Awakening a dormant giant: Marseille aim to revive former glories

Awakening a dormant giant: Marseille aim to revive former glories

Looking up towards the endless galleries of Stade Vélodrome, a line of former Olympique Marseille players take in the applause. This is one of the world’s great football venues: bold, sweeping, wild, volatile. All of these 11 men graced it at one point or another, some at its emotional peak. At the right of the group stands Basile Boli, waistcoated and absorbing the scene through shades. It was Boli who entrenched Marseille in the global consciousness 31 years ago, heading past Sebastiano Rossi in Munich to beat a decorated Milan side and win the 1992-93 Champions League. He knows better than anyone that, when the stars align, there is nowhere else like this.

The group of legends have been invited to a reunion of African, or African-heritage, players who once wore the all-white kit. They watch the present-day team play Nice and, with the game deep into added time, the score is 2-2. Marseille have been down to 10 men since Faris Moumbagna’s harsh red card before half-time but only a win will keep them in serious contention for this year’s European spots. In the game’s last attack Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a Gabon international, somehow musters the searing speed of old to skin two defenders and run through one-on-one. A stadium, or more accurately an entire city, holds its breath. Aubameyang chips Marcin Bulka but the weight is a fraction too heavy and the ball pings off the crossbar. It is the story of their season.

Getting to grips with Marseille is, as one senior member of their administration puts it, like sitting “on a volcano”. On Thursday night they host Atalanta in the first leg of the Europa League semi-finals and the hope is for a controlled eruption. A second European title would feel like an awakening. too long it has been dormant: a byword for chaos, short-termism, unpredictability, perhaps still struggling to shake the shadow of Bernard Tapie-era corruption that hung over those heady nights in the early 1990s.

Pablo Longoria heads up the team that is, steadily and not without hiccups, turning the tanker around. “The potential of this club is massive, but to harness it we need to be a stable Champions League club,” Marseille’s president says in his office at the club’s training ground, where cypress trees line the driveways and blow from side to side in the seasonal mistral. “The passion in this city is part of the landscape and we have to take every advantage of that, but at the same time you need a vision and strategy for the future that bring stability.”

Now a boyish 38, the Oviedo-born Longoria was brought in as sporting director in July 2020 and became president six months later. Plunging someone so young into the furnace felt like a gamble by the American businessman, Frank McCourt, who bought the club seven and a half years ago. But Longoria came with a prodigious reputation: he was scouting for Newcastle when barely out of his teens before making his name with roles at Juventus, whose name recurs in the Marseille’s corridors of power as a structural model, and Valencia. “When I arrived we needed immediate sporting results to transform the club and give value to everything around it,” he says. “But now it’s very important to have a strategy, a very clear vision for the future. The next cycle of European competitions is very important and we need to be targeting a place in the top 24 clubs.”

Basile Boli holds the 1993 Champions League trophy aloft after Marseille defeated MilanView image in fullscreen

In a landscape dominated by the financial power of Paris Saint-Germain, a regular finish in France’s top two would constitute progress. Marseille, who last won Ligue 1 when claiming their ninth title in 2010, have been runners-up twice since McCourt’s takeover and finished third last season. On-field fortunes were steadily improving but the picture in 2023-24 has, to any outsider, been one of dysfunction. Last summer Longoria appointed Marcelino, who had been his head coach at Valencia, to the same position but he lasted only three months.

Marcelino quit, citing “severe threats and insults”, after a meeting between club and fans in which nobody in the hierarchy was spared. The fanbase had been unhappy with a mixed start and also called on Longoria, along with other executives, to resign. Personal threats to the club employees were alleged and the director of football, Javier Ribalta, departed soon after along with the strategy director Pedro Iriondo. Longoria agreed to stay on after discussions with McCourt – “I like resilience as a concept in life,” he says – and, via an ill-fated dalliance with Gennaro Gattuso, appointed the veteran Jean-Louis Gasset as their third manager of the campaign in February.

