was successfully added to your cart.

For the rabid and often crazy fans of Marseille, going too far is not far enough

At any other stadium in the world, is there a stand named after a fan?  Take a seat in the Virage Norde of Stade Vélodrome in Marseille and you’ll find yourself in the Tribune Patrice de Péretti. There you’ll be surrounded by the 3,000 members of Marseille’s most raucous, intimidating Ultras: MTP, for Marseille Trop Puissant (“Marseille, all powerful”). De Péretti, or Depé, was their founder, their talisman, their bare-chested hero. Olympique de Marseille’s club scarf loosely knotted around his neck, megaphone in hand, exploding flares punctuating his exhortations to the crowd, he stood as a reminder of his club’s uniqueness in the usually placid landscape of French football—mad, bad, and sometimes dangerous.

88_04_C_SPREADS_HIRES

This article originally appeared in issue 04—if you like what you see, consider subscribing via our shop.

The same could be said of the city itself, as the first-time visitor senses as soon as he exits the monumental Saint Charles station, built in 1848 on a promontory that oversees a vast carapace of plum-and-custard roofs. Life here bubbles and sizzles like in no other city in France. It is a bewitching mess, both ancient (the Greek Massalia was founded in the 6th century BC) and thrillingly young. Marseille—the age-old door to the Mediterranean populated by migrants, refugees, hoods, and fishermen—speaks and sings with a voice not everyone finds pleasant. It is strident and speaks out of turn; cacophonous, not fugal.

The city is home to France’s craziest club, and it couldn’t be otherwise. The Marseillais wouldn’t have it any other way. “Proud to be Marseillais” is a popular slogan here. Eric Cantona, who grew up in one of the town’s inner villages, was happy to display it on a T-shirt despite his falling out with the OM fans when his rebelliousness set him on a collision course with the club’s hierarchy in the late 1980s. A Marseillais is a Frenchman, true. But France will always come a distant second in the loyalty stakes.

It was in October 1989, on one of his first visits to the Vélodrome, that the teenaged De Péretti had been awed by the fervor of visiting AEK fans. A hundred or so had made the trip from Athens, and they’d nearly managed to silence one of France’s most passionate set of supporters. What struck DePéretti was that the Greeks had dispensed with the replica shirts most fans in Europe had adopted as match-day uniforms. Bare skin was a more potent emblem of their love for AEK.

The young Marseillais swore that he’d follow their example wherever he went to support his own club. His fortitude was tested in March 1993, when Marseille travelled to Berlin for a Champions League game against CSKA Moscow. The temperature was -12C. De Péretti took his shirt off, as usual, and conducted his choir of fans as if it were a balmy Provençal evening. The image of the skinny fada orchestrating Marseillais mayhem in the frozen stand was as much a symbol of OM’s eventual triumph as Basile Boli’s celebration when he headed the decisive goal in the final a couple of months later. De Péretti instantly acquired quasi-mythical status. The club’s then-president, Bernard Tapie, offered Depé his commemorative medal. Invited to lift the trophy in the victory celebrations at the Vélodrome, De Peretti received as loud an ovation as did any of the players. Depé was 28 when a burst aneurysm killed him on July 28, 2000. He had missed, as one friend put it, “fewer Marseille games, home or away, than Django Reinhardt had fingers on his right hand.” Each year on July 28, OM fans hold a memorial for their departed leader.

What OM’s founder, René Dufaure de Montmirail, would have made of the monster revered by De Péretti and his “brothers,” heaven only knows. OM started—in 1899—as a circle of aristocratic gentlemen who enjoyed fencing and billiards as well as association football and rugger, their first team sport of choice. The team took less than three decades to become one of France’s most successful sides, winning five French Cups and a First Division League title before the Second World War, moving to the purpose-built Vélodrome in 1937; but only in the 1960s, when Marcel Leclerc, the owner of a media group, became its chairman, did OM acquired its modern, confusing identity.

By 1965, like so many prominent French sides of the 1920s and 1930s—Sète, Racing—Marseille (title-less since 1948) had slipped so far that they had become an irrelevance. The club had no resources, no leadership, no support. On April 23, 1965, a Coupe de France tie against US Forbach attracted exactly 434 paying spectators in a stadium that could hold a hundred times more. OM were bumped from the competition by an amateur side from Corsica.

But Leclerc sensed an opportunity, and used his wealth to build a team that, within five years, would become one of the most exciting and captivating in European football. Leclerc himself was a captivating man. He had the face of a kind-hearted crook you wouldn’t mind being swindled by. I was only a child, but I remember that face clearly—the eyebrows, the sideburns, the big smile; even the voice. He was having a ball, and it showed. In 1969, he promised to jump into the Vieux Port—the magnificent old harbor of Marseille—if his team won the Cup. He didn’t chicken out when OM beat Girondins de Bordeaux 2-0 in Colombes.

