La Retour. Marseille and a new vintage.

La Retour.  Marseille and a new vintage.

Scandal rocked and then destroyed one of Europe's finest ever sides in the 1990's.  Juliet Jacques reflects on Olympique Marseilles' return to the top as a personal highlight of 2010.

Although 2010 was traumatic for Les Bleus, it was a good year for French club football: amongst the best since the end of its Nineties ‘Golden Age’. Lyon and Bordeaux played for a place in the Champions League semi-finals: as the victors, Lyon, lost there to Bayern Munich, 2010 belonged to Olympique de Marseille, finally crowned French champions for the first time since the scandal that destroyed their great European Cup winning side of 1993.

The expensively assembled team, built around Deschamps in central midfield, included lively young goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, fiery African-born defenders Marcel Desailly and goalscorer Basile Boli, and France full-backs Jocelyn Angloma and Éric di Meco. In midfield, sublime Franck Sauzée linked with Ghanaian playmaker and African Player of the Year Abedi Pelé, supporting young Croat Alen Bokšić and experienced Rudi Völler in attack. Hailed as the greatest team in French football history, OM’s victory was particularly popular outside Paris – at last, a provincial city had outshone the capital on a global stage.

The 2010 title was especially sweet for manager Didier Deschamps, coming in his first season in charge. Seventeen years earlier, Deschamps captained OM as they became the first – and still only – French club to win the European Cup, beating AC Milan 1-0 in Munich on 26 May 1993. Two days later, OM secured their fifth consecutive Division 1 title, beating Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 at their Stade Vélodrome. But their joy was short lived: their downfall began even before their European triumph, immediately after an apparently routine win over struggling Valenciennes.

Six days before the final, OM travelled to Valenciennes’ Stade Nungesser for their last away fixture of the season, narrowly leading the league ahead of PSG and Monaco. Before the game, the home side’s juniors unfurled a banner reading ‘Tout Valenciennes avec OM à Munich’ (‘All Valenciennes supports OM in Munich’).

Bokšić put OM ahead with an early goal: after fifteen minutes, the teams had not emerged from the half-time break. As catcalls rolled around the stadium, the referee led them out for the second half: there was no further score, and crucially, OM avoided any injuries. In his post-match interview, Valenciennes sweeper Jacques Glassmann said that OM had offered 200,000 francs to him and team-mates Christophe Robert and Jorge Burruchaga if they “didn’t try too hard”.

It transpired that OM’s managing director, Jean-Pierre Bernès, had asked midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie, the team’s least celebrated player, to approach the three, asking them to withdraw from the match. The French Football League president, Noël Le Graët, suspended investigation until after the European Cup final. The inquiry began during that summer: on 24 June, Christophe Robert admitted that he had met Eydelie; detectives found 250,000 francs buried in Robert’s aunt’s garden. Soon, Eydelie was charged with offering bribes and remanded. Days later, twenty police officers burst into OM’s Pyrenees training camp and arrested the entire squad.

The trail led to president Bernard Tapie, who bought OM in April 1986. Under his big-spending stewardship, OM dominated French football, deposing Arsène Wenger’s Monaco as champions in 1989, before reaching the European Cup semi-final, the first French club to do so for five years. Champions again, they made the final in 1991, losing to Red Star Belgrade on penalties after a 0-0 draw: an unlucky defeat which informed OM’s desperation not to lose players before the 1993 final. Following their arrests, Bokšić, Deschamps and Desailly departed for Italy; Abedi Pelé joined Lyon.

OM’s downfall was preceded by another scandal involving Tapie, who was forced to resign his post as Minister of City Affairs in Pierre Bérégovoy’s Socialist government in 1992. During the investigation, it was alleged that after the scandal broke, Tapie approached Valenciennes manager Boro Primorac, offering Primorac a pay-off and a post with Division 2 side Martigues if he carried the can. After Eydelie submitted his confession from his Valenciennes cell, the police raided OM’s offices. Soon, OM were stripped of their 1992/93 title: their European triumph stood, but the club were banned from defending the trophy, and their Champions League place was awarded to Monaco. At the end of the 1993/94 season, after finishing second to PSG, OM were demoted to Division 2.

