Doused with the decorum of Côte d'Azur serenity, France’s second city has emitted a staunchly entitled attitude throughout its chartered sporting history. Long had they been an institution – in Olympique de Marseille – that appeared blessed with fortune, yet their past has not been without its many tribulations, particularly so heavily burdened on its fans. The most recent of these inflicted by persistent and unbending owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus (née Bogdanova), who inherited ownership as the second wife of the Franco-Swiss businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus – 16 years her senior – after the former Adidas CEO’s 2009 death, a remarkable recovery has since been staged under the buyout of the Los Angeles-based American real estate magnate, philanthropist and sports enthusiast Frank McCourt, bringing them again to 3rd in the present 2017-18 Ligue 1 table and primed for a long-overdue Champions League return. No stranger to the fallibilities of a high-profile franchise, given his prior involvement in the L.A Dodgers baseball team, his current ownership of the commercial property of the L.A Marathon and a failed 2002 bid to purchase the Boston Red Sox – ousted by current Liverpool owners John W. Henry and Tom Werner, alongside then-Red Sox President Larry Lucchino – Boston-born McCourt, certainly as the first overseas, and more poignantly non-European, majority shareholder, assumed a mantle that few would have envied at the time. Nonetheless, instilling reforms that have led, at least partially and for the consistent period of this season, to a reassertion of regional prominence, an American regime has aided the recovery of an empire previously festering in all of the revolutionary distaste commonly associated with the local populace.
Sustainability, the true fulfilment of potential and ethics inevitably arise as the inquiries at this decisive stage. Yet for all of these questions, we must also appreciate the extremely unlikely factors that have aligned to reach even this phase of development, so relatively early in any ownership project. Aligning poetically, and with certain political distinctions, with the 2014 selection of the French Riviera city as 2017 European Capital of Sport – only the 17th edition of the European Union-derived title, following in the footsteps of former victors Madrid, Milan and Istanbul – l’OM’s charge, after all, has been driven by what, upon the naïve gaze of a cynical Englishman, are a band of misfits and rejects. Head coach Rudi García, McCourt’s first appointment in October 2016 after the disentangling of contract ties with AS Roma, had been dismissed disharmoniously eight months earlier from bright beginnings in the Italian capital, and was followed by the signings of Champions League veterans Kostas Mitroglou, Luis Gustavo and Adil Rami, the shrewd recruitment of AS Monaco striker Valère Germain and the recapture of failed Premier League imports Steve Mandanda and Florent Thauvin, who were originally victims of a wage budget cull enacted by Louis-Dreyfus alongside Michy Batshuayi and Nicolas N’Koulou. Add to this the outlay on Dimitri Payet’s acrimonious return as the flagship move of the ‘OM Champions’ project, Clinton N’Jie’s permanent signature, the relative coup of young midfielder Morgan Sanson and what has recently amounted to a fruitless recruitment of former national team captain Patrice Evra, and the recipe for either an egotistic swarm of García’s dressing room or a romantic alignment has forged to see the latter, presently, to realisation.
García is no shrinking violet himself, of course. To defy the status quo of Ligue 1 and Serie A in an offensively-fixated approach has separated the Frenchman, of Spanish descent, as a coach not afraid of breaking with tradition and forging an individual stance, regardless of the local environs. While at Lille, this reputation first gained recognition, yet long before his 2008 appointment in North East France he had steered Paris’ non-league L’AS Corbeil-Essonnes from relegation certainty to promotion candidacy in the mid-1990s before moving into physiotherapy and scouting roles, plying his trade at the turn of the millennium for Saint-Étienne. One of many continental coaches to flourish as assistant manager to John Toshack, the main managerial role was thrust upon him midway through the 2000-01 season alongside player-co-manager Jean-Guy Wallemme, but the pair were unable to halt the club’s slide to Ligue 2 and left in the summer. At that stage, such was the unexpected but cash-strapped nature of the appointment that García was in fact without his French Football Federation (FFF) professional coaching badges, yet when claiming his licences a year later positions at Dijon, from 2002 until 2007, and later Le Mans – 2007-08 – followed; expectations to stave off Ligue 1 relegation, after promotion with the former in 2003-04, transformed into a stable, and highly respectable, mid-table reality and cup semi-final appearances with the former in the Coupe de France and for the latter in the Coupe de la Ligue. Replicating the five seasons in Dijon occupation with a landmark aforementioned Lille role, in which he built on the groundwork of predecessor Claude Puel – who made the natural progression after six admirable seasons to depart to Lyon – and owner Michel Seydoux’s investment in a new training complex, a promising career was taken to new heights; 56 years after the club’s last trophy, lifting both the 2010-11 Ligue 1 and Coupe de France with the prodigious Eden Hazard, prolific pairing of Moussa Sow and Gervinho and creative force of Yohan Cabaye brought to the fore.