88_04_C_SPREADS_HIRES copy 2

If Saint Etienne was the team favored by purists, not to say puritans, Marseille represented imagination, daring, undreamt-of possibilities. They had Croatian striker Josip Skoblar (44 goals in the 1970-71 league season, beat that if you can—nobody has in France, yet). They had Roger Magnusson, the Swedish magician, a dream of a winger who added new equations to the geometry of dribbling in every game he played. Yes, they were exciting, genuinely so.

They were also dodgy, as anyone who’s seen The French Connection or read Jean-Claude Izzo’s thrillers might have suspected. Marseille lived on the cusp, overflowing with energy, too willing to yield to hazardous temptations, as Leclerc did. It wasn’t that serious—a murky affair of diverting funds from the club to one of his companies, a fiddle rather than a crime—but he was forced to resign, at a time when OM were about to become more than an irritant for Europe’s top clubs. He was succeeded by another flamboyant figure, Fernand Meric, a would-be matinee idol in the late 1930s who made millions running movie theatres and was better known for his extravagant parties at the Cannes festival than for his love of football.

It was a typical Marseillais scenario, reprised by Bernard Tapie a decade later on a much, much bigger stage. Ah, Tapie: Parisian, not Marseillais, failed crooner, TV salesman, racing driver, asset-stripper, captain of industry, witness suborner, convict, stage and film actor, member of parliament, government minister, friend of Nicolas Sarkozy. He was Monsieur Marseille, the man who brought the European Cup to OM (some would take the ‘r’ away from “brought”). The man who’s risen and fallen and risen again more often than an aspiring starlet from a sleazy director’s couch, who’s lived more lives than a cat, the phoenix who—despite his taste for litigation—has inspired a dozen biographies, not all of them hagiographic.

In Marseille, football has always been willing to welcome politicians in its often-visited bed. Whoever controlled the town hall had to have OM on its side. Whoever controlled OM had to appease the town hall, and ideally run it. Tapie loved the game only slightly less than he loved power. He has always denied that he considered Marseille a means to an end, the ideal springboard from which to launch—ultimately—a bid for the country’s presidency. Not everyone has been convinced.

He was, however, a perfect fit for the club he bought for a dime in 1986, at the suggestion of writer Edmonde Charles-Roux, widow of the former Socialist mayor of Marseille, Gaston Deferre. Like Leclerc, but with far greater means at his disposal, Tapie embarked on an ambitious program of recruitment that transformed OM and stunned even their most optimistic supporters, who’d seen their bankrupt club demoted to the second division in 1981. OM’s miraculous rebirth ensured that its savior would always enjoy immunity in his adopted city, regardless of the allegations (of corruption, doping, intimidation) that dogged him, and the misdemeanors that finally landed him in jail in the mid-1990s.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the era of Papin, Stojkovic, Cantona, Völler, Waddle, Boksic, Abedi Pelé, Deschamps, Goethals, Beckenbauer, an era dazzling, glamorous, and suspect. Tapie had charm to spare, and was a virtuoso at using it. Journalists were fed caviar on his magnificent yacht. Champagne flowed. A couple of hundred miles down the road, Arsène Wenger fumed in his Monaco office, convinced he was fighting against much more than a club, fighting against a deeply corrupt system that enticed and threatened outsiders in equal measure. He would be vindicated in 1995, when an investigation into an attempt by OM to fix a League game against Valenciennes two years earlier brought about Tapie’s downfall. But only temporary downfall: Tapie again served as club chairman in 2001. Only in Marseilles.

Now 71, Tapie is no longer active in football and has turned into a bizarre sort of national monument (of the lovable rogue kind), a regular on television talk shows. But the system he put in place at OM is still largely intact, and—despite the efforts of his successors—has proved very difficult to dismantle. This explains why what should be the most desirable property in French football, potentially a member of the European super-elite (given the size of the city, the club’s popularity outside its limits, and its history), will have to wait a long time before an emir, an oligarch, or an investment fund will sink millions into it. Marseille, the best-supported club in the country, far more than PSG, is virtually unsellable due to the influence yielded by its five official groups of ultras which, taken together, claim a membership of over 15,000 match-goers.

Tapie had understood how much he stood to gain by cultivating their support, and granted them the unique privilege of overseeing ticket sales, of which they retain a cut. This arrangement, unique in European football, does not significantly harm the overall finances of the club. That said, it’s easy to conceive what kind of excesses it has led to, especially given the links with less salubrious components of Marseillais society, which is not renowned for its salubrity to start with. Tapie, to assert his rule, had gambled on transferring some control to the club’s foot soldiers, his de facto private army; and while he eventually lost power, they did not. The history of Marseille since has been marked by animosity and, at times, near-warfare between its owners and the Ultras, who cannot be uprooted.

