Football is rife with wonderful stories, and one place they never seem to be lacking is in Marseille. Some of the best exponents of the global game have been swept up by the vibrant city's magic, if not by the Mistral wind that blows out towards the sea. Fabien Barthez first burst on to the scene there some 15 years ago, while Franck Ribery did the same in 2006, and in between those two Didier Drogba managed to become the darling of the Stade Velodrome in less than a season.
The current campaign has produced its fair share of heart-warming tales as well, not least because the first two months unfolded in an atmosphere of dread. Those dark days behind them, L'OM have now returned to the upper reaches of the Ligue 1 table, thanks largely to the efforts of three men no one at the start of the season could have expected to be so prominent: coach Eric Gerets, creative midfielder Mathieu Valbuena and goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.
Runners-up to Lyon last time out, the Mediterranean outfit were tipped as potential champions before a ball was kicked this season. That optimistic talk rapidly faded as poor performances piled up and the club's new recruits failed to deliver. Indeed, before the summer was out, Marseille were floundering in nineteenth spot. As so often happens, criticisms centred around the team's coach at the time, Albert Emon, and he was unceremoniously relieved of his duties. Didier Deschamps, Jean Tigana and Bruno Metsu were all cited as potential successors, but President Papa Diouf appointed Belgian coach Eric Gerets instead, sparking scratched heads and furrowed brows among the club's massive fanbase.
Gerets stepped into the post as an uknown quantity in France, but he announced his arrival with dramatic intent. In Marseille's first outing under their new boss, they became the only French side to ever triumph away to Liverpool after securing a memorable 1-0 UEFA Champions League victory. Since then, the demanding OM faithful have become even better acquainted with the former Belgium captain, who puts huge emphasis on hard work and seriousness. "The most essential thing is discipline," he said after the Anfield win. "The players can't forget that because, if they did, it would be a serious lack of professionalism.
"What's important is to convince the players that if they want to get out of the catastrophic situation in the league, they need to play the same way they did at Liverpool. When I see the quality of the teams lower down the table, I say to myself that French football never lets you fall asleep." His message clearly got through, because Marseille have risen through the ranks in style. They have climbed 15 places in as many games, thanks in part to an impressive victory over six-time champions Lyon, an away win over a Nice side unbeaten at home in more than a year and a morale-lifting success against bitter rivals Paris Saint-Germain in the French clasico.
Valbuena, the small wonder
Everyone has played their part in that recovery, of course, with Djibril Cisse high on confidence again, Mamadou Niang plundering goals, defensive midfield duo Lorik Cana and Benoit Cheyrou working overtime and Samir Nasri finally back to full fitness. All have flourished under Gerets, but none can say the Belgian has had more impact on their careers than 23-year-old Mathieu Valbuena, the virtual unknown to whom Gerets has looked for his team's attacking spark. Signed from lower-league outfit Libourne Saint-Seurin last year, the youngster has been a revelation.
He was handed his first start in Gerets's first match, suddenly going from bit-part player to member of the first XI at Anfield a week after his birthday. There was even better to come too, as he hit the only goal of the game late on with a precise long-range effort into the top corner. The shot matched his overall performance, in fact, earning Valbuena a permanent starting role and making him a household name in French footballing circles.
Many think he will now go on to imitate the man he replaced on
Marseille's right wing, Franck Ribery. The Bayern Munich
sensation won a place in France's 2006 FIFA World Cup™ squad
without having ever slipped on the blue shirt beforehand.
"People maybe look at me differently and I'm on the right
path, but I don't get carried away and think I'm somebody
I'm not," says Valbuena, or
Le Petit as Gerets likes to call him on account of his
diminutive 1.64m frame. "I try to justify my place by keeping
my feet on the ground and staying humble. So many very good players
have got carried away and then disappeared."
Mandanda in another world
At the other end of the pitch, Steve Mandanda's emergence between the sticks was every bit as difficult to predict. Brought in from Ligue 2 side Le Havre as cover for Cedric Carrasso, the Congo DR-born goalkeeper hardly had time to get used to the bench when the man ahead of him in the pecking order ruptured an achilles tendon. Six months out for Carrasso naturally meant a chance to shine for his understudy, and Mandanda immediately looked hungry to repay the faith of club officials who snapped him up on the recommendation of then-France U-21 colleague Nasri. A string of brilliant performances soon did the trick, to the extent that when Carrasso returned from injury he failed to reclaim his place.
Whether he is leaping through the air, clawing away shots or denying strikers one-on-one opportunities, not to mention protecting his goal line or controlling with his feet, Mandanda seems to have it all. You can also add modesty to his attributes, as he has demonstrated ever since the press began speculating last autumn about a possible France call-up. "I'm happy. It's always nice to hear compliments but nothing is decided and I'm staying calm," he said after denying a Lyon armada including Juninho, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou. "Everything has gone so quickly. I've entered into another world, first by coming here and then with the Champions League."
At 22, the eldest of four goalkeeping brothers could be about to discover some of the more mountainous parts of this world, with a ticket to Switzerland and Austria. Coach Raymond Domenech first called him up to the senior squad in January and a place in the 23-man travelling party for UEFA EURO 2008 is by no means fantastical, despite Mandanda's desire to keep perspective: "There's a lot of competition for this post as well as a hierarchy, and I've only played a few Ligue 1 matches."
A few Ligue 1 matches are all it has taken for Gerets, Valbuena and Mandanda to restore faith in Marseille, though, and the mood around the town is indistinguishable now from what it was a few months back. Instead of fighting to stave off relegation, Marseille lie fourth, with just three points separating them from third and a berth in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round. For supporters regularly buffeted by the elements at the Stade Velodrome, these winds of change are surely welcome to stay.