The year is 1986. Diego Maradona has fired Argentina to the World Cup title, while future icons Sergio Ramos, Manuel Neuer, and Shinji Okazaki have recently come into the world. But on the south coast of France, a businessman called Bernard Tapie has just become president of Olympique Marseille, a middling club in the First Division.
Tapie is no stranger to success. He’s also the owner of La Vie Claire, a chain of health product stores that created a cycling team of the same name. Under Tapie, that team won the Tour de France in 1985 and 1986. There’s a sense of excitement in Provence, sure, but no one could predict just how successful Marseille could be. Within three years, the league title will be theirs, and by 1993 they’ll be crowned champions of Europe.
It’ll all come crashing down the next year, of course, but let’s not worry about that right now.
Tapie’s first course of action is to bring in Gerard Banide as manager, with former France boss Michel Hidalgo, the man who managed France’s 1984 European Championship win, becoming Director of Football.
The trio make a statement of intent with their transfers. In comes Karlheinz Förster, a rock of a centre-back who neutralised Hugo Sánchez and Michel Platini as West Germany reached the World Cup final, along with 1984 heroes Jean-François Domergue, Bernard Genghini, and Alain Giresse – the latter a member of the “Carré Magique” midfield that helped France to the 1984 European title.
There was also the arrival of a 22-year-old striker called Jean-Pierre Papin, brought in from Club Brugge, where he had just fired them to the 1986 Belgian Cup, also finishing second in the league, scoring 21 goals in 30 games.
In their first season under Tapie, Marseille gave Bordeaux a run for their money but ultimately finished second, before being beaten by Bordeaux in the French Cup final, too. It was still a remarkable result, considering the Les Olympiens had finished 12th the season before, but Tapie wanted more success, and he wanted it as soon as possible.
But another season passed and he didn’t get it. In fact, 1987/88 arguably went worse. Sure, there was a run to the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final – including a memorable 4-0 crushing of Hajduk Split – but Marseille slipped down to a sixth-placed finish.
At least some individuals were shining. Papin nabbed the top scorer award with 19 goals, a feat he would keep up in France for five consecutive seasons, working well with Klaus Allofs up front, who had been signed in the interim. Giresse was also named French Player of the Year by France Football, but this title was bittersweet as the playmaker announced his imminent retirement.
With his best player gone, Banide realised his squad needed a dramatic overhaul if he was going to deliver the success Tapie hired him for. First comes Franck Sauzée, a long-shooting midfielder who helped bring Sochaux back into Ligue 1 and into the Coupe de France final. Then there are the additions of goalkeeper Gaëtan Huard, left-back Philippe Thys, and midfielders Philippe Vercruysse, and Bruno Germain, who all became first-team fixtures in 1988/89.
There’s also the matter of Eric Cantona, a boyhood fan of Marseille who had joined after taking the France U21 side to the U21 European Championship in the summer, scoring a hat-trick against England in the process. Cantona was already making waves for the wrong reasons, though: the previous season he was banned for two months after a dangerous tackle, while the season before he had punched a teammate on the training ground.
Despite Banide’s new-look side – or maybe because of it – things get off to a bad start. Marseille’s first match, a home tie against Montpellier, sees the visitors score inside five minutes. It takes a Papin volley – one of his trademark Papinades – just to level the terms.
Their next match, away to Lille, goes just as well. Les Olympiens lagged behind for most of the match until a lucky own-goal saves them in stoppage time. But they even manage to squander this lifeline, as, one minute later, Yvon Le Roux, who had always been a steady presence alongside Förster at centre-back, gives away a penalty and is sent off, condemning Marseille to defeat.
Tapie, always one to seek the best, sacks Banide the next day, bringing in coach Gérard Gili, a former Marseille goalkeeper who had no managing experience at all besides his coaching duties under Banide.
Knowing with the team’s youth players well, Gili seeks to introduce new blood. 23-year-old Éric Di Meco, having returned on loan from Nancy, becomes an ever-present force at right-back, while 20-year-old Patrice Eyraud joins Papin and Klaus Allofs on the front-line and 20-year-old Frédéric Meyrieu gets more game time in the midfield.
