It began with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. It’s the simplest connection. Hackman, in his Oscar-winning role as Detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, and Scheider as Buddy "Cloudy" Russo never actually step a foot in Marseille during The French Connection. The closest the audience gets to the Mediterranean is the opening frames, where French criminals discuss shipping heroin to the United States, through New York.
Marseille was portrayed as an idyllic, yet sleazy, port city. A city able to hide its underbelly with bright blue water and well-dressed criminals. The movie itself is 70’s chic. Wide collars, a pork pie hat and fluorescent suits.
New York itself was the centre of heroin. A downtrodden city, with both a crime and drug problem, it was the entryway to the United States and by extension the American Dream.
Come to America and you could make your fortune, be it as a businessman or detective, or a heroin smuggler who grew up next to the blue of the Mediterranean.
New York ranks fifth in states by the sheer number of people with a French background, be they expatriates or those whose ancestors came across during the fur trade in the 1800s, with roughly 834,000 living there. French-language schools in Brooklyn have subsequently exploded, becoming the third largest non-English school in the city.
French tourists are increasingly trekking to the area. Brooklyn’s tourism organisation reported a 200 per cent increase in French tourists visiting the area when comparing data from 2005 to 2014.
Marseille does have a series of connections to America, and New York. A prominent Marseille supporters group is named the Yankee Nord, located on the North terrace of the Stade Velodrome. The group is known for its vociferous opposition to previous ownership.
But in New York City itself, the Marseillaise community has been able to stake out a foothold. The city is home to the first Olympique Marseille supporters group in the country.
Founded in 2003 and numbering over a thousand fans, the group is capable of drawing hundreds of fans to Smithfields Hall in New York City, steps away from Times Square, on weekends to watch Rudi Garcia’s charges plunge headfirst into battles with the new money of Paris Saint-Germain or the old foes in Lyon. For big games, the atmosphere can be electric.
The majority of the group’s members are French, with a handful of Americans scattered throughout.
The group was started by four friends, three of who hailed from Marseille, all looking to reconnect with their French roots.
Xavier Thibaud, one of the original founders, had been a member of the Club Central des Supporters group. After a chance interview with OM television in France during a summer vacation, Thibaud banded together with several others to forge an American connection to the club he had loved on the Mediterranean.
Thibaud has since stepped away from his leadership role, with Thierry Julliard becoming the organisation's president in 2013.
"My friends and I were missing something in the exciting New York life," said Julliard. "Something that would allow you to connect you to your roots and [not] forget where you come from."
Julliard says the group worked to help others in Los Angeles and Miami establish supporters groups but believes they don’t lack the activity that the New York chapter offers.
He admits the club may not draw the fervour or numbers they used to, compared to the likes of the nouveau-riche Paris Saint-Germain or the old rivals Lyon but it remains a special bonding experience for fans abroad.
"It's like being part of a small community that shares the same passion for football and can meet to talk about everything," Julliard said.
This past season has seen the group develop new bonds with their club. An American billionaire took over Les Phocéens. The Louis-Dreyfus family, who had been a majority shareholder in the club since 1996, bowed out of the club this past year, selling their stake to commercial real estate tycoon Frank McCourt Jr.
McCourt is known for his ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2004 till 2012, the Massachusetts native took control of the Marseille club in the fall of 2016. One worrying aspect for Marseille fans was the way the Dodgers ended up in Chapter 11 bankruptcy – a proposal in which an individual or company can seek to reorganise their affairs to pay back the money owed – in 2011, with $40 million owed for payroll. However, he did manage to reach a record $2 billion deal for the purchase of his ownership stake in the Dodgers.
The American is also somewhat infamously known for one of the largest divorce settlements in California history, reaching a USD $130 million settlement with his ex-wife.
But McCourt has promised a change in the way Marseille are run, with a cash boost coming in to help the club catch up with the new money teams.
"Today a new chapter opens in the great history of Olympique de Marseille," said McCourt, in an odd press conference that also featured the city’s mayor. "We’re going to put our club back on the road to glory."
For a fan group which had become accustomed to seeing their star players sold, Julliard says his group is excited by promises from the ownership.
"[We] are looking forward to better results, starting with getting back in the top 5 of the championship this season," he said.
Results have been mixed for Rudi Garcia’s charges this year, sitting sixth and 23 points off the top spot. But McCourt has the fans on his side, particularly after the £25 million acquisition of French star Dmitri Payet.
Being a fan group far from the welcome embrace of your home stadium can be a lonely affair, but the group says the gatherings have helped ease any discomfort.
"You only miss being at the stadium because nowadays, you can connect online and get a lot of news from the club and other media," said Julliard. "So, in the end, I think you are well aware or even more than if you were in France."
Like Hackman and Scheider, the group's members may not be able to get to Marseille, but they have formed their own unique experience of the club stateside.
By Nick Wells. Nick is a Senior Writer for IBWM.