“I’m still trying to understand why we got to that situation because it was a level of tension that is not normal in football,” he says. In October, a group of Marseille fans attacked the Lyon team bus and injured their coach Fabio Grosso and assistant Raffaele Longo. It led to the game being postponed. There is a sense, at times, that whoever runs Marseille is dealing with something unmanageable: that any creation of order comes despite the lava bubbling up beneath.

But there is also a feeling that, in their attempts to become a modern European power, Marseille are doing something right. The appointment of Stéphane Tessier, a famed football administrator around Ligue 1, as director general was intended to herald a clear structure and move towards financial sustainability. Tessier separated the club’s events department into a new entity, Mars360, designed to fully exploit the 67,000-capacity Stade Vélodrome and other venues in the area.

Marseille saw off Benfica at Stade Vélodrome in the Europa League quarter-final second legView image in fullscreen

Marseille’s broader commercial performance has rocketed, revenues doubling in the last two years and the locally based shipping company CMA is among those to sign a sponsorship deal. This year Deloitte named Marseille 20th in its football money league with revenues of €258.4m (£220.9m). In a French league that has struggled to close a viable domestic television rights deal since the collapse of MediaPro’s €3.25bn agreement in 2021 – and few clubs are entirely happy with the injection from the private equity group CVC that plugged around half of that gap – extra ways of generating revenue are essential.

“I think we’ve transformed a lot of things and I’m proud of how we’ve developed the institutional part of the club,” Longoria says. McCourt, the former LA Dodgers owner, has put more than €500m into Marseille but they want to be more agile. Despite reports to the contrary, McCourt’s commitment remains long term; his company, McCourt Global, would entertain taking on additional investment to help bridge the gap to the giants in England, Germany, Spain and Paris but he has no intention of selling up.

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A Europa League triumph could be a turning point but other measures of success exist, too. There had long been an impression locally that Marseille, who sold a record 48,000 season tickets this season, had become sloppy in engaging with their roots. The club’s community foundation was last year turned into Treizième Homme, which aims to create a clear thread linking social initiatives in a city of stark economic contrasts with the club itself. The return of Boli and his colleagues was part of a concerted push to mark a past that, while always acknowledged, had rarely been used to visually inspire the present.

Medhi Benatia, the Marseille academy product who forged a career with Roma, Bayern Munich and Juventus, returned last year as sporting adviser with a brief to help bring young players through. Plenty of expensive stars have passed through the club with little significant benefit in recent decades. “It was always very difficult for players in the academy,” Benatia says. “But now we have a chance to push five, six or seven players into the first-team squad and it’s different from before. To play here as a youngster it has always been difficult: there is a lot of pressure and in the past there was not always a lot of support from the coaches and staff.

Marseille’s Faris Moumbagna on the ball during his side’s Ligue 1 match against NiceView image in fullscreen

“We have to teach players what this club has been and what it represents. And we need to teach them not only to be good footballers, but also to stand the pressure in such a passionate city.”

Outside the club’s academy building, the 18-year-old striker Keyliane Abdallah shakes hands and is greeted by the technical director for youth, Marco Otero. The previous weekend, Abdallah made his professional debut in a draw at Toulouse. On an adjacent training pitch, Marseille’s under-17 and under-19 squads are being addressed by the former Cameroon goalkeeper, Joseph Antoine-Bell, a veteran of more than 100 appearances here.

Before the players disperse Jean-Pierre Papin, the former Ballon d’Or winner and feared striker from the Champions League-winning side, crosses the pitch to offer greetings. Papin was brought back as the second team coach last autumn during a period of poor results; their fortunes have rocketed since. It is another small step towards recapturing the club’s soul.

Marseille will not regain their superpower status of three decades ago overnight, but Longoria sees a clear path to competing with the elite once again. “We need to create something very strong around our primary values, with a team and a mentality that are different and stronger,” he says. Defeating Atalanta and, later this month, lifting a trophy in Dublin would suggest a monumental, unruly giant is stirring at last.