the start of 2015-16 after contretemps with the club’s top drawer. Since 2016, Rudi Garcia has been in charge, joining from Roma.
PSG have sat astride French football ever since Qatari money started pouring in, with their playing budget way ahead of the rest of Ligue 1. In 2018-19, PSG’s wage bill is reputedly € 540 million, whereas OM’s comes in at € 175 million. Lyon have the second highest at € 285 million and Monaco third with € 215 million.
In 2017-18, OM finished fourth and, of course, reached the final of the UEFA Europa League, where they were beaten 3-0 by Atlético Madrid. On the way, they disposed of the Red Bull duo, Salzburg and Leipzig, and Athletic Bilbao. Star striker Dimitri Payet, was injured early on – should he have continued, the result may have been different. Payet made his name at the club and his desire to return when he departed West Ham, was based on his love for OM. Leading scorer in 2017-18, however, was Florian Thauvin, with 22 goals, who managed to get 60 seconds on the field in France’s World Cup campaign in Russia!
In the summer of 2018, OM’s activity in the transfer market has been limited, but the transfer window is still open in France, so new faces could still arrive by the end of August. Indeed, Nigerian international Mikel Agu (Porto), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), John Terry (ex-Aston Villa), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Mario Balotelli (Nice) and Simone Zaza (Valencia) have all been linked with the club.
As mentioned, Marseille’s opening game saw them comprehensively beat Toulouse, with Payet (2), Valère Germain and Thauvin scoring the goals in front of 60,000 people. They have Nimes away next and have a tricky away fixture at Monaco on September 1. They don’t come face-to-face with PSG until October 27 when they welcome the title favourites to the Vélodrome for the first Le Classique of the season.
As for Europe, OM will play their first Europa League behind closed doors owing to crowd problems last season. In fact, the club has a suspended one-year ban, so they will be carefully watched by UEFA and if their fans misbehave over the next two seasons, they will be banned from any European competition they quality for. Their next home game in Europe, in the group stage of the Europa League, will be played behind closed doors. Furthermore, they have been fined € 100,000 and have been told to pay any damages inflicted by their fans at Lyon’s stadium at the Europa final last season. With passion, sometimes, comes excess.
With players like Payet, Germain, Thauvin and Luiz Gustavo, OM have a good chance of sustaining a challenge at the top of Ligue 1. The wallet of PSG will always be a major obstacle – OM have not beaten the Les Parisiens since 2011-12 in Ligue 1. A win against their old rivals would be a start…
Photo: Cedric SF Via flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)