Friday, 25 March 2011

Olympique de Marseille vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Le Classique!

Marseille 2-1 Paris SG (20:03:11)

Juliet Jacques lives and breathes the Stade Vélodrome experience in Marseille for the so-called French clásico...

Olympique de Marseille vs. Paris Saint-Germain: the most heated fixture in French football. This is a battle of old and new, with L’OM, founded in 1899, casting themselves as the grand masters of French football in contrast to PSG, formed in 1970, in an attempt to create a force in the capital where there had been none; and of north and south, capital and province, intensified by the Marseillais’ resentment towards perceived Parisian privilege.

They are also the nation’s only two clubs to have won European trophies since former France manager and L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot’s dream of continental competition became real. PSG secured the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996 by beating Rapid Vienna with a single goal, three years after L’OM’s famous victory over AC Milan in Munich to become the first French club to win the European Cup.

It is impossible to recall L’OM’s European triumph, without considering the match-fixing scandal which soon overshadowed it. Two days after L’OM won the Champions League, they retained the Division 1 title by beating PSG 3-1 at their Stade Vélôdrome, but their joy was short lived: an investigation soon began into their last Ligue game before the European final, a routine win over struggling Valenciennes, a game which, it was proved, L’OM had attempted to fix.

The European Cup victory stood, but L’OM were stripped of their Ligue crown, ending a run of five consecutive titles, which had begun in 1989 when Franck Sauzée’s last minute winner against PSG won both the match and the championship. L’OM were demoted at the end of the 1993-94 season, having finished second – to PSG, whose side featured Brazilian stars Valdo and Raï, as well as David Ginola and George Weah.

Neither club had since been champions until last season, when manager Didier Deschamps – captain of L’OM’s European Cup winners – masterminded L'OM's first title since that traumatic summer of 1993, This year, Le Classique plays a significant part in deciding who rules France: L’OM and PSG have been part of a five-team title race, alongside Lyon, whose seven consecutive wins (from 2002-2008) were the envy of both clubs, and Lille and Rennes – smaller clubs who would be far more popular champions than either of those who contest Le Classique: PSG are hated by fans of many other French clubs for the same reasons as by the Marseillais, whilst L’OM are despised for their ostentatious spending and the air of corruption which has the club has not shaken off since the collapse of notorious President Bernard Tapie.

Arriving into an area that feels (and is) closer to North Africa than Paris, I meet Frédérique, a friend of a friend who has kindly offered to show me around France’s second largest city. I tell her that I’ve come to see Le Classique. “Oh la la!” she says. “You know how much they hate each other, right?” I say yes, and ask why she thinks this is.

“It’s historical, but really, I’m not sure they know any more,” she tells me. “There’s always violence.” Football is not her thing – she is much more excited about the Moto GP in Qatar – so I have to explain to her that after Yann L, a 20-year-old PSG fan, was killed during fights between L’OM’s Tribune d’Auteuil Ultras and PSG's Kop of Boulogne supporters, the French police decided to ban away supporters for these matches – 169 people have been arrested around this fixture during the last decade.

Fréd's big passion, besides motorbikes, is for ancient history: she explains to me whilst driving around the Vieux Port that Marseille was founded by the Greeks, 2600 years ago, and that the city has always refused to accept authority, either from the Italians or, when it passed into French rule, Paris. It produced one of my favourite writers, Antonin Artaud, whose disavowal of any ideology made him too radical even for the Surrealists, and two of France’s most maverick footballers, Éric Cantona, whose briefly played for L’OM before falling out with Tapie – and then the French Football Federation – and the Franco-Algerian star Zinédine Zidane, who never did.

Zidane left French football after helping Girondins de Bordeaux to the UEFA Cup final in 1996: unable to secure the man who would lead France to the World Cup, L’OM, spending big on returning to Ligue 1, signed instead Nantes playmaker Reynald Pédros, whose missed penalty cost Les Bleus a place in the Euro ’96 final. After that, Pédros never recaptured his form, and L’OM would not resume their place amongst the European elite.

Walking down La Canabière, where L’OM paraded their trophies in May 1993, I see how passionate this city is about football. There are L’OM fans everywhere, some already singing of their hatred for PSG. A group see me wearing a replica shirt from 1992, and immediately I discover their favourite from the team of Abedi Pelé, Chris Waddle, Dragan Stojković and others. “Papin! Papin!” they yell: I smile and wave before heading into the OM Boutique to find a souvenir. I pick up a pennant which lists all the honours from L’OM’s history: the 1993 title is listed, the club refusing to accept the ruling of the Paris-based FFF.

I turn off Marseille’s most famous street and find the Mémorial de la Marseillaise on la Rue Thubaneau. On the wall is the date '30 juillet 1792’: the day on which the National Guard marched on Paris, singing what became known as the Marseillaise, permanently adopted as France's national anthem on the establishment of the Third Republic, after the attempts of Napoleon I, the restored monarchy and the Emperor Napoleon III to ban it.

Sadly, the gates are closed. Although the Memorial is in a building that became the Jacobin Club headquarters in 1790, hosting the most extreme