Jeremy SmithComment


Jeremy SmithComment

After a full season’s hard work, it came down to a matter of inches. Marseille Consolat entered the last round of National matches needing to win and for Amiens to fail to do so, in order to secure promotion to Ligue 2. Consolat did their part, beating Sedan 4-1; Amiens led Belfort 1-0 when their visitors put the ball in the net, only for the goal to be ruled out for a (not at all obvious) off-side. Amiens held on to their win and Consolat missed promotion by a point, leaving their supporters with a familiar sense of dashed hopes.

Groupe Sportif Consolat – more commonly known as Marseille Consolat – have, thanks to the work of a small nucleus of dedicated individuals, won the right to call themselves Marseille’s second club. While they cannot yet aspire to challenge the sporting superiority of Olympique de Marseille, their achievements are, relatively speaking, at least as impressive as OM’s – particularly as they are not restricted to the football pitch alone.

To put Consolat’s success into some kind of immediate context, some geo-political background is required. Generally, city clubs are born out of different districts or perhaps even satellite towns. Consolat, however, cannot even pretend to call itself a district. Rather, it is one of the notorious housing estates that were built in France during the 1960s, created in the north of Marseille to house the city’s railway and factory workers and dockers. Like so many of those cités, as the factories closed down and manpower was replaced by high-tech machinery, unemployment levels rocketed: estimates of the 4,500-strong population of the estate are that over 40% of the youth are jobless. With little investment from the government and prospects limited, delinquency shot up too. The small, enclosed area became a hotbed for drug dealing and incidents involving Kalashnikovs.

It is within this tense climate that Marseille Consolat has taken on a pivotal role.

Established in 1964, just after the opening of the estate itself, Consolat was a local club much like the 200-odd others living in the shadow of the Vélodrome. All that changed when 23-year-old child of Consolat, Jean-Luc Mingallon, took over as club president in 1983 – the same year that the club, playing in the lower regional leagues, arguably reached its nadir when an argument between team-mates ended with gunshots being fired, in many people’s eyes merely providing justification for the club’s reputation as a club of thugs.

Mingallon took over with 5 francs in the club coffers – he used his dole money to purchase footballs – and with a stated aim that “Consolat no longer be talked about through front-page stories”. Now 34 years later, Mingallon is still in place and he has more than made good on his promise.

During his tenure, the club has experienced an incredible rise from the tenth tier of France’s pyramid to the Championnat National – France’s third division – missing out on promotion to Ligue 2 in June 2016 by the narrowest of margins. That it has done so with a miniscule budget compared to its competitors (Consolat was promoted from the fourth tier CFA despite having the smallest budget in the division; last year its budget was one tenth that of eventual National champions Strasbourg) is laudable. But it is what the club is doing for the estate as a whole that should be the front page story.

Compared with its neighbouring estates of similar size and demographic, Consolat is in reasonable shape, its population looking to the future with more hope, thanks to the pride engendered by Marseille Consolat’s success – and more importantly the community work that it is carrying out.

The club has more than 500 registered players of all ages on its books, all of whom have access to the Stade Jose Anigo – named after another child of the cité who went on to coach the club as well as OM– a purpose-built fenced-off pitch in the centre of the estate. As Nasser Benahcene, a youth team coach, points out: “thanks to the football schools we run, the kids are not hanging out outside the tower blocks, on the concrete, with all the danger that surrounds them. Here, they’re in a secure area, where they’re looked after”. Karim Yacoub, sporting director of Consolat’s youth teams, agrees: “without [the Stade], without its floodlights, what would we have here? We’d have the towers, shady corners – you can guess the rest. But here you have a lively, well-lit place which will stay open till 9pm, there’ll be training, there’ll be players, there’ll be movement, there’ll be atmosphere – and it’s a good, healthy thing”.

The Stade – and the opportunity to take part in football classes – protects the children not only from others but also from themselves. Yacoub adds that “there are many temptations at Marseille. We try to be vigilant, and to turn the screw if and when kids take a wrong turn”. Benahcene, too, is conscious of his responsibilities beyond simply teaching football skills: “I have tried to also teach some social basics – it’s never too late!” The club also has an innovative method to “discipline” some of the older children: if they misbehave, they will be suspended from their age-group and sent to help train the 6-7 year olds, the switch to the authority position – including being accountable to the younger kids’ parents at the end of the session – giving them an increased sense of responsibility.

The facilities and opportunities have been recognised as the club has received the FFF Label Ecole de Football. It is not, however, trying to replace school, but to use the kids’ love of football to incentivise them to keep working hard: “if you get 0 in your school report, we’re not going to take you on”. The children’s parents, too, are mindful of what the club is doing. One mother said “it teaches them values, respect for others, respect for rules. There are people in the northern quarters [of Marseille] who do want to work, who do want to study, who do want to get out – you mustn’t generalise”. Yacoub backs this up: “today we talk of murder, drug trafficking, unemployment, uninhabitable apartments, unclean roads – all that is negative. Now we have something positive”.