Qualification for the Champions League earned him his time in Rome, and consecutive runners-up finishes in Serie A, although on both occasions trailing Juventus by 17 points, only cemented his pedigree as someone who was able and willing to progress any side within his remit beyond the restrictions faced by predecessors, and has since been proven, successors. Had it not been for the manner of his dismissal from the Stadio Olimpico – parting ways with I Giallorossi under the cloud of a Coppa Italia defeat to Serie B side Spezia, and with designs on a third-season title falling to the wayside from early-season dominance in 2015-16 – one may have considered his time to have arrived for a grapple with one of the truly eminent positions in the global game. Not, necessarily, a Marseille side who had languished down in 13th position the previous season, suffocated by Louis-Dreyfus’ financial stranglehold and without any serious glimmers of hope. Then again, it speaks volumes for his character – bravado, possibly – that García would be so inspired to take the revolutionary burden upon his proud shoulders.
To be brutally honest, however, this is not a club that such a bleak situation, and reformist task, should have afflicted. Champions League victors in 1993, in the first season in which such a title was adopted by UEFA, and a formative edition also in respects of the final being hosted in a truly unified Germany and the introduction of many post-Yugoslav and Soviet dissolution states to a tinkered competition, the perennially Adidas-tied institution had lost the European Cup final two years earlier in an equally iconic kit to a generation-defining Red Star Belgrade outfit. Over this short period, the recruitment of Rudi Völler, Didier Deschamps, Fabien Barthez, Frank Sauzée and Alen Bokšić in place of Ballon d’Or winner Jean-Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle, Pascal Olmeta, Jean Tigana and Eric Cantona, as ushered in by enigmatic Belgian manager Raymond Goethals, had forged an environment sufficiently cleansed to support the first successful French continental competition campaign. Amidst the elation of the day, however, utter despondence, both within the club and the wider French footballing establishment, soon festered with allegations towards chairman Bernard Tapie of bribes directed towards relegation-threatened Valenciennes players in a Ligue 1 match the week prior to the Olympiastadion final against AC Milan, in which the league title could be sealed with a victory and thus reduce concerns of a tight championship battle with Paris Saint-Germain persisting throughout action in the biggest match in the club’s history. With the jurisdiction of the FFF, who it must be said were under mass commercial pressure, the decision was eventually taken – after the entirety of the 1993-94 Ligue 1 season, when, fortunately, PSG rose to deny Les Olympiens a consecutive title, but the side Goethals opted to quickly disassociate himself with was prevented from returning to European Cup action – to relegate the club into Ligue 2 for the 1994-95 season.