In Gili’s attacking 4-3-3 system, Marseille gradually recover and climb up the table. They hit their peak in October when goals from Papin, Vercruysse, and Sauzeé squeak Marseille past Metz 3-2 and into first place on goals scored. With Paris Saint-Germain and Auxerre breathing down their necks, the title race was always going to be close
But in the next match, Marseille are thrashed 3-0 by Arsène Wenger’s Monaco, sunk by goals from Glenn Hoddle and George Weah. A draw against PSG and a 1-0 loss to Auxerre puts them further behind, and just as they find their form with a 2-0 win against Saint-Etienne, the winter break begins.
Marseille are seven points behind PSG, with Auxerre only two points behind the leaders.
Fast forward to the final few matchdays and PSG are still on top, with a showdown against Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome looking like a title decider. The Parisians, led by future Marseille coach Tomislav Ivić, play defensively, looking to keep Papin contained at all costs. With barely any shots registered for either side, it looks like Ivić’s gamble is a success until, in the 91st minute, Franck Sauzeé became a Marseille hero, powering a last-minute shot from outside the box into into the PSG net and flipping the title race on its head.
PSG president Francis Borelli summed up the night: “God has punished us because we have not played.” Meanwhile, Gili criticised Ivić’s style, calling it “a game where there is an absence of life and emotion.”
A win against Toulon the next week keeps them on top, setting up Marseille’s final challenge – a home tie against Auxerre. Two fantastic goals from Papin put them ahead, and through a goal from Didier Otokore for Auxerre puts hearts in mouths, the Marseillaise hold on.
The news comes in that PSG are held to a draw at Lens which means that Marseille are champions for the first time since 1972.
There was still the matter of the Coupe de France, which would see them take on Auxerre in a two-legged semi-final. The Burgundians are out for revenge, but again it’s a typical Marseille performance – Papin and Vercruysse score in the home leg, Allofs away. Auxerre are dispatched comfortably – a massive contrast to what would be an edge-of-the-seat finale. Les Olympiens were taking on Monaco, a team they hadn’t beaten this season and one hat had almost destroyed their title hopes with that 3-0 humiliation.
But Wenger’s men weren’t prepared for a Papin now in his prime. Having finished as league top scorer again with 22 goals, the Parc des Princes set the stage for his first hat-trick for his club.
Two goals inside 22 minutes meant Marseille were ahead. Monaco pulled one back through Marcel Dib, with the match becoming tense as the first half closes. After the break, Papin gets a third, before being fouled by Manuel Amoros inside the box.
Allofs lets Papin take it, but in a rare misstep for the striker, his shot is saved. The German’s generosity later pays off as he adds to the tally in the 65th minute, but things get way to close for comfort in the match’s dying moments. A lob from Dib and an Amoros penalty almost derails Les Olympiens, but Marseille hold on and the double is theirs.
Gili, an inexperienced manager, had done in one season what the seasoned Banide couldn’t do.
With a European Cup campaign to take on, Tapie demands even more investment in the squad. Despite his chemistry with Papin, Allofs is shipped off to Bordeaux and replaced by Chris Waddle, who had been making waves in England with Tottenham but was barely known across the English Channel.
Joining a revamped front line was Enzo Francescoli, a Uruguayan well-loved at Racing Paris, having recently been called up to the national team. He would only spend one season at Marseille, but his performances were memorable enough that a young Zinedine Zidane would be inspired by him.
Gili knew his 4-3-3 formula worked, so he simply brought in players who could fit his desire roles better. Manuel Amoros, the man who had benefited from Thys’s mistimed tackle in the Coupe de France final, replaced him at left-back, while Brazilian Carlos Mozer replaced Le Roux, slotting in next to the ever-present Förster.
Sauzeè’s league heroics helped him retain his place in midfield, but incoming box-to-box midfielder Jean Tigana meant that Philippe Vercruysse isn’t so lucky. Bruno Germain is also eventually pushed out as Didier Deschamps later joins in November, with the 21-year-old impressing immensely.