At all levels the club also promotes inclusivity, irrespective of background or disability. The top scorer of the reserve team last year, Malick Babo, is deaf and dumb and has gone on to represent France’s sourd-muet national team. And, with a large Muslim population on the estate, the club ensures that its regulations can be adapted to accommodate religious necessities – right up to the first team, which will relax its mandatory breakfast attendance rule for those who need to eat early before praying.

It is this first team, many members of which are Marseille born and bred, that remains the club’s public face, despite the sterling work being carried out behind the scenes. Playing home games at the 2,000-capacity Stade de la Martine, in the club’s distinctive green and yellow kit (representing light and hope but also the distinctive colour combination of the walls and shutters of the Consolat high-rises), this season again Consolat are outside bets for a promotion push, although continued National survival is over-achievement in itself, considering the difficult circumstances in which the team continues to operate. Last season’s National coach of the season winner Nicolas Usaï resigned early this season to take over at rival National club Sedan (currently 13 points and eight places behind Consolat), leaving Eric Chelle to pick up the baton, which he has done admirably. And the club continues to have to deal with the reputation that comes with being a club of a Marseille cité.

Mingallon has noticed the double-standards that exist between his team and others: “if we say hello to the referee, that’s already a yellow card”. Midfielder and Comoros international Salim Mramboini agrees, saying “when we play away we’re called crooks, thieves. It is difficult to try to rise above it, to not be provoked. We’ve earned respect through performances and results – we’re here through hard work”. The recent events against Chambly in which a bad-tempered match ending with Consolat conceding two injury-time goals to lose 2-1 degenerated into an on-pitch brawl with Consolat players heard saying that they would be waiting with Kalashnikovs next time, suggests that the club’s combatting of stereotypes remains a work in progress.

Mingallon’s main issue, however, is the lack of support received from local behemoth Olympique de Marseille and from the local authorities. It is surprising that not a single player has been loaned from the Vélodrome club to its neighbour – a policy that seems short-sighted since some kind of partnership surely has the potential to help both clubs. Connections between the clubs are hard to find: after Jose Anigo, one could point to the comically rotund Fabrice Apruzesse, a former Consolat forward and one-appearance wonder for OM in 2012 or, more tenuously, Salah Nasri – uncle of former Marseillais Samir – has been on Consolat’s playing and administrative staff, while current forward Julien Lopez is the older brother of OM’s current starlet Maxime. OM connections aside, arguably Consolat’s biggest-name player is Ivorian international Guy Demel, who played four matches in last year’s promotion push after a career that took in regular appearances at Borussia Dortmund and West Ham, while this year’s 17-goal top scorer Umut Bozok, signed from Metz in the summer and now a Turkish under-21 international, may yet make a name for himself.

As for the local authorities, Mingallon consistently rails against the lack of financial support and investment coming from the city, which counters that it has well over 100 similarly-sized clubs to support. True as that may be, local former MEP Karim Zeribi has called it shameful that OM received €267 million in funding for the refurbishment of the Vélodrome, while Consolat’s Stade de la Martine struggles to receive approval to host National matches (let alone the possibility of Ligue 2 fixtures). Neatly mirroring the estate as a whole, Consolat is therefore forced to live hand to mouth financially. Although the club could do a little more to help itself (Parisian property company Era-CTI funded the club for one season, covering debts and paying for hotels, before pulling out, saying that at Consolat if you’re not from Marseille you have no chance of being accepted), Mingallon has a point when he says of the city’s north-south divide: “in the south they have everything – the ice rinks, the metro … we’re animals in the quartier nord. There’s the south and then there’s the north. [Marseille mayor Jean-Claude] Gaudin leaves us peanuts.”

While Mingallon is not averse to a little grandstanding, he has the people of his estate at heart. Speaking of last season’s gut-wrenching near-miss, he said “we are the main business of Consolat. We give people work. If we had been promoted to Ligue 2, it would have breathed oxygen into the area, people would have been employed, it would have created an economy.”

Mayoress of the northern quarters Samia Ghali has a dramatic warning with regard to the lack of investment: “you can’t on one hand moan about kids going to Jihad, trafficking drugs, but then ignore these clubs, these people, who give everything and don’t ask for much in return. These quartiers are very resourceful – more than you can imagine. The question is to what they will apply themselves. Will people give them the means for it to be in a positive way?”

Marseille Consolat, like many of the cité’s inhabitants, lives on a knife edge of success and failure, financial survival and poverty: the stories of the club and the estate have become intertwined. Mingallon and his colleagues have shown how they can be a force for good in Marseille and deserve to receive more support from higher up, for the future survival and success of all at Consolat.

By Jeremy Smith, IBWM Editor.