The current OM regime could not possibly follow the example of Barca, Real Madrid, and PSG, all of whom chose to evict the “loonie fringe” from their stadiums in the recent past, as this would undoubtedly provoke a violent response from these fanatical groups, which consider themselves, with some justification, to be the real custodians of Marseille’s identity, for better and worse. De Peretti was no angel. But he was OM. Doing without the Ultras in hopes of gathering a new, untainted fan base would be less like performing a blood transfusion than like slitting one’s wrists.

This is not to say that the current regime has not tried to restore some sanity. The present owner, Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, is the widow of billionaire businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus, who died of leukemia in July 2009. She’s been looking for a buyer ever since but, unsurprisingly, has failed to find one for the club in which her husband had ploughed over €200m after his takeover—at the behest of the local authority, once again—in 1996. The late Louis-Dreyfus, who’d purchased Adidas in 1993, saw OM as a building block in the strategy he’d devised for the troubled German sports manufacturer, who could feel Nike breathing down its neck. His aim, he said, was to become the kit supplier of “at least one ‘mythical’ club in each country.” But he got sucked into the Marseille quagmire, and found out that the first fires he’d have to extinguish would be at home. For once, the card sharp had been guilty of naiveté: these fires are still smoldering.

Fan power, which means something quite different in Marseille than in Munich, was only part of the problem. Tapie had chewed and spat out a number of managers, and Louis-Dreyfus had done the same. Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment earlier this year was the thirty-sixth change at Marseille in less than twenty eight years. Notwithstanding this carousel of coaches (whose power, with few exceptions, was mostly restricted to the training ground), some names come up again and again at OM. José Anigo served as sports director, general manager, and head coach before he was appointed OM’s chief scout for Africa and left his native Marseille for Morocco last May. This was a not-so-gentle push towards the exit door after Anigo’s two decades of string-pulling in the Green Room.

His departure was not unanimously regretted. He’d been the link between the pre-Tapie Marseille and the Marseille of today; he’d also been an albatross around the club’s reputation. His love of OM was undeniable, but so were his links to Marseilles’ underworld. “This city eats its own children,” he told a reporter after his son, Adrien, was shot dead in broad daylight on September 5, 2013. Two bullets, one to the head, one to the throat; 9mm, the signature of professionals. The killers, who fled on a motorbike, haven’t been caught, and won’t be. That same reporter noticed that Anigo’s villa in Aubagne, sitting atop a hill overlooking that beautiful, fucked-up city, was equipped with bullet-proof windows.

Adrien Anigo was presumed to have been a member of the so-called Jewellers’ Gang, which specialized in armed robberies on the Riviera; he’d been let off previously, on a technicality. He’d settled down, got married, and had two children. The father who was left to grieve his murdered son counts as one of his childhood friends the gangster Richard Deruda, himself the father of Thomas, a part-time player at OM between 2005 and 2009 and now a semi-pro midfielder for GS Consolat, in the suburbs of that Marseilles.

Childhood friends: these are the bonds that tie you growing up in Marseilles, bonds you can’t escape unless you escape the town itself. What follows, expletives deleted, is from an intercepted phone conversation between Anigo and Deruda, in the winter of 2013, as obtained by French radio station RMC from the state prosecutor: “José, you’re blowing up my lid [driving me mad]. I think that if I were next to you, I think I’d do something stupid. I don’t know fear in problems like these. Football, when it suits you, eh? Wait until I refresh your memory.”

What was Deruda talking about? No one is sure. There’s been so much talk around the club, for so long, about transfers, commissions, small and not-so small favors demanded from those who fall into debt, or who just want to keep in with the game. For every person who wants to look into the matter, another ten seem willing to look away.

This is where Bielsa, El Loco, has found a home today. The headline practically wrote itself when he became OM’s manager: Un fou chez les fadas (“nutcases”). It’s as if the Argentinian had sought and been granted asylum. Unlike every one of his predecessors, Bielsa has no link with what took place before he took over. Didier Deschamps, who fought a bitter struggle against Anigo throughout his successful three-year stint as first team coach (2009-12), and only “won” it when he left the club to take charge of the French national team, was an insider, a party to all the goings-on that accompanied OM’s rise to the top of the national and European game in the early 1990s. Not so Bielsa.

Perhaps this is the only salvation for OM: put in charge someone who is just as crazy, or even crazier—a manager who makes his players “shit themselves” on he training ground (to quote a member of his current staff) and who used a recent press conference to rubbish his chairman Vincent Labrune’s understanding of the transfer market (and did so again a week later, making sure his attack had not gone unnoticed by the attending journalists). These acts of rebellion would have earned him the sack at any other club. In Marseille, he got away with a mild reprimand. It may well end with a spectacular explosion from which OM will emerge like a cartoon tomcat, splattered on a wall, then miraculously reassembled and running in whichever direction takes its fancy.

The fadas, watched over by the ghost of Patrice De Peretti, will be there to cheer and jeer at every jink.

The 8 Ball_Leaderboard