Of OM’s starters in Munich, only Barthez remained for the second division campaign. The club were allowed to enter the UEFA Cup, beating Olympiakos before losing on away goals to Sion, shortly before the trial of Tapie and Bernès began at Valenciennes Criminal Court.

OM’s new side stormed to the Division 2 title, thanks partly to 31 goals from Irish international Tony Cascarino, but they were barred from promotion as the trial continued. Bernès admitted bribery, carried out “at the behest of President Tapie”. Former socialist minister Jack Mellick withdrew his alibi, having claimed to have been with Tapie at the time he allegedly met Primorac. Tapie, still OM president, confessed his attempted bribe, and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Deputy chairman Jean-Michel Roussier became interim president for the 1995/96 season. With experienced Bernard Casoni, Jean-Marc Ferreri and Jean-Philippe Durand, all substitutes in Munich, and prolific forwards Cascarino and Marc Libbra, OM finished second and, this time, were allowed to return to Division 1. Keen to quickly re-establish themselves in a strong but open top flight, OM made three ambitious signings: Bulgarian midfielder Yordan Lechkov, whose goal beat Germany in USA ’94; Euro ’96 winning keeper Andreas Köpke; and exciting winger Reynald Pedros, star of Nantes’ 1995 title-winning team.

In December 1996, Marseilles mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin asked Robert Louis-Dreyfus, former CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi and then Tapie’s successor at Adidas, to invest in OM, hoping to restore the city’s club to the European elite. ‘RLD’ sealed healthy sponsorship deals with Adidas and telecoms firm Neuf, which he co-founded, putting an estimated €200m into OM during his presidency.

Finishing a disappointing 11th in 1997, RLD again splashed out, signing Laurent Blanc, Claude Makélélé, Christophe Dugarry and Fabrizio Ravanelli. The following year, OM finished fourth as Lens won their first Championnat, beating fellow surprise package Metz on goal difference – the fifth different club to win the title after Tapie’s dynasty collapsed.

The 1998/99 season suggested that once again, OM were becoming a genuine force. They finished second in Division 1, one point behind Bordeaux, and made the UEFA Cup Final, closing the most successful decade for French clubs in Europe since L’Equipe editor (and former France manager) Gabriel Hanot had suggested continental club competition. This team included Blanc, Dugarry and Robert Pirès, members of France’s World Cup winning squad captained by Didier Deschamps, and the one that Deschamps led to European Championship success a year later.

In 1996, the Bosman ruling and the abolition of the ‘three foreigners’ rule for European competition drastically weakened Le Championnat, as the talents who contributed to Les Bleus’ late Nineties renaissance and the African stars from France’s former colonies found that they could more easily secure lucrative contracts and first-team football abroad. They also had more chance of European trophies: PSG became only the second French club to win a European competition when they beat Rapid Vienna in the 1996 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, but Bordeaux lost the UEFA Cup final that same year, and the French champions fell in the European Cup semi-finals four times between 1994 and 1998.

Despite this drop in overall quality and their heavy spending, OM struggled to find a successful blend. Manager Bernard Casoni lost his job after finishing a dreadful 15th in 2000; RLD went through four coaches during the 2000/01 campaign, when OM again finished in the bottom half.  After another failure to qualify for Europe in 2002, with four more managers coming and going, RLD appointed Alain Perrin. Perrin based his side on a strong defensive partnership, Frank Lebœuf and Daniel van Buyten, leading OM to third place and Champions League qualification.

