Marseille: the French exception

Marseille is home to around 830,000 people and almost all would count themselves as proud fans of the port city's famous football club. Wherever you might find yourself the day after a match be it in a seafront cafe, at the office, at a market or travelling around town on public transport only one subject of conversation seems to matter: how the boys in sky blue-and-white jerseys fared the previous evening.

For more than a century now, Olympique de Marseille have spread mass euphoria after wins and sparked widespread anger following defeats. Few clubs inspire as much passion among their supporters and never can those passions have been stirred as greatly as when OM conquered Europe in 1993. Continuing with our look at the world's classic clubs, casts its spotlight on the Mediterranean outfit that broke new ground for the French game.

Birth of a clubNowadays cherished by supporters as a true club of the people, Marseille owe their existence to an aristocrat, Rene Dufaure de Montmirail, who created the Club Omnisports de Marseille in 1892. After becoming the Football Club de Marseille five years later, the nascent organisation merged in 1899 with L'Epee, a local fencing outfit, and Olympique de Marseille were born. Right from the very start, the team chose the colours and motto that reign today, with the Droit au But (Straight to the goal) philosophy still enshrined in the current badge.

At the time, 'football' in France meant rugby since the game played with a round ball remained the preserve of English and German sailors stopping off in Marseille. Those itinerant pioneers soon converted the locals, however, giving the sport almost religious status and prompting OM to adopt it in 1902. Within no time at all, Marseille became the dominant force on the regional scene, imperious in the local league and keen to translate that form to the national level.

But despite their best efforts, the club succumbed in the semi-finals of the French championship four times between 1904 and 1908, and worse was to come when city rivals Stade Helvetique Marseillais celebrated three national crowns between 1909 and 1913, before the First World War ended all sporting activity across the country.

Glory and disillusionment
After hostilities finally ceased, the French Cup was introduced, giving Marseille the chance they craved to earn recognition on the national stage. They became the first team from outside Paris to lift the trophy in 1924 and repeated the feat in 1926 and 1927, marking a golden age for the club that, with Edouard Crut and Jean Boyer the driving forces, ended with championship glory in what was still an amateur league in 1929. Three years later, Marseille became a founding member of France's first professional league and they won their first title in 1937, two years after garnering their fourth success in the French Cup and a year before notching their fifth.

The following decade brought more honours in the form of the club's sixth French Cup victory in 1943 and their second championship in 1948, 11 years after the first. In the stands, meanwhile, supporters were finding a place in their hearts for popular midfielder Roger Scotti, who entered Marseille history by contesting 406 matches for his beloved team, a record that still stands today. Prolific marksman Emmanuel Aznar also made waves, scoring 56 goals in 38 games, including nine during a memorable 20-2 win over Avignon in 1942.

Disappointment was not far around the corner, though, and the club went two decades without a single title, as well as suffering their first relegation in 1959 and their second in 1963, just one season after clawing their way back. In spite of that, the 1950s were also the era of OM's most prolific marksman of all time, Swedish forward Gunnar Andersson, who scored 186 strikes and is now considered one of the greatest players to have ever slipped on the club shirt. His goals did not inspire the team to greatness, however, and some of the low points from the period include Saint-Etienne's 10-3 win in Marseille in 1952, a sorry French Cup elimination at the hands of the second division's basement side in 1959 and the anger then indifference of the fans, who numbered just 434 when Forbach came calling in 1965.

Signs of recovery finally began to appear at last when new President Marcel Leclerc took over and set about suppressing the stench of failure. With the club still in the second tier, he appointed Mario Zatelli as coach and slowly dragged OM back into the limelight.

A seventh French Cup triumph in 1969 won the duo the love of Marseille's demanding supporters and a championship crown followed two years later thanks to iconic strike partners Josip Skoblar of Croatia and Sweden's Roger Magnusson. The magic combination worked wonders again the following season as Marseille successfully defended their title and pulled off their first double by adding an eighth Cup trophy to their tally.

With that, it was time to rub shoulders with the European elite, but Marseille's first taste of the European Cup was a dispiriting one, ending at the hands of Johan Cruyff's Ajax before Juventus proved too big an obstacle the year after. In the domestic realm, meanwhile, Saint-Etienne took over as France's pre-eminent outfit and OM were forced to content themselves with yet another French Cup success, celebrated in 1976.

Stars young and oldThe unthinkable occurred in 1980, when a side rich with internationals including Marius Tresor, Anders Linderoth, Marc Berdoll and Didier Six failed to prevent demotion to the second flight. That shock nevertheless proved a blessing in disguise as the club opened a historic new chapter by placing faith in a generation of local youngsters. Nicknamed Les Minots, this youthful line-up returned to the top tier in 1984 with a certain Eric Di Meco in their ranks, the 20-year-old defender surely unaware that he would go on to play a part in the club's greatest achievement a few years later.

Bernard Tapie's arrival as President in 1986 brought to mind the Leclerc era, with stars swarming to the Stade Velodrome and success trailing close behind. Karl-Heinz Forster, Alain Giresse, Jean-Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle, Enzo Francescoli, Abedi Pele, Didier Deschamps, Basile Boli, Marcel Desailly, Rudi Voller and Eric Cantona were just some of the talents who helped put Marseille back at the forefront of the French game during that heady period. They laid down the building blocks for European triumph, too, with substantial help coming from experienced coaches such as Franz Beckenbauer and Raymond Goethals.

From 1989 to 1993, the club strung together five successive championship wins, a record at the time, as well as laying their hands on another French Cup in 1989. And then they reached the very pinnacle of the European club game on 26 May 1993. After losing in the final two years previously, OM became the first, and so far the only, French club to lift the UEFA Champions League by beating AC Milan 1-0 in Munich.

The city exploded with a joy shared across the nation but no sooner had the trophy been hoist aloft than the celebrations were brought to a halt. A corruption scandal revolving around a match against Valenciennes a few days before the European final resulted in Marseille being stripped of their 1993 French championship crown, and in the summer of 1994 they were sent down to the second tier.

The present
Marseille have failed to win a single title since their European odyssey, meaning a drought of 15 years that must seem like an eternity to the club's fanatical supporters. Winning promotion in 1996/97, OM have been a Ligue 1 fixture ever since and even struck chords on the European scene by finishing runners-up in the UEFA Cup in 1999 and 2004, but despite producing many wonderful memories, the likes of Laurent Blanc, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Christophe Dugarry, Franck Ribery and Didier Drogba all left the south of France without a winners' medal.

The current side possesses both youth and ability, as incarnated by Steve Mandanda in goal, Taye Taiwo in defence and Hatem Ben Arfa further forward. They, along with proven Ligue 1 performers such as Djibril Cisse, Mamadou Niang and Lorik Cana, know they carry the heavy responsibility of adding another title to the club's glorious list of honours. Belgian coach Eric Gerets shares that burden and the more superstitious of Marseille's fans have noted with delight that the last Belgian trainer to sit in the OM dug-out was Goethals, who steered the side to their Champions League crown.

The stadium
It has been a very long time since anyone completed laps of the Stade Velodrome on a bicycle, but the famous name has stuck. Opened in June 1937, the successor to Marseille's old Stade de l'Huveaune hosted cycling competitions until the 1980s, when the track was removed in place of more seating, and in that time it has played host to many of the game's greatest talents as both home to the city's leading club and as a host venue for the 1938 and 1998 FIFA World Cups™. Boasting 60,000 seats which are filled on a consistent basis, Le Vel regularly echoes to the chants of France's noisiest fans.

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