The 1989/90 campaign starts off smoothly, with Marseille remaining unbeaten for 14 matches. Thrashings of Lyon (4-1) Sochaux (6-1) and Toulon (4-0) show how ruthless their attack has become. But, as always, there were setbacks. Bordeaux beat them 3-0, with main man Allofs coming back to haunt them with the final goal. After that loss, though, they again went on a 14-match unbeaten run, with high-scoring Bordeaux following closely behind.
Things almost go pear-shaped when goalkeeper Huard breaks his leg in a European Cup quarter-final against CSKA Sofia, leaving aging backup Jean-Luc Castaneda to replace him. A 2-1 loss to Brest in the league follows thanks to a bad performance from Castaneda, giving Bordeaux more leverage, but luckily their high-scoring attack means Marseille see out the season out on top. Bordeaux finished only two points behind them, but in a way, it felt too easy for the Marseillaise.
The European Cup was their real focus, and they could’ve been in the final of it. Despite Huard’s injury, CSKA Sofia were dispatched easily, setting up a tie with Benfica in the semi-finals
The first leg in Marseille began with a Castaneda mistake allowing the Portuguese to pull ahead in the sixth minute. But Sauzeè equalised six minutes later before Francescoli set up a beautiful goal for Papin to score just before half-time. It was a win, but the Benfica’s away goal proved crucial.
In Lisbon, the Marseille front line pushes and pushes for a goal, but nothing gives, their confidence dropping as the minutes tick by. Then, in the 83rd minute, striker Vata Garcia scores a goal with his hand which the referee doesn’t notice, sending Marseille crashing out.
Tapie is furious, conscious that Marseille is still seen as a small club, and, perhaps rashly, wants change.
That change doesn’t materialise immediately, though. With Francescoli moving to Italy, Sauzeé upping sticks to Monaco, and Deschamps loaned out to Bordeaux, in came 20-year-old Dragan Stojković, who was recently named in the 1990 World Cup All-Star Team having impressed for Yugoslavia. Disappointingly, he would soon get injured and play only 11 games that season.
The defensive line was bolstered – in came new goalkeeper Pascal Olmeta from Racing Paris, defenders Basile Boli and Bernard Casoni from Auxerre and Toulon, and midfielder Laurent Fournier from Saint-Etienne.
The front three was bolstered by two returning loanees – Abedi Pele, a Ghanaian who had until then had been on loan at Lille for two seasons and had not impressed, and Cantona, who had made quite a name for himself, having thrown his boots in teammate Jean-Claude Lemoult’s face in Montpellier. The reason he was out there in the first place was that he had thrown his shirt at Gili after being substituted in a friendly in 1989, which hadn’t gone down well with Tapie.
The league got off to a great start. Gili’s men started with seven wins and two draws. It was 8 September 1990, and goals from Waddle and Cantona had just sunk PSG. Things couldn’t be going better.
So for Tapie, it made perfect sense to bring in Franz Beckenbauer as general sporting director. He was meant to co-exist with Gili, but Gili wasn’t happy and resigned after the next match, a 2-0 win at Toulouse. The pressure was on Beckenbauer and Tapie, who had made a gamble.
It didn’t pay off. The fans had been against Beckenbauer from the start, but a 1-0 loss to a Cannes side featuring an 18-year-old Zinedine Zidane didn’t help matters. There were convincing wins against Monaco, Saint-Étienne, and Rennes, but after a 4-0 loss to Auxerre and a 3-2 loss away to Lech Poznań in the European Cup, Tapie sided with the fans.
He decided to bring in Raymond Goethals as manager. The Belgian had given Marseille a run for their money the season before when his high-scoring Bordeaux side breathed down their necks.
Goethals started as he meant to go on, powering Marseille to a 3-0 win over Metz thanks to his 5-3-2 counter-attacking style. For the duration of the league season, the Marseillaise would remain unbeaten and dish out the odd spanking – Nantes 6-0, Nancy 6-2, Lyon 7-0. The front line of Waddle, Papin, and Pele is effective as ever, and its business as usual for Marseille under Tapie – league title clinched, Papin once again the top scorer.
