Marseille’s African venture is bold, but what of the future?

OLYMPIQUE MARSEILLE (OM) are the only French team to have won the European Champions League and they happen to be the best supported club in Ligue 1. Marseille is a classic football city, full of passion that can overheated at times, a cosmopolitan place, colourful and edgy and a little extreme. The events of the past week around OM show what happens when the tension breaks, from the storming of the training ground to the reaction of coach André Villas-Boas and his employer.

Marseille are off the pace in Ligue 1 this season and the fans are unhappy, not just with the performance of the team, but also with the club’s owner, Frank McCourt, who was rumoured to be on the verge of selling OM to the same Saudi Arabian investor that wanted to purchase Newcastle United. McCourt has, once again, denied this is the case, but this story will just not go away. 

In a press release issued on February 5, McCourt said: “My commitment to OM, its employees, the City and the people of Marseille is total. I will remain, along with the entire management of OM and its President, Jacques-Henri Eyraud, committed to seeing this project through to the end. We owe it to OM and its history, past, present and future. I also wonder about the origin of these repeated campaigns of disinformation and wonder who benefits from these manipulations”.

Meanwhile, OM’s troubled season, which actually started quite reasonably, got worse with a 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain. They have now lost six of their last 10 games.

The empty stands at the Velodrome clearly advertise the OM Africa campaign that was launched in December 2019. The continent has long been an attractive place to pick-up promising talent and OM themselves have benefitted from the city’s close association with Africa. Players like Abedi Pele, George Weah and Didier Drogba are just three of the many past OM players who have emerged from Africa.

OM are hoping to leverage African football for two main benefits – to attract new fans to the OM brand and also to develop young talent. The club reckons there are close to four million fans on social networks across Africa that can be tapped into. OM are a relatively popular club but the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have a much stronger level of awareness among football fans in French-speaking Africa. OM have also opened soccer schools in Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. The project is also concerned with educational development and social programmes.

One of their most innovative ideas was to unveil spectacularly colourful leisure wear in the form of art-influenced shirts reflecting the colours of some African countries. Doubtless these are now highly sought-after products among shirt collectors. This has undoubtedly helped to increase OM merchandise sales in Africa.

Finding good value young talent may be an important element in the OM Africa programme. OM lost € 91 million in 2018-19  – the biggest loss in French football history – and one can only assume things will be worse when the 2019-20 figures are made public. The club’s wage bill in 2018-19 was 98% of income and their accumulated losses since 2016-17 amount to € 212 million. OM have committed to limit losses to € 30 million for 2019-20, but the pandemic may have made that target unrealistic. There’s no doubt that this level of losses and wage to income ratios are unsustainable.

OM have disappeared from view in reports that rank clubs by their financial performance, but 10 years ago, they were in the top 20 of Deloitte’s Football Money League. At the same time, from winning Ligue 1 in 2009-10, they have been pushed into the shadows by the rise of their arch-rivals Paris Saint-Germain. Last season, they finished runners-up for the third time in 10 years, but they were 10 points behind PSG.

The club’s financial challenges means spotting and nurturing talent will be an important part of OM’s future – that’s where their African venture can surely deliver benefits.

French Ligue 1 clubs have an average of almost six players from Africa in their first team squads in 2020-21, with Metz and Dijon employing 15 and 12 respectively. Senegal, which has around 200 players around Europe, has roughly 20 playing in Ligue 1. Algeria, Mali and Ivory Coast are among the leading player exporters to France.

OM believe that Africa should be a prime target market and as such, they are attempting to reach out to various countries across the continent in order to connect on an emotional and cultural level. There are 150,000 people in the Marseille area with African ties. The city has always had a high level of diversity and today, around 38% of the population are Catholic, 25% Muslim, 7% Protestant and 5% Jewish. Approximately 40% of under-18 year olds in Marseille are of North African origin. All over the city, the North African influence is very evident.

There is another cloud on the horizon and that is the future of OM’s ground, the Stade Vélodrome, which the local mayor, Benoît Payan has said he wants to sell as it costs the city too much money. He has said he would sell it to OM if they want it.

Once the future of André Villas-Boas has been established, OM will probably need a new coach. Media reports suggest that Maurizio Sarri, another former Chelsea manager, has rejected preliminary enquiries from the club.

What will it take to return Marseille to somewhere near the top of French football? This is a huge club, they have the raw material to be a European giant, but they have to stop losing money. Whether they can achieve that under the current administration remains to be seen, but any potential new owner will be aware that a club with a regular 50,000 audience, passionate backing and a hotbed of a city can achieve a whole lot more. The link-up with Africa could play an important role in that mission.

Photo: PA Images

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