Marseille’s Champions Project

When Marcelo Bielsa walked out as coach of Marseille in 2015 after just one year in the job, things looked desperate for France’s biggest club.

The managerial idol’s hand had been forced as key players were sold in an attempt to balance the books. The departures of Dimitri Payet, Giannelli Imbula and Florian Thauvin brought in over €40 million, while André-Pierre Gignac and André Ayew were allowed to leave on free transfers. Any residual hope of a return to the glory years of the eighties and nineties – when OM were the kings of French football – was gone. Then so was Bielsa.

The manager’s exit left one of Europe’s great clubs, with a fervently passionate fan base, in complete disarray. It was something of a surprise, then, that after Marseille slumped to a 13th-placed finish in Ligue 1 in the 2015/16 campaign, a new saviour emerged. Perhaps more surprising still was his identity – an American ex-Major League Baseball executive who inspired such headlines as ‘Why Does Baseball Hate Dodger Owner Frank McCourt?’.

McCourt was soon sitting alongside Marseille mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin and promising a €200 million investment in his new club. He summed up his plans simply, saying: “I’m very excited about making Marseille a champion again.” And so the Champions Project was born.

With only days left of the 2017 winter transfer window, there was no time for McCourt to immediately make good on his lofty promises. But Marseille still spent €40 million in January, guided by former Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, who followed McCourt to the south of France.

Payet rejoined from West Ham, Thauvin returned from Newcastle on a permanent deal, and Patrice Evra arrived from Juventus. Promising Montpellier midfielder Morgan Sanson also signed while Maxime Lopez – the gem of Marseille’s academy – was retained despite strong interest from the Premier League.

As statements of intent go, it was promising.

À jamais les premiers

Marseille’s unofficial slogan – forever the first – refers to the fact that OM will always be France’s first Champions League winners.

It is now 24 years since Basile Boli out-jumped Frank Rijkaard to seal a famous European Cup victory over AC Milan at the old Olympic Stadium in Munich. That triumph was the culmination of a glorious decade in which OM re-wrote the history books of French football. It came, somewhat poetically, six days after the match that would undo everything.

Marseille’s 1-0 win over Valenciennes in May 1993 appeared, at least initially, to be an unremarkable win en route to a fifth consecutive French title. Allegations of match-fixing swiftly emerged, however, and with the club’s flamboyant, free-spending president Bernard Tapie implicated, it quickly spiralled into a grand scandal.

When the dust settled, Marseille were stripped of the 1993 league title and demoted to Ligue 2, leading to a host of stars departing – including future French World Cup-winning trio Fabian Barthez, Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps.

OM were struggling in financial and footballing terms before Tapie’s arrival. His ambition took the club to great heights, but it also led to a downfall that has seen OM win only one Ligue 1 title, in 2010, since the match-fixing disgrace of 1993.

With Marseille failing to reclaim past glories, Paris Saint-Germain have seized the initiative and their rival’s place at the head of the French football table. The Parisians have usurped OM as France’s most decorated club, leading 31 titles to 25, adding an extra edge to the Classique, as meetings between the two teams are known.

Since PSG’s elevation to the class of super-rich clubs following Qatar Sports Investments’ takeover in 2011, it has been a remarkably one-sided rivalry. OM won the first meeting of the new era, but PSG have been victorious in 12 of the subsequent 14 fixtures, with the other two finishing in draws.

The most recent Classique, a 5-1 home humiliation for OM in February, was a stark reminder that despite McCourt’s January spending, the gulf between the two sides remains vast. It was a scoreline which genuinely flattered the losers who could have conceded five more.

One impressive transfer window evidently does not undo years of mismanagement. Thauvin, Payet, Sanson and a handful of others are supremely talented players, but beyond them the squad remains awfully thin. The strategy of relying on loan signings is not a long-term approach. Last season’s top scorer and captain, Bafetimbi Gomis, has returned to Swansea City, while defensive midfielder William Vainqueur has rejoined parent club Roma. Clinton N’Jie’s loan from Spurs is rumoured to have been made permanent but for now his future too is unclear.

The perpetually injured Abou Diaby, bafflingly signed after making just 16 appearances in his last four Arsenal seasons, has also been released.

Droit Au But

‘Right to the goal’ are the words which adorn the OM crest and should define the club’s approach to the summer transfer window. If Marseille genuinely aspire to be champions again, Zubizarreta, McCourt and Rudi Garcia – who was appointed as manager in October 2016 – have no time to lose.

PSG have belatedly appointed a new sporting director in ex-Porto recruitment chief Antero Henrique. Having surrendered their Ligue 1 crown to Monaco last season there is no doubt they will spend heavily again this summer. Rumours of a €70 million deal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang indicate the scale of their ambition.

Monaco’s exciting young squad is being carved up by the game’s super clubs, but their acquisition of Belgian wonderkid Youri Tielemans suggests they are also planning to retain their crown. Leonardo Jardim has signed a new contract until 2020, and there have been reports that Kylian Mbappe will stay for another year, despite interest from the Premier League and Real Madrid.

But with both the champions and runners-up re-tooling this summer, there is an opportunity for Marseille to exploit. The Ligue 1 podium is a reasonable target in the first full season of the McCourt era but the challenge of balancing both significant player acquisition and squad cohesion will be a significant one. The identities of OM’s transfer targets have been a season-long source of fascination in the French media but speculation is yet to match reality as no concrete moves have been made.

Of course, time remains for OM to strengthen for a genuine title push but, having secured Europa League football on the final day of the season, there can be no half measures ahead of a campaign fighting on four fronts. A significant recruitment drive is required with Zubizarreta and Garcia supposedly promised a budget of €200 million to work with.

The first target must be a centre forward and it is in that context that the persistent links to Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud make sense. The France No.9 would be an excellent addition and a significant improvement on the now departed Gomis.

Marseille’s last league title in 2010, their only success since the Tapie days, came on the eve of the Ligue 1 landscape changing irrevocably. The massive investment at PSG sparked a similar project at Monaco, while Nice and Lille, who will be managed by Bielsa next season, are also looking to the future with new stadiums and a shrewd approach to the transfer market.

If McCourt’s vision is to take root at Marseille and not be overrun by the money pouring into the French league, this summer is an opportunity not to be missed.

Marseille’s Champions Project
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