Under Sampaoli, Marseille got their fire back… UCL clubs should be afraid
“Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared,” wrote the late, great French writer Jean-Claude Izzo of the city where he was born and died.
One of Europe’s great melting pots, the Mediterranean city is held aloft as a shining example of the great achievement of French multiculturalism by its proponents and decried as a sign of its failure by its critics.
Above all, Marseille is fiercely itself. The city is beloved by its sons, and oh, what names they are. Even just in terms of football, you can gain a picture of the city through its children: Frank Leboeuf, Eric Cantona, and Zinedine Zidane.
“It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against,” the Izzo quote continues. “Only then can you see what there is to see, and you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseille, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”
Destined to be second, to fight tooth and claw just to lose, that quote just about sums up its football team as well.
The 2020-21 season was bad for Olympique de Marseille.
Founded in 1899, ‘Les Phoceens’ (so-called due to the Greek origins of the city) are one of the biggest football clubs in France, just as the city is one of the country’s most important.
But their glory days are long gone. They are the only French team to win the Champions League or European Cup, doing so in 1992. But that trophy is marred in controversy due to bribery, and the last of their nine league titles came in 2009.
Indeed, even their last trophy is a decade ago, when they won a simple Coupe de la Ligue in 2012.
Since then, they have been eternal bridesmaids. Runners-up in the league four times since they last won it, finalists of the Coupe de France in 2016 and losers of the Europa League final in 2018, they have fought and fought only to lose.
It all boiled over last year when the club slumped to fifth in the league. In the previous full seasons (they came second in the shortened 2020 campaign) they had finished fifth in 2019, fourth in 2018 and even slumped to 13th in 2016.
For fans, it was too much. As hot and as passionate as the city itself, Marseille ultras staged serious protests at the club’s training ground in January 2021 which saw some break into and damage the facilities.
— Infos Françaises (@InfosFrancaises) January 30, 2021
“I’ve been a Marseille player for 13 years,” legendary goalkeeper Steve Mandanda said about the demonstration. “I know everything about this club, I know the love and frustration it can generate, but today’s events sadden me and are unacceptable.”
A month later, into that chaos walked new manager Jorge Sampaoli.
“When I received this offer I dreamt of being able to come and have a party in this city,” he said after joining.
“There are places in the world that are calm and places that are intense. The intense places are where I want to be, and I accepted this offer without hesitation. This club has a soul and that is why I am here.”
Intense was an understatement.
Finding a home
Paris is the home of Europe’s luxury. Everything there is beautiful, from the buildings to the people and, yes, the football. There is PSG, their dressing rooms made of solid gold, their success bought with cold hard cash and their squad home to France’s golden boy.
Marseille is proudly different. In Paris, you would receive looks for even daring to call the city part of France, the heartland of the French Riviera so openly different to the capital.
In Marseille they even greet each other differently, kissing from left to right rather than right to left for no reason except to further mark their independence.
Marseille after PSG lose the Champions’ League final: “Where are all the Parisians now?” 😨 pic.twitter.com/Jb1eVlyNpj
— Football Away Days (@FBAwayDays) August 23, 2020
And so its football team is different as well. Unlike for PSG, the players are not the best in class for every position, picked up like shiny new play toys. Instead, many have fallen off the back of someone else’s truck.
Matteo Guendouzi was cast out by Arsenal, while William Saliba was not even given a chance to play there.
Arkadiusz Milik was seen as surplus to requirements by Napoli, while the former Croatian wonderkid Duje Caleta-Car is also a Marseillais, long-forgotten by Football Manager players and those who come up with potential signings by googling “best young players in the world.”
And of course, there’s Dimitri Payet. He stands out like a diamond in the rough or, in this case, a croissant found in the back of your cupboard when you’re rushing out the door and need a quick breakfast. There is perhaps no footballer more talented… when he wants to be.
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That mix-and-match band of forgotten souls, hated by their own fan base, is what Sampaoli inherited and built upon. But, in just a season and a half, he has changed their fate.
Just as the city has been home to hundreds of different cultures since its birth, many of whom were cast out of their original homes, the Argentine coach has constructed a home for his players on the south coast of France.
Fighting to lose
Marseille were never going to win Ligue 1 in Sampaoili’s first season. Indeed, no one can ever be expected to win the league while PSG hold such financial dominance over it.
But what the Argentine was tasked with was restoring pride to the famous club. Or, at the very least, fighting to lose as the Izzo quote says.
For long parts of the season, Marseille looked certain to finish second. But towards the end, their march slowed down, and Ligue 1 only has two guaranteed spots in the Champions League group stage.
A 3-0 loss to bitter rivals Lyon on matchday 35 and a shock 2-0 defeat to Rennes in the penultimate game gave a window of opportunity to a relentless Monaco, who seemed unable to lose as the season’s end grew near.
Suddenly it came down to the final day, with the club needing a home victory as well as a slip up from Monaco at Lens. Their opponents, Strasbourg, also needed victory for a potential European spot. Instead, they were unable to answer the four goals from the hosts.
Each one was celebrated wildly by Sampaoli. Wearing a tight-fitting top, he jumped and bounced as the goals went in, showing off his sleeve-long colourful tats which perfectly match the aesthetic his bald head and long silver beard create.
When Sampaoli arrived he said he wanted to go where the passion was. Well, here it was, embodied in him, his players, and in every stand of baying Marseillais.
The pick of the bunch was the second, made by Milik’s deft dummy. He strode over the ball, bamboozling his opponent like a street magician with a set of cups. ‘Is the ball under this one?’ No, it’s in the back of the net.
But it was all for nought. Monaco were beating Lens 2-1 for what would be their tenth successive victory. After a gruelling season that had seen Marseille reach the semi-finals of the inaugural Europa Conference League, just to lose when so close to glory again, they were poised to slip at the final hurdle for second place.
Here was Izzo’s ancient tragedy, “where the hero is death”. No matter what Marseille did, they were doomed to fail…
And then Lens equalised in injury time.
— Olympique de Marseille 🇬🇧 🇺🇸 (@OM_English) May 21, 2022
They might not have won anything, but Marseille have rediscovered the character and spirit of their city on the pitch once more.
“It was difficult for the heart,” Sampaoli said at full-time.
“There are a lot of emotions today. I am very happy for the group, the players have had an incredible year. We must congratulate them on that, I thank them very much.”
Sampaoli is in talks to renew his contract, and if he can hold on to a good number of his band of lost souls then there is a real chance of something happening on the French south coast in the near future.
But regardless, he has succeeded in the eyes of many. Marseille is once more a team that is prepared to fight to lose. That is a spirit few clubs, and indeed few cities, could foster.
By Patrick Ryan