It was at that point that Robert Louis-Dreyfus first descended upon the club, and replaced the commendable old guard that had reinstated first division action, including the prolific cult hero Tony Cascarino, with a superpowered vanguard led by Robert Pirès, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Christian Dugarry, Laurent Blanc and Andreas Köpke. Sustaining regular continental appearances without ever setting Ligue 1 alight, their challenge did amount to a 1999 UEFA Cup Final defeat to an even more star-studded Parma side – littered with the lauded monikers of Buffon, Cannavaro, Thuram, Verón, Crespo and Asprilla – and yet another runners-up finish, of a newly emergent generation prising Didier Drogba, Mathieu Flamini and Habib Beye (oh what could have been) in the 2003-04 edition to the hands of Valencia as various regimes entered and passed through the port city. Louis-Dreyfus, exasperated after a decade’s chairmanship, may have sold the club to Canadian prospector Jack Kachkar in 2007, yet remained to bankroll the club’s first major titles – an insignificant 2005 Intertoto Cup honour, as one of three winners, aside – in 2010, with a March Coupe de la League triumph swiftly followed by a Ligue 1 title, and consecutive titles in the 2011 Coupe de la League and both 2010 and 2011 Trophée des Champions. Former captain Deschamps was the key instigator of this reinvigorated haul in a tenure that would ultimately earn him his promotion to French national team manager, yet it was tempered at the time in consideration of the lacking quality behind Parisian and Monacan efforts. This was a time when Montpellier could lift Ligue 1 with a storming season of glorious unpredictability, after all.
The “shot in the arm of French football” proclaimed by Montpellier boss René Girard after his side’s defensively commanding, but Olivier Giroud-galvanised, 2011-12 season mastery, however, would soon by answered by a now-infamous economic, and geopolitically conspicuous, revolution at their closest challengers that term; PSG. Girard’s sentiment that “money isn’t the be-all and end-all” of Ligue 1 success, ultimately, proved a naïve rhetoric; Louis-Dreyfus’ declining health, and wife Margarita’s expanding influence, restricting capabilities on the Mediterranean coast, while L.A-based real estate firm Colony Capital, when acquiring a majority stake in the French capital, reduced the transfer ambition and expenditures of the then-two-time French champions and seven-time Coupe de France victors. With Qatari sponsorship overwhelming PSG, and the uninspiring recruitment chiefly consisting of expired talents Claude Makélélé and Grégory Coupet, tepid Ligue 1-based entities Mathieu Bodmer, Siaka Tiéné and Nenê, despite the Brazilian’s future goalscoring exploits, and the main outlay, embarrassingly in retrospect, on Stéphane Sessègnon, soon the Saint-Denis-based outfit would usurp all competition as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edison Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Maxwell, Alex, Thiago Motta, Javier Pastore, Gregory van der Wiel, Lucas Moura and of course David Beckham – an entire starting XI of intensely commercially viable assets – were drafted in during an emphatic charge to national supremacy. For only the third time since PSG’s 1970 formation, and following in the ilk of 1960’s/’70s Saint-Étienne and 2000s Lyon dominance, a consistency and status quo would be introduced to French competition with cynically-motivated Oryx Qatar Sports Investment expense; for better or for worse.
This is where McCourt, though unable to compete obviously with the funds effectively of an entire oil-rich state’s sporting ministry, and Monaco tycoon Dmitri Rybolovleva, daughter Ekaterina and 33.33% shareholders of Italian-Monacan aristocratic House of Grimaldi heritage – headed by Albert II Prince of Monaco – intervene. While spearheaded by the investment of one of the richest Russians and wealthiest global monarchs, the Stade Louis II-based side defied Parisian rule in rather ironic 2016-17 season circumstances, given the wealth once accumulated in the French capital by the monarchy long since dismissed. There is no doubt, consequently, that Ligue 1 is, indeed, dictated by economics; there will never be another Montpellier rising again, not at least until drastic FFF reforms are implemented into the commercial equity of exposure, and a significantly firmer, and potentially irreparably divisive, line taken with Financial Fair Play by UEFA. It was at least partly attributable to Monacan prowess, in emerging as key contenders to PSG’s dominance, after all, that a social, or in other perspectives antisocial, Marseille revolution was sparked to depose of Louis-Dreyfus, who had soon come to be portrayed as an unsympathetic despot grasping heedlessly onto power and fortune, while condemning the club to the absolute opposite.
