Velodrome - French football's heart lies in Marseille
© AFP

Marseille's Stade Velodrome has hosted six FIFA World Cup ™ matches in all, including two semi-finals 60 years apart (1938 and 1998). And the wildly exuberant fans that flock to the stadium every Sunday reflect the wide diversity of the population of this famous Mediterranean port. The 60,000-capacity Velodrome is nothing short of a football temple, where the fanatical Marseille crowd, including a French record 40,000 season-ticket holders, provide a unique and intricately passionate atmosphere.

Construction work began on the stadium in 1933 but was soon halted when it became abundantly clear that the sheer size of the original project made it financially unfeasible. The prospect of hosting the 1938 FIFA World Cup, however, saw the plan revived in April 1935, and 26 months later the great stadium was getting its final spit and polish.

Meazza's shorts
The first match in the Velodrome in the 1938 FIFA World Cup was the first-round clash between holders Italy and Scandinavian hopefuls Norway. The game got off to a predictable start as the Italians coasted into the lead after just two minutes thanks to a goal from Pietro Ferraris, but the Norwegians tore up the script and snatched an equaliser through Arne Brustad seven minutes from time. The Squadra Azzurra then showed the peculiar resilience of champions and sealed qualification for the next round with a goal from Silvio Piola four minutes into extra-time.

Italy went on to knock out France in the quarter-finals before facing Brazil in a semi-final that is still talked about today. Thousands of tifosi poured over the border into the Velodrome, swelling the attendance to 33,000, a new record for the ground. The throng bore witness to what was by all accounts the best match of the third FIFA World Cup. The South Americans had gone into the game so convinced of their superiority that manager Ademar Pimenta decided to leave out the team's star player, Leonidas, saying he wanted to keep him fit for the final. Unfortunately for Pimenta, the Italians were to make him regret his complacency.

Roared on by a partisan crowd, Italy stroked the ball around with gusto and eventually took the lead through Gino Colaussi early in the second half. Shortly after that came the real turning point of the match - when the referee awarded the Azzurri a penalty.

What followed was to go down forever in the annals of the FIFA World Cup. The legendary Giuseppe Meazza stepped forward to take the penalty looking full of confidence. As he went to place the ball on the spot, the string holding up his shorts broke, leaving them to fall around his ankles and sending the bumper crowd into fits of laughter. Unperturbed, the Inter Milan man pulled his shorts up with his left hand and placed the ball on the spot with his right, then took his run-up and, still holding his shorts up, planted the ball into the back of the net for what would turn out to be the winning goal. Brazilian goalkeeper Valter, no doubt perplexed by the whole incident, did not even move. Romeu got a goal back for the South Americans three minutes from time, but it was too little too late. The Vélodrome had provided a show worthy of Marseilles, a city renowned for its love of all types of excess.

World War II interrupted all sporting competitions and throughout much of the conflict the Vélodrome was used as a military parking lot for at first the French army, then the Germans and finally the Americans. Nevertheless, the stadium still managed to stage a handful of matches during this turbulent period, notably in 1942 when a team representing Vichy France lost 2-0 to Switzerland in front of 39,000 people who had come for some temporary respite from their daily sadness and deprivations.

The start of French triumph and Bergkamp's glory
By the time the 16th FIFA World Cup returned to the Velodrome in 1998, the old stadium had undergone an impressive facelift. Architects Jean-Pierre Buffi and Pierre Averous expanded and modernised the ground, but took great pains to ensure it remained in tune with its surrounding environment. The north and south curved banks were completely revamped, as were the Jean-Bouin and Ganay stands, though these retained their original 1936 elliptical shape. No roof was fitted, allowing the pitch to remain exposed to the elements. The refurbishments brought the capacity up to 60,000.

In 1998, the stadium was graced by no fewer than seven FIFA World Cup matches, four of them first-round encounters. One of those group-phase matches was the host nation's opening game, and the Velodrome clearly brought Les Bleus luck as local hero Zinedine Zidane led them to a simple 3-0 win over South Africa, their first step on the road to becoming world champions.

As if to remain faithful to its history, the Velodrome was again the scene of an upset for Brazil, as unheralded Norway recorded a surprise 2-1 first-round victory over the Auriverde in the group stage. The Brazilians at last overcame their jinx in the semi-final, when they beat the Netherlands in a penalty shoot-out after a suspenseful 1-1 draw. The Dutch had already left their mark on the Velodrome, since Dennis Bergkamp hit a breathtaking last-minute winner against Argentina in the quarter-finals. Latching on to a long pass from Frank de Boer, the elegant forward controlled the ball exquisitely at the right-hand edge of the box before angling a superb shot with the outside of his boot into the far corner. Before that, Italy had renewed their happy relationship with the Vélodrome by claiming a hard-fought 1-0 win in the second round against Norway.

A dramatic home
The Velodrome provided the backdrop for incredible moments from other competitions as well, most notably in the 1984 European Championship. The stadium had already been renovated by then, with a brand new playing surface to boot. The mobile stands fitted behind the goals concealed the last remaining stretches of the cycling track and increased the official capacity to 40,000. That figure was ignored when 58,848 fans crammed into the ground to watch the famous semi-final between France and Portugal, when Michel Platini brought the house down with a sensational winner in the 119th minute.

While the history of the always intimidating Velodrome is intimately bound with that of the FIFA World Cup, its never-dull day job is as the cherished home of Olympique de Marseille, winners of the European Champions Cup in 1993. Though OM have experienced the trauma of relegation on numerous occasions, they have always managed to rise from the ashes to remain one of the most popular clubs in all of France.

The club's patch-work history has been embroidered by the likes of legendary strikers Josip Skoblar and Jean-Pierre Papin, lavishly-skilled individuals such as Roger Magnusson and Chris Waddle, player-makers of the class of tiny giant Alain Giresse and Enzo Francescoli, colossal defenders like Karl Heinz Forster and Carlos Mozer, all coaxed and coached by some of the world's great managers, including Franz Beckenbauer, Tomislav Ivic and Raymond Goethals. One of the city's most celebrated sons, Zidane, still recalls the emotion he felt when standing on the curved banks of the Vélodrome watching his idol Enzo Francescoli. Perhaps in homage, Zidane's oldest son also happens to be called Enzo.