Like many port cities the world over, Marseille exists in a near-constant state of artful anarchy and relative chaos. By the time the original Notre-Dame de la Garde was completed in the thirteenth century, it was too late: the Guardian could only cast her shadow over generations of artisans, freethinkers, and sailors of questionable repute who had made the city their own. They didn’t require guarding or looking after.

Not unlike the youth of Napoli, Rotterdam and London’s docklands, generations of children in Marseille have grown up with the ability to swear in several languages, a card trick or two up their sleeve, and often a brazen disregard for authority. In many cases, they survive on a hand-to-mouth existence, and life itself can teeter on the edge of morality. Living on the edge is what Marseille does best.

For sustained periods of its 118-year history, the same could be said of its local football team. Olympique de Marseille, one of France’s most decorated clubs but also notorious for a match-fixing scandal and the club’s highly charged ultras, has provided food and shelter to footballing vagabonds from Eric Cantona to Fabrizio Ravanelli, Rudi Völler to Joey Barton. Like the people of the city, they too required no guardian angel.

Since the late 1980s, and for the best part of a decade, Marseille had swung from epic highs to the most brutal of come-downs, with little in between. Crowned league champions for four consecutive seasons from 1989 till 1992, European Cup runners-up in 1991 and winners of the inaugural Champions League in 1993, then disgraced and relegated in 1994.

However, in the late summer of 1998, with the club’s centenary fast approaching, a wave of footballing purity swept over the port city. Fuelled by the relatively fair and honourable millions of the late Robert Louis-Dreyfus, Marseille had won their first two fixtures of the 1998/99 season without conceding.

As France basked in the collective glow of hosting and winning the World Cup, football felt good across the nation. However, as can often be the case, for 45 minutes on August 22nd 1998, things felt entirely different in Marseille.

Hosting Montpellier at the Stade Vélodrome, les phocéens found themselves 4-0 down at half time. The gamble of attempting to squeeze Robert Pires, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Florian Maurice, and Jocelyn Gourvennec into a four-pronged attack had proven too much.

The rest of France sniggered. L’affaire VA-OM, the enforced relegation of 1994, and all their repercussions still hung around like an unwanted coastal mist. If lingering condemnation and match-fixing shame wasn’t bad enough, the significant investment of Monsieur Louis-Dreyfus meant the added scrutiny of jealous eyes: despite having only been back in the top flight for two years, in 1998 the title was expected.

In the Marseille dug-out for little over a year, the loveable rogue Roland Courbis tried admirably to hone and balance a star-studded squad. The experienced Laurent Blanc was paired with South African Pierre Issa in central defence. Club captain, and dependable full-back, Patrick Blondeau was in the prime of his career. Andreas Köpke and Stephane Pórato were two distinguished goalkeepers. Not to mention the revered talent of Ravanelli and co in attack.

The Montpellier match was the proverbial game of two halves. Part of Courbis’ half-time response was to bring on a young Titi Camara, but it was the introduction after an hour of Christophe Dugarry, a mercurial talent who appeared highly suited to Marseille, which proved pivotal.

Dugarry hadn’t been on the field of play a full minute when his deft cross met Maurice’s head and hit the net. Always a force to be reckoned with, the Marseille ultras turned up the volume. Ten minutes later Dugarry had bagged himself a brace and sent the Vélodrome into overdrive. His first goal was a towering header from a Pires free-kick, his second an equally powerful header from a corner.

For a man capable of poetry and power on a football pitch, Dugarry will forever remain something of a Marmite-flavoured enigma. Despite having been honed in the same Bordeaux youth teams as Zinedine Zidane and Bixente Lizarazu, and playing for AC Milan, Barcelona, and Birmingham (ahem), he remained a polemic figure in France, admired by some but disrespected by others who suspected that his half-century haul of international caps owed more to his friendship with Zidane, than his goalscoring prowess.

Remarkably, by the 90th minute the score was tied at 4-4 thanks to a powerful Éric Roy half-volley five minutes earlier. Players and fans alike were exhausted and the game appeared to be heading for a memorable draw. However, the Vélodrome had one more trick up its sleeve.

In the third minute of injury time Pires won an undisputed penalty, and the script was near complete. With the poise expected of an accomplished World Cup winner who would still play for four more years in Serie A and the Premiership, Blanc stepped up and drove the ball into the top left corner. Not many in the stadium maintained the stamina required to cheer, so an odd exhaling sigh of relief, disbelief, and delirium became the soundtrack.

Marseille went on to lose just once in the following 18 matches, while also making impressive progress in the UEFA Cup. Sigma Olomouc, Werder Bremen, and Monaco were all despatched. Domestically Bordeaux inflicted just a second defeat in 22 league games on January 29th 1999.

March and the UEFA Cup quarter finals saw Marseille squeeze past an impressive Celta Vigo 2-1 on aggregate. Away goals saw off Bologna in the semi finals in April, securing for OM their place in the 1999 UEFA Cup final. Just four days later, however, Marseille were humbled 4-0 at mid-table RC Lens.

Ultimately, the defeat at Lens, along with the January clash with eventual champions Bordeaux, went a long way to deciding the title. Come May, Bordeaux won the league by a solitary point, thanks to Pascal Feindouno’s last-gasp winner at PSG. Having won only two of their final five fixtures, Marseille were gallant runners-up.

If Marseille were unfortunate runners-up domestically, in the UEFA Cup final they were soundly beaten. An uncharacteristic error by Blanc gifted Parma an opening goal, and the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Dino Baggio, Juan Sebastián Verón and Hernán Crespo never looked back. Further goals from Enrico Chiesa and Paolo Vanoli confirmed a 3-0 defeat for Marseille.

Throughout the second half of the season, plate-spinning Ligue 1 with the UEFA Cup, Marseille never quite enjoyed continued consistency. But in the streetwise surroundings of Marseille, recovery in any form is a delicate process and twice seeing Marseille’s expensively assembled squad as dejected runners-up went a long way to recovering a club’s reputation.

Having achieved enough to satisfy demanding fans, their inconsistency and runners-up label demonstrated newly-found attributes of humility, vulnerability, and hope of continued progress. By 1999 the ghosts of Bernard Tapie and Jean-Jacques Eydelie were beginning to fade, and Marseille could look forward to their 1999/2000 season with renewed optimism. More importantly, that optimism was pure, and it came with a predominantly youthful squad.

In Marseille, though, things are never quite what they seem. Fast forward another nine months and the club had only escaped relegation on goal difference, but that’s another story.

By Glenn Billingham. Header image credit goes fully to Pavel Kazachkov.