No longer, in an acutely competitive modern marketplace, can the club afford to operate under thumb of an investor more inclined to accumulate wealth from the comfort of their yacht deck when cast away on the resplendent, shimmering Med than to pursue the reinvigoration of trophy-spinning achievements. This has been made abundantly evident in recent seasons, and fortunately has now been recognised by the club’s internal hierarchy. While in McCourt they may not possess the most ethically admirable of stakeholders – real estate fortunes only demonstrating the capitalist ruthlessness typified with all self-respecting American businessman, while amidst his 2010-11 divorce proceedings with wife Jamie (poignantly, as a high-profile Republican-voting businesswoman, the newly-appointed U.S Ambassador to France and Monaco under Donald Trump) the fate of his L.A Dodgers team was under serious threat of bankruptcy – there is certainly no comparison between the distinction of the amoral construction of a slave labour-forged Qatari utopia, and the numerous ecological controversies of Rybolovleva’s potash empire, nor his involvement in the 2016 Panama Papers exposé or late 1990s 11-month prison sentence, and later acquittal, for the McMafia-esque contract killing of a post-Soviet dissolution era business rival. What Les Phocéens do indeed occupy as a club, now, is a position from which to capitalise on the potential scandals, and subsequent conceivable withdrawals or forced ownership evacuations, of either administration set to qualify for Champions League football alongside them.
McCourt, his locally-placed ally and club President Jacques-Henri Eyraud – certainly an interesting character of his own, given a career that began with Harvard education, soon followed with press officer work for the French military service during the Gulf War and Euro Disney, and has aged with various CEO work with national sporting publications – and the wider Marseille institution, however, will have to be wary of the consolidation of PSG-Monaco, and potentially Lyon, financial pre-eminence regardless of ownership group in future, with framework and infrastructures unquestionable in their solidity. Thus, what this present administration must ensure is the instillation of a legacy, and a sustainable product that unifies local fervour and internal talent development to forge a profitable future. The first step in such an aspirational, and requisite, programme has been evident with the appointment of Andoni “Zubi” Zubizarreta; still the fourth-ranked all-time appearance maker in the history of the Spanish national team, a six-time La Liga victor in the span of 11 seasons between 1982-83 and 1993-94 with Atlético Madrid and later Barcelona, where in a manner of poeticism he lifted the final incarnation of the European Cup, twelve months prior to his current employers’ 1993 Champions League triumph. As a former Director of Football at Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, naturally, and the engineer of both the ambitious Atlético foundations that predated Diego Simeone and moves that delivered Alexis Sánchez, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitić, Neymar and Luis Suarez to Barça, he is presumably perfectly suited to assume the same role just 500km’s drive through Catalonia and across to the maritime heart of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, and is no stranger to the expectation of the position having succeeded his lauded former club and country teammate Txiki Begiristain at the Camp Nou.
Competing – given the absence of any distinguishable technical authority aside from Leonardo Jardim’s management team at Monaco – only with the inexperienced Maxwell, post-retirement, in what appears to be within the Brazilian’s remit as PSG Sporting Coordinator, and sexagenarians Bernard Lacombe and Marino Faccioli as ‘Special Adviser’ and Sporting Director, respectively, at Olympique Lyonnais, Zubizarreta was a canny appointment by McCourt et al., and a relative coup at that. Alongside García, and the Frenchman’s long-term assistant loyalists Frédéric Bompard and Claude Fichaux, Zubi surely completes the most widely-envied managerial unit in the entire Ligue 1, and possibly, outside of England, Spain, Germany and Italy, in the entire footballing universe.
Inevitably, though, one has to query how long such fortune will last. When their patience, as elite figures, will elapse is entirely dependent on the reciprocal application of both ownership and playing staff, who it is easy to conclude would surely remain languishing in mid-table were it not for the Spanish-derived duo’s composed and studious influence. It is not fortune, nor a profit from the mere circumstances laid in front of them, that has delivered such commendable performances for each side they have graced, either; these are the figures that define an adapting generation, potentially blazing a trail in France for the administration of club football that can both challenge the continental elite and sustain the French national side for years to come. For all of the renowned independent streak of García, he certainly personifies the sentiment of a new age, and has laid foundations that vastly benefit each environment in which he operates; if anything, more outstanding than any of the accomplishments at a club so lavished with unparalleled resources as Unai Emery’s PSG.