It’s the European Cup that once again captures the imagination of the fans and Tapie, and their run this season is legendary.
With Poznań comfortably beaten 6-1, there’s a tough draw with Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan next. Milan had won the past two European Cups on the trot with their superstar team of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and the rest thanks to Sacchi’s fluid zonal marking system. At the San Siro, Gullit capitalises on a mistake by Mozer, but Papin quickly scores after. It’s level, with the crucial away goal nabbed. Then, on the return leg, a single goal from Waddle sees Marseille slip past, felling the giants of Europe.
Then there’s Spartak Moscow in semis, which is a lot less tense. Goals from Papin, Pele, and Vercruysse see Marseille cruise to a 3-1 victory in Moscow, before a 2-1 win at home sends them into the final.
And then came Red Star Belgrade in the final. The Marseille team pushes and presses, but it’s a deadlock in Bari. It’s a cagey final, both teams scared to play, knowing the importance of what they’re playing for.
It’s a shootout.
Stojković, not wanting to take a penalty against his old team, refuses. Robert Prosinečki takes the first kick and buries it, but Manuel Amoros has his saved.
There’s not a single miss for the rest of the shootout, and when Darko Pančev fires home, the pain begins, Basile Boli turning on the waterworks, personifying the frustration and pain of every Marseille fan. It was a final they could have won, maybe even should have won, but now they were leaving Italy empty-handed.
Marseille would later lose the Coupe de France to Monaco thanks to a last-minute strike, but it was always clear that their minds were still in Bari, lamenting the loss of their chance of a lifetime.
Goethals is replaced by another old rival of Marseille’s – Tomislav Ivić, the Yugoslavian whose PSG team had angered Gerard Gili with its defensiveness. Ivic’s marriage to the club was probably doomed from the start, although it was always obvious that the league was secure.
With Deschamps back from loan and Sauzeè returning from Monaco, Marseille had a more dynamic midfield, but other than that Ivic didn’t tamper with the formula too much. New signings Trevor Steven, Jocelyn Angloma, Daniel Xuereb and Pascal Baills were all brought in to bolster squad depth, but none failed to break into the team as much as Deschamps and Sauzeè did.
Ivić’s reign had a great start, undefeated in the first seven matches, and even after a 1-0 loss to Toulon, Marseille were still doing well. But a European Cup disappointment in the quarter-finals saw Marseille bow out to Sparta Prague, losing 2-1 away after beating them 3-2 at home. Of course, for Tapie, this was too much, and Goethals was brought in to escort them to their title.
In April, their only real test of the season comes against Monaco, but they were dispatched 3-0 with ease, thanks to goals from Boli, Papin, and Pele. The next weekend, the title is sealed with a 2-0 win against Cannes, for the fourth time in a row. Over the season they scored 67 goals, conceded 21, and lost only three times.
Papin, of course, was the top scorer – although this would be his last in the French league, as he announced he was moving to AC Milan. Grabbing the microphone after the Cannes match and telling the fans “I want you to know that I owe everything to you, and that I will never forget you”, it’s hard to forget that Papin was still shaken from an incident against St-Etienne earlier that season, where a match was abandoned after a can was thrown at his head. Maybe he knew something was different.
But as the season was coming to an end, tragedy struck.
Marseille were due to play a cup semi-final away at Bastia, but as preparations were underway, part of the stadium collapsed, killing 18 and wounding over 2,000. The cup was abandoned as a result, and the season ended on a tragic note.
1992/93 was a season of contrast. It marked the high point of Marseille’s history, their Champions League win that they had worked so hard for, but it also signalled the start of their descent into mediocrity, as Marseille was stripped of their league title amid a match-fixing scandal before Tapie was put under criminal investigation in 1994.
But at the start of the season this was all a long way away. What mattered was that Goethals was determined to win the Champions League, so he needed to do what Gili had done in 1988/89 and build a squad capable on success in short notice.