OM finished third in their group, behind Real Madrid and Porto, and entered the UEFA Cup. Having paid a French record fee of £3.3m for Guingamp striker Didier Drogba, Perrin was sacked in January 2004 after some disappointing results and replaced by José Anigo. Beating Dnepr, Liverpool, Internazionale and Newcastle, OM reached their second UEFA Cup final in five years, losing 2-0 to Valencia after Fabien Barthez, back after nine years away, was dismissed just before half-time. Meanwhile, Monaco – managed by Didier Deschamps – became the first French League side to reach the Champions League final since 1993, ultimately losing 3-0 to Porto.

In 2005 and 2006, OM finished fifth, as Lyon established themselves as France’s top club. Coping with the Bosman ruling far better than any other French club with a ‘buy low, sell high’ transfer policy and a strong youth system, Lyon became the first team to win back-to-back French titles since OM, securing an unprecented seven consecutive championships after winning their first ever title in 2002 – OM came second in 2007, but Lyon won by 17 points.

Despite their improved fortunes, scandal continued to haunt OM. In January 2006, Tapie – awarded €135m by the French Court of Cessation in 2005 after the Crédit Lyonnais bank sold Adidas to Louis-Dreyfus without his knowledge in 1994 – threatened to sue Jean-Jacques Eydelie and L’Equipe over the newspaper’s interview with Eydelie.

Echoing allegations in Cascarino’s memoirs, Eydelie alleged that OM’s players were given injections before crucial games, which Tapie denied, stating that doping tests conducted after OM’s European Cup victory proved negative. Desailly and Völler refuted Eydelie’s claims: Tapie sued unsuccessfully for libel, and Deschamps also threatened legal action.

Eydelie’s ‘revelations’ about Tapie were not new, but those about current president Louis-Dreyfus in March 2006 were. RLD and Rolland Courbis, OM manager from 1997-1999, were investigated for €22m of illegal payments in transfers during Courbis’ tenure, including the marquee signings of Blanc, Dugarry, Ravanelli and Makélélé. Roussier was charged with misappropriation of funds, with Courbis facing charges of complicity. Found guilty, Courbis was given two years in prison, whilst RLD, diagnosed with leukaemia, received a fine and suspended sentence. RLD’s attempt to sell OM a year later fell through when prospective buyer Jack Kachkar, a Canadian businessman, tried to use false bank documents.

After OM’s second place finish, manager Albert Emon – their fifteenth since 1993 – departed. In September 2007, Eric Gerets took over, lifting OM from a terrible start to third place and Champions League qualification. The following year, Lyon’s stranglehold on the championship was finally broken: OM finished ahead of them, but behind Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux. Gerets opted to leave when his contract expired, and RLD’s last act before his death in July 2009 was to appoint Didier Deschamps as Gerets’ successor.

Deschamps based his team around anchorman Édouard Cissé, part of his Monaco side, Argentine playmaker Lucho González and centre-back partnership Stéphane M’bia and Souleymane Diawara, who, like Boli and Desailly, were both African. Up front, Brazilian Brandão and Senegal striker Mamadou Niang were ably backed by Mathieu Valbuena, whose electrifying performances in a wide forward role propelled him into Raymond Domenech’s ill-fated World Cup squad.

OM’s first defeat of the 2009/10 squad came at Valenciennes, losing 3-2 at the Stade Nungesser to a late goal on 26 September. They won just one of the next four games, including a thrilling 5-5 draw at Lyon’s Stade de Gerland, before their 5-1 thrashing of Valenciennes at home heralded a fourteen-match unbeaten run which finally earned the championship which the OM fans so craved. Perhaps the circle of corruption can only truly be closed if OM win a second European Cup: if Deschamps can lead his side, unfancied on the continental stage, to another Champions League, he could establish himself not just as the greatest man ever to grace OM, but also the most accomplished individual in the history of French football.

Juliet writes regularly for IBWM and the Guardian and can be found here and on Twitter @JulietJacques

Header images credit goes fully to Napafloma-Photographe.