Though both exerting somewhat of a Spanish influence over Ligue 1 in recent seasons, there is no doubt Emery and Garcia act as one another’s philosophical and practical antithesis at the height of national competition. With one engrossed by results – the inevitability of such a high-stakes environment – and the other by resilience and gradual, sustainable progress, few comparisons can be reliably touted surrounding their adversarial framing. This season alone encapsulates their contrast in riches and attainment, with the former – bolstered immeasurably by the record-shattering captures of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé – storming to titles, while the latter encountered, and recovered from, a league opening unbefitting of such an ambitious outfit; two defeats, including an ill-disciplined 6-1 away thrashing at the hands of Monaco, and two draws suffered before their GW10 meeting with Emery’s contingent. Since the duo’s 2-2 tie in late October – in which Cavani grabbed an added-time equaliser for the visitors to the Stade Vélodrome just minutes after Neymar’s second booking – however, it has been Garcia’s side that profited most eminently; only stuttering from their winning slalom with a single defeat at Lyon and draws away at hostile contenders Bordeaux, Montpellier and Saint-Étienne, and at home against the defending champions.
The project that aligns McCourt, García, Zubizarreta and every other vital individual in the wider cognate kin, however, is not centred on individualism, egotism and rivalry. Their efforts are undoubtedly focused on the reinstallation of a pride long since visible, but harboured deep within club confines. While of course each recognises their time on the Mediterranean coast will not be eternal, and that the opportunity for personal fortune or superior future employment is prevalent, such is the inherent nature of acutely commercialised competition; their intentions do appear genuine and reliably-placed. Providing they do maintain their employment, for lack of outrageous blunder or scandal, for a significant period in the club’s history, the ability to overcome the feared establishment and economic elite in PSG and Monaco, not only in cup action but most pivotally in Ligue 1, could conceivably emerge. The practices of this season must be studied and not only consolidated, but also broadened, in the very ideology – be it the ‘OM Champions’ transfer scheme or otherwise – of a new Marseille professing ancient values. They will not financially overpower their Parisian or Monacan adversaries, and possess full knowledge and pragmatism in respect of this fact. Their spirit, however, may go a great deal further than any mere turn of a gilded hand can, and while the infrastructures and skills possessed by Unai Emery and Leonardo Jardim’s outfits are by no means to be underappreciated, it has not been a historic rarity to witness the internal schism and implosion of any great financial monopoly.
For any side to break a concerted domestic dominance, a revolution may not be so necessary, but certainly an evolution of ambition, pragmatism, financial sensibility and general psychological cohesion. Of any side in the primary bracket of historic French challengers to return silverware to the hands of the people – the real people – why not Marseille? As the first of the ilk of Saint-Étienne, Lyon, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille and Nice to produce a genuinely sustained title challenge – the latter, also close neighbours, having fallen away after last season’s inspiration, while Lyon have chuntered along without every truly threatening the new establishment – theirs is an enviable current position. Never far from disaster in their preceding heritage, however, a cultural change may be challenging to impose. One can never shirk heritage, and in the city of Marseille they have within their roots a system built on chauvinism, elitism and cosmopolitanism; though adapting every so slightly in the modern age. These are qualities that they may be able to harness, but equally can hinder their cause on the national stage if retreated overzealously to. Temper this with the experience and philosophy of learned external imports, and they may produce soon a perfect chemistry. If uncertainty consumed the club as the current regime entered, though, there remains much to prove in coming years. Any Olympique response, regardless, may be based on the stereotyped adage; c’est la vie, mes amis. C’est. la. vie.
Vive la Marseille!
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!