Words: Rob Hemingway
Images: Offside Sports Photography
During his time at Olympique de Marseille, Chris Waddle lived in Aix-en-Provence, a classy French town to the north of the city.
His journey south to the old Velodrome is one that I did myself years later when living in the town as a much, much poorer student. As the A51 wends into the A7 artery, so you pick up a sense of the Marseillaise identity.
The squalid, gritty quartiers nord welcome you first, providing a (normally cracked) window into the soul of the city’s dwellers. Washing hangs between characterless high-rise towers. Shouts echo from the constrictive streets below.
The walk to the stadium takes you down Avenue du Prado and, beyond, the port, home to tourists and hustlers. Climbing the tribunes of the Velodrome in the days before it was renamed and plushed up, it would’ve felt raw. But seeing those crystal white shirts, immaculately chevroned, highlighted in electric blue, and hearing the howl of Le Mistral—the strong wind that hurtles down through France and into the Gulf of Lion, whipping the city of Marseille and the Mediterranean into a frenzy—as it carries chants from one curva to another... This is what football is about.
But this was also life. Seeing a team so emblematic of its city—multi-racial, multi-national, multi-talented—take on all comers and win, validated and energised its people. But it was a team whose legacy had been marred, shall we say, by some unsavoury tactics.
"Tapie is a person who knows no limits. He would do anything to get to the top.”
So began the recent confessional to Le Monde from Marc Fratani, the early-nineties henchman of Olympique Marseille’s then-President, Bernard Tapie.
“I once attended a meeting to buy a referee, it was for a game against PSG in Paris,” continued Fratani, whose nickname was L’homme de l’ombre, ‘Man of the Shadows’. “In that game, we also conditioned our opponent with Haldol [a drug usually used in the treatment of schizophrenia, Tourette syndrome, and mania in bipolar disorder]. We added it using syringes with an ultra-thin needle. We injected it into plastic bottles, and anything they ate or drank from was treated with it."
Quite an intense game plan. And in mixing off-pitch skulduggery with on-pitch brilliance, OM achieved huge success. Between 1989 and 1992, they won four consecutive Ligue 1 titles as well as becoming the first (and, as yet, only) French side to win the Champions League, in 1993.
The ‘93 vintage, especially, was scandalously good, despite being the year they broke their title run. Built around a spine of a young Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, and Rudi Völler with Abedi Pele and Alen Bokšić buzzing about; to say they were formidable would be like calling Fratani and Tapie “maybe a bit dodgy”. In the preceding seasons, they had also been able to call upon the prolific Jean-Pierre Papin—who ironically missed the ‘93 triumph having defected to AC Milan, who they defeated in the final—and Provence’s favourite Englishman, Chris Waddle.
For three seasons, Waddle had even crossed over with a young Eric Cantona, who, according to the winger, turned up to training every day on a Harley Davidson. They shared dinner together on a few occasions too, albeit with their respective rudimentary language skills, you can’t imagine the chat was up to much.
On the pitch, of course, they spoke the universal language. (Although ‘Magic Chris’ was never fluent, he did pick up a little of the local accent, with the result being a quite spectacular Geordie-Provencal patois.) Waddle fit in for many reasons in the South of France, finding a place for his zigs and zags and singular style that were so depressingly distrusted at home.
It wasn’t hard to find inspiration looking around the OM dressing room: Éric Di Melo’s flowing locks! Barthez with hair! Völler’s mullet! Waddle even had a penalty shoot-out competition with Völler to decide whose mullet was ‘better’.
In the dugout for much of Marseille’s historic period was Raymond Goethals, a curmudgeonly figure whose Belgianness became his legend. Chain-smoking in tan suits. The works. He looked the absolute business. Regularly mispronouncing players names and addressing the press irascibly in his strong Brussels accent, Goethals may have been a nailed-on Columbo doppelgänger, but he knew how to organise and motivate his charges.
The Milan final was a case in point. Up against one of the all-time great sides who had only just started to drop from their imperious peak, Fabio Capello’s team still contained Dutch maestros Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten and a defensive line that included Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, and Paolo Maldini. But OM themselves stifled, soaked, and smothered; the party boys staying strong and keeping it tight, all the while remaining threatening through Völler and at set-plays—from which Basile Boli would score the winner with a textbook front-post header.
Now let’s listen to his truly inexplicable synth-pop banger alongside The Waddler, ‘We’ve Got A Feeling’, from 1991 to celebrate.
You can imagine how it must have felt to be one of them, in their pomp. Fuck what the crooks upstairs were up to: the players and people of Marseille must’ve felt like kings. Fuck you, Paris; we don’t need your help. Fuck you, Ligue 1; we’re doing what you’ve never done. Fuck you, tout le monde.
But it wouldn’t last, and as Tapie was incarcerated for his crimes, so too were OM punished. Dropped into Ligue 2, they rebounded after two seasons, but the coterie of stars had long since departed. They won their only league title since in 2010—with Deschamps back at the helm—but with the advent of PSG’s Qatari money, they’ve not had a sniff since 2013.
OM’s heyday may go down as French football’s Lance Armstrong moment, and their trophies and achievements may be scratched out—as some have already been—but for a long-suffering city perennially patronised by Paris, what can’t be removed are the memories of what this time represented.
It was a fleeting era, an epoch in miniature. But it was a whirlwind of Mediterranean galácticos, whipped up by Le Mistral with sunshine and Harleys, dodgy music and dodgier barnets, playing football that remains a joy to watch, fast and fluid, flitting between astute tactical play and highlight reel exhibitionism in the time it took the big lad from Gateshead to zig and zag...
It didn’t last, but does that matter? For a few years there, they had it all.