Over the years, France has rewarded us football fans with many great footballers; from free-scoring forwards like Just Fontaine to midfield artists such as Platini and Zidane. Yet, success has been limited for both the French national sides and club sides for many years. Prior to the 1998 victory, France had sporadic success in the World Cup, with Sweden ‘58 and Mexico ‘86 their best performances. In the European Championships, France won the trophy in 1984 on their own patch; with a tremendous side led by the mercurial talent of Michel Platini, who ended the tournament but as top goal scorer.
Domestically success was even harder to come by; French sides struggled to reach the ascent of European football. In the mid-fifties, Stade de Reims twice reached the final of the European Cup, even participating in the first ever final in 1956, however, they succumbed in the final to Spanish giants Real Madrid on both occasions.
France did not have another finalist until 1976, when AS Saint-Étienne reached the final but, again, fell at the final hurdle, losing to Bayern Munich in a tense match.
Such great players and teams, but even players largely remained in their homeland, the French nation struggled to reach success.
The tide was turning, however, and French football’s leading light was Olympique de Marseille, led by French businessman Bernard Tapie.
In April 1986, Bernard Tapie became president of Olympique de Marseille. He had earned his wealth by specialising in recovery for bankrupt companies. One of Tapie’s companies, La Vie Claire, sponsored a team that, in 1985 and 1986, had won back to back Tour De France’s, the premier road cycling event. With some sporting success already under his belt, Tapie relished more.
Tapie’s first signings for Olympique de Marseille were Alain Giresse, the gifted French international midfielder, and German international centre-half, Karl-Heinz Forster. Both players were signed after the 1986 World Cup and were a signal of the intent the club had to take the next step on the continent.
Over the next few years, more top class talent arrived at the port of Marseille, such as Eric Cantona, Abedi Pele, Rudi Voller, Jean-Pierre Papin, Basile Boli, Chris Waddle, Didier Deschamps, Klaus Allofs and Enzo Francescoli. All fantastic players in their own right, but the creative and free spirited nature of some of the players made the side a real delight to watch.
In 1989, Olympique de Marseille won Ligue 1 for the first time in 17 years and, in 1991, reached the European Cup final, where the played Yugoslavian champions Red Star Belgrade in Bari, Italy.
In a game which many feel was the worst final in living memory, Red Star Belgrade were victorious after the final was decided on penalties. The match itself was a dour, non-attacking event which, after 120 minutes, finished goalless. Manual Amoros missed the final penalty for Olympique de Marseille, after Carlos Mozer, Jean-Pierre Papin and Bernard Casoni had all been successful.
Olympique de Marseille and Bernard Tapie’s dream to reign as European Champions would have to wait.
In 1993, the decision was made to change the name of the European Cup to the UEFA Champions League; with more revenue through TV rights and more sponsorship, clubs were to become richer.
Despite four consecutive Ligue 1 titles, Marseille were not considered as one of the favourites to win the new trophy.
AC Milan, Barcelona and FC Porto were all tipped to take the inaugural crown, but Tapie was hopeful that his team could progress to the later stages of the competition. From there, Tapie hoped that their experience two years previous would help them go one step further and lift the trophy.
In the first round, Olympique de Marseille were drawn against reigning Northern Ireland league champions, Glentoran. The French team won over two legs with an 8-0 aggregate win.
After the first round, the competition split into two groups, with each team playing others in their group on a home and away basis. The winner of each respective group would then play in the first ever UEFA Champions League final.
Olympique de Marseille were joined in their group by Glasgow Rangers, Club Brugge and CSKA Moscow. The French side topped their group but were unconvincing in doing so. Their match against Glasgow Rangers was particularly worrying for Tapie, with the Scottish side matching them; drawing at Ibrox and at the Stade Velodrome.
In the other group, AC Milan stormed to the top; winning every match and only conceding one goal. Marco Van Basten and Marco Simeone were scoring goals for fun, and the legendary back four of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini were solid. Everyone backed the Italians.
The final took place on the 26th May 1993 in the Olympiastadion in Munich. Milan had a star-studded team; with Baresi and co, joined by Rijkaard, Donadoni and Sebastiano Rossi. Marseille themselves had some quality in their team; Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, Alen Boksic and Abedi Pele to name a few. The match was a close contest but was decided by a Basile Boli header just before half time.
Olympique de Marseille were champions of Europe for the first time in their history and the inaugural winners of the UEFA Champions League. It was the first time a French side had won the top trophy in Europe and, to this day, they remain the old side to do so.
Celebrations would be short-lived, however, when their president Bernard Tapie was found guilty of match fixing. Tapie was imprisoned after he was found to paid Valenciennes to throw a game just days before the UEFA Champions League final. The French league title was removed from the club, they were relegated and were not allowed to defend their newly won Champions League crown. Their victory was severely tainted and left a very bitter taste in a lot of people’s mouths, placing questions on previous victories.
The club’s reputation was tarnished forever. There’s little doubt in Tapie’s crime, but for the heroic players of 1993, their triumph will forever be overshadowed