The year is 1986. Diego Maradona has fired Argentina to the World Cup title while on the south coast of France, a businessman named Bernard Tapie has just become president of middling Ligue 1 club Olympique Marseille. 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 that within three years the league title will be their exclusive preserve and by 1993 they’ll be crowned champions of Europe.
It’ll all come crashing down the following 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 in charge of France’s 1984 European Championship success, becming Director of Football. The trio makes a statement of intent with their transfer strategy: 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 and second in the league, scoring 21 goals in 30 games in the process. In the first season under Tapie, Marseille gave Bordeaux a run for their money before ultimately finishing runners-up to them in both League and Cup. It represented progress at least considering Les Olympiens had finished 12th the season before, but Tapie wanted more.
But the 1987/88 season passed without progress ever looking like being forthcoming – in fact, this season 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 League finish.
At least some individuals were shining. Papin nabbed the first of five successive top scorer awards with 19 goals while working well alongside Klaus Allofs 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 came Franck Sauzée, a skilled goal threat of a 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 during the 1988/89 season.
There’s also the matter of Eric Cantona, a boyhood fan of the club who had joined after taking the France 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 grab a point. Their next match away to Lille goes little better. 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, typically a steady presence alongside Förster at centre-back, gives away a penalty and is sent off, condemning Marseille to defeat.
Tapie sacks Banide the next day and brings in Gérard Gili, a former Marseille goalkeeper who had no managing experience at all besides his coaching duties under Banide. Knowing 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, 20-year-old Patrice Eyraud joins Papin and Klaus Allofs in 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 edge 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. 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 sit seven points behind leaders PSG.
Fast forward to the final few matchdays and PSG are still on top, with a showdown against Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome to come and 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 when he powered a shot from outside the box into the PSG net.
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 following week keeps them on top and sets up Marseille’s final challenge – a home tie against Auxerre. Two fantastic goals from Papin put them ahead and the Marseillaise hold on despite Didier Otokore pulling one back for Auxerre. 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 that had almost destroyed their title hopes with that 3-0 humiliation.
But Wenger’s men weren’t prepared for a Papin now in his peak form. 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 put Marseille ahead. Monaco pulled one back through Marcel Dib with the match becoming tense as the first half ends. After the break, Papin gets a third, before being fouled by Manuel Amoros inside the box.
Allofs lets Papin take the penalty, 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 derail Les Olympiens, but Marseille hold on and the double is theirs. Gili, an inexperienced manager, had achieved 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, barely known in France but making waves in England with Tottenham. Joining a revamped front line was the Uruguayan Enzo Francescoli from Racing Paris. He would only spend one season at Marseille, but his performances were memorable enough to inspire a young Zinedine Zidane.
Gili knew his 4-3-3 formula worked, so he simply brought in players who could fit his desired roles and were better than the current incumbents. 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 veteran box-to-box midfielder Jean Tigana meant that Philippe Vercruysse isn’t so lucky. Bruno Germain is also eventually pushed out as Didier Deschamps joins later 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 Marseille would go on another 14-match unbeaten run, with high-scoring Bordeaux pursuing them closely.
Things almost go pear-shaped when goalkeeper Huard breaks his leg in a European Cup quarter-final against CSKA Sofia, leaving ageing 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 have easily reached the final. Despite Huard’s injury, CSKA Sofia was easily dispatched in the Quarter Finals to set up a tie with Benfica in the semis. 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, then Francescoli set up Papin to score a beautiful goal just before half-time. It was a win, but Benfica’s away goal proved crucial. In Lisbon, the Marseille front line pushes and pushes for a goal, but nothing gives; the 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 reshaped by two returning loanees – Abedi Pele, a Ghanaian who 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 the 8th 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 taken a gamble.
It didn’t pay off. The fans had been against Beckenbauer from the start and 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 had chased them to the wire.
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 it’s business as usual for Marseille under Tapie – league title clinched, Papin 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 with their superstar team featuring Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard thanks to Sacchi’s fluid zonal marking system. At the San Siro, Gullit capitalises on a mistake by Mozer, but Papin quickly scores a leveller. It ends all-square with the crucial away goal in the bag. Then, in the return leg, a single goal from Waddle sees Marseille advance. Spartak Moscow is the opposition in the semis and it’s a lot less tense. Goals from Papin, Pele, and Vercruysse see Marseille cruise to a 3-1 victory in Moscow, followed up by a 2-1 win at home to send 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 turns 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 to the extent of Deschamps and Sauzeè.
Ivić’s reign enjoyed a great start, undefeated in the first seven matches, and even after a 1-0 loss to Toulon, Marseille was 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 back to escort them to the title. In April the 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 for the fourth time in a row with a 2-0 win against Cannes.
Papin, of course, was the top scorer – although this would be his last award 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 Saint-Etienne earlier that season when 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 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 the club was stripped of its league title amid a match-fixing scandal that saw Tapie 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 of success at short notice.
With goalkeeper Olmeta waning, 22-year-old future World Cup winner Fabien Barthez was brought in from Toulouse as part of wholesale defensive changes. Boli and Di Meco remained, but out went Mozer, Amoros and Casoni, to be replaced by Marcel Desailly and Jean-Jacques Eydelie from Nantes, while Jocelyn Angloma was promoted from his substitute role.
The midfield duo of Sauzeè and Deschamps remained, but with Papin and Waddle moving on, only Abedi Pele remained from the previous season’s formidable attack. Luckily, Goethals found something better: Alen Bokšić, a strong technical forward who only played a single game for Cannes the season before, slotted in on the left 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 Northern Irish side Glentoran in the round of 32 then 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 sat level with Rangers and with just 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 slain two years ago: AC Milan, the team that had snapped up Papin in the summer. Papin didn’t start the game, but that didn’t make things any easier for Barthez in goal who was subject to an early Milan onslaught. After 20 minutes he made a fantastic save against Van Basten, before another reflex save from Daniele Massaro kept Marseille in the game.
Then, just before half-time, the man who was so affected by Marseille’s final loss two years earlier rose to the occasion. Abedi Pele whipped in a curling cross from the corner, Basile Boli lept while holding off Rijkaard and headed the ball beyond Sebastiano Rossi’s fingertips. Now Marseille had a real job to do. As Milan pushed forward, Papin came on to torment his former employers, but Barthez continued to palm away all the shots the Italians could muster. 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 any members of his squad to be potentially injured before the final. Burruchaga and Robert accepted, but Glassmann refused and later received the FIFA Fair Play Award for his actions.
In the summer of 1993, Marseille’s headquarters was 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 that 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 makes it special to the Marseille faithful.