As soon as one exits Marseille’s grandiose Saint Charles railway station, built in 1848, a visitor senses that this is not France, but a city sui generis, proud of its diversity and eccentricity. Marseille bubbles, sizzles and enchants. Massilia of the ancient Greeks is little different from today’s Marseille after all: the city funnels immigrants, refugees, hoods and fishermen from the entire Mediterranean. In many ways, Marseille was the real precursor of the notion ‘multiculturalism.’
It is a contemporary concoction of the good, the mad, the bad and the outright dangerous. The city is out of turn with the rest of France - not that Marseille cares. There is no French chic to be found. The city rejects its EURO 2016 portray, with a compulsory quote of Gustave Flaubert. In fact, there are two Marseilles, the lush Mediterranean hub with yachts and a jetset society, and the unforgiving citees on the hills.
If Marseille is a city of crazy contrasts, the local club is a perfect fit for all the outright madness that encircles Olympique de Marseille. It’s headquarters is the curvy Stade Velodrome in the southern part of the city, not so far from the Old Port, where the scuffles and rioting between English and Russian fans took place, somehow, in line with the tempestuous soul of the city.
As Albanian fans, with their qeleshes, traditional brimless hat gear, and French fans, in tricolor outfits, mingled along the Boulevard Michelet, a van depicting a life-sized portray of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa stood solemnly opposite the Virage Sud shop of Marseille’s ultras. The shop was doing brisk business, but the tribute to Bielsa was telling, because the Argentine had endeared himself to Marseille’s fans.
When Bielsa arrived at l’OM, a newspaper’s headline read: Un fou chez les fadas (“A madman joins the nutcases”). El Loco is often - too often perhaps - portrayed as a crackpot genius, who wanders around naked in the Pampas in a reclusive search for perfection. But the Argentine had been untouched by the previous politics and battle lines at the quagmire that is l’OM.
Olympique de Marseille boasts a rich history of scandals, with the club presidents always in an unsavory protagonist role. In the 70’s, Marcel Leclerc threatened to withdraw the club from the French league, in the 90’s Bernard Tapie was involved in a major match-fixing scandal and current president Vincent Labrune’s management has repeatedly come under fire, not in the least for his treatment of Bielsa.
The Argentine dissects opponents in excruciating detail through infinite hours of video-analyzing: how they recuperate possession, how they build up play and transition forward. He then breaks those moves down, pinpoints where possession can be regained and demands constant collective pressing from his players. They must also think in terms of shapes and patterns. At the end of the season his players are physically and emotionally drained, but sticks to his philosophy.
But he hadn’t counted on Labrune’s interference with transfer policies and other sportive maters. El Loco left in dismay after his first season. He seemingly failed to understand that football, local politics, and, at times, the city’s netherworld are deeply intertwined when it comes to Olympique de Marseille.
The club offers politicians soft power. At the same time, Marseille’s influence with the masses, as France’s most widely supported club, is unmistaken. That intricate interplay and delicate symbiosis affects the club, for better or for worse.
L’OM’s huge popularity remains a rarity in French football. The fans and ultras will always support the club first, then, in the pecking order, come Les Bleus. The local fans ensured the sterile atmosphere of the opening game at the Stade de France didn’t materialize.
Deep into the second half local hero Andre-Pierre Gignac came on as a substitute for Oliver Giroud. The fans chanted his name. In the dying minutes, Gignac, involuntarily assisted Dimitri Payet, France’s new boy wonder, to seal the hosts’s qualification for the knockout phase. Scenes of utter jubilation and joy ensued around the ground.
Indeed, France has never regretted visiting Marseille, rejoicing in the idea of loyalty to a true footballing city. In 1984, Les Bleus defeated Portugal 3-2 in the semi-finals of the European Championship after penalties. Michel Platini and his teammates defeated Spain in the final 2-0. In 1998, France won its opening game at the Velodrome Stadium against South Africa 3-0. They would go on to lift the World Cup.
Once more, Marseille welcomed Les Bleus, albeit on its on terms, and roared the team onto victory. History thus suggests that Deschamps’s team may reach the final.