With goalkeeper Olmeta waning, future World Cup winner Fabien Barthez was brought in from Toulouse at the age of 22, while the defence was almost changed wholesale. Boli and Di Meco remained, but out went Mozer, Amoros, and Casoni, and in came Marcel Desailly and Jean-Jacques Eydelie from Nantes, while Jocelyn Angloma was promoted from his substitute duties.
The midfield two of Sauzeè and Deschamps remianed, but with Papin and Waddle moving on, only Abedi Pele remained from the previous season’s formidable strikeforce. Luckily, Goethals found something better: Alen Bokšić, a strong technical winger who only played a signal game for Cannes the season before, slotted in on the left wing next to Rudi Völler, a well-established forward who had played in the previous two World Cup finals with Germany.
Let’s be honest: the league was a given at this point. Again, Marseille came first – although there would be a disappointing twist to that result – and Bokšić finished as top scorer, but this wasn’t much of a cause for celebration for Goethals. He knew his job was to finally deliver the Champions League for Tapie, and anything else would’ve been an abject failure.
Their route to the final was relatively straightforward. After thrashing Welsh side Glentoran in the round of 32 before breezing past Dinamo Bucharest 2-0 on aggregate, Les Olympiens were placed in a group with Rangers of Scotland, Club Brugge of Belgium, and CSKA Moscow of Russia.
With five matches played, Marseille were one point behind Rangers, with Brugge to play. There was certainly a worry that the Glaswegians would beat the Marseillaise to the final, but all Goethals’ men could do was beat Brugge and hope. They set to work doing that quickly, Bokšić scoring inside two minutes, and while the match was closer than it should’ve been, a 1-0 victory had been hard-earned – and, more importantly, Rangers had drawn.
Marseille were through, and their opponents would be the giants they had slayed two years ago: AC Milan, the team that had snapped up Papin in the summer.
Papin didn’t start, but that didn’t make things any easier for Barthez in goal. He was subject to a Milan onslaught, but the 22 year-old was always up the task. After 20 minutes he made a fantastic save against Van Basten, before another reflex save from Daniele Massaro gave Marseille a lifeline.
Then, just before half-time, the man who was so affected by Marseille’s final loss two years before would prove to be the hero they needed. Abedi Pele whipped in a curling ball from the corner. Basile Boli lept, holding off Rijkaard. He rose and rose, heading the ball over Sebastiano Rossi’s fingertips.
Now Marseille had a real job to do.
As Milan pushed forward, Papin came on to dispatch his former employers, but Barthez continued to palm away all the shots the Italians could muster. Goethals’s defensive philosophy came into its element here, Milan were struggling to trouble Barthez.
When it was all over, history had been made. Marseille had become the first (and so far the only) French team to have won the Champions League.
And it was all thanks to the head of Basile Boli.
Of course, despite this historic win, a sour taste would be left in the mouths of France’s football fans.
Marseille’s 1-0 win against Valenciennes, the win that sealed the title that season and ensured that they could relax ahead of their Champions League final, was fixed.
Valenciennes captain Christophe Robert contacted a judge two weeks after the match, admitting that he had taken a bribe from Marseille’s Jean-Jacques Eydelie to lose the match. It later emerged that Eydelie had been told by Tapie to bribe Robert, as well as Jorge Burruchaga and Jacques Glassmann, to throw the match, as he didn’t want the squad to be hurt before the final. Burruchaga and Robert accepted, but Glassmann refused, later receiving the FIFA Fair Play Award for his actions.
In the summer of 1993, Marseille’s headquarters were raided and 12 members of the team were questioned. Eydelie admitted the bribe, and he was jailed alongside Jean-Pierre Bernès, the team’s general manager.
It got worse. Not only were Marseille stripped of their league title, but they were forbidden from competing in any European competitions and were relegated to the second division a season later. Tapie was forced to resign in the same year.
It was a sour end to a team that had captured the imagination of fans all over Europe, but Marseille’s achievements from 1988-93 are still historic. A dynasty was built overnight and crumbled just as quickly, but it still existed – and that what’s made it special to the Marseille faithful.
BY SAM BROOKE
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