Resurgent Marseille flying the flag for France again
Twenty-five years have passed since Marseille’s crowning moment, but the only French club ever to have been European champions are finally dreaming of more glory on the continental stage.
After a Europa League campaign that began in late July, Rudi Garcia’s side now find themselves up against Atletico Madrid in Wednesday’s final in Lyon, at the home of one of their great rivals.
OM will not be the favourites against Diego Simeone’s formidable team, and indeed anybody brave enough at the start of the season to tip a French side to go all the way in Europe would probably not have said Marseille.
But Paris Saint-Germain again came up short in the Champions League, despite the world-record signing of Neymar, and Lyon failed to reach the Europa League final in their own stadium, leaving Marseille to fly the flag.
They have done that with distinction before — Basile Boli’s headed winner against AC Milan in the 1993 Champions League final in Munich allowed them to become European champions for the first time.
No French side has repeated that feat, with PSG’s victory in the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996 the only other European trophy success for the country’s clubs.
Marseille have had their moments though — already beaten in the 1991 European Cup final, on penalties by Red Star Belgrade, they lost the UEFA Cup finals of 1999 to Parma and 2004 to Valencia.
Still France’s best supported side, they are preparing for their fifth European final altogether, looking to give their notoriously passionate fans a night to remember.
“It’s fantastic. I’d really love to write history with OM. We have had a great run and given ourselves this chance,” said Florian Thauvin, their outstanding player this season.
Those fans will travel the three hours by road to Lyon in big numbers, relishing the prospect of lifting that trophy in their rivals’ own backyard, even if only around 11,000 tickets have been allocated to them.
In a Mediterranean city that lives and breathes for its football team, there have been more downs than ups in the last quarter of a century, and fans descended on the Old Port to celebrate in style after the semi-final win over Salzburg.
“When you are a player and you live in Marseille, you understand right away,” Boli, now 51, said in an interview with France Televisions.
“You go to the butcher, the baker, you go to pick up your daughter, the city is like that, you don’t need to be told that you represent something extraordinary. You experience it every day.”
– McCourt’s ‘road to glory’ –
The 1993 success of Boli’s side ended up closing a golden period in the club’s history — a match-fixing scandal erupted at the same time, and finished with Marseille being consigned to the second division a year later.
OM have been French champions only once since, under Didier Deschamps in 2010, and since then have seen their greatest enemies, PSG, become one of the richest clubs on the planet under Qatari ownership.
PSG’s budget is around four times that of Marseille, and the capital side have just won a fifth Ligue 1 crown in six years. But they have consistently fallen short in the Champions League.
Marseille will certainly settle for victory in Europe’s less prestigious competition, as they look to cap their first full season since American tycoon Frank McCourt took over at the Stade Velodrome.
Former Los Angeles Dodgers owner McCourt bought the club from Margarita Louis-Dreyfus in October 2016 and immediately launched his ‘Champions Project’, insisting: “We’re going to put our club back on the road to glory.”
After spending significant money to bring in experience and quality in the likes of Dimtri Payet, Luiz Gustavo and Adil Rami, Marseille are well down that road now, and it leads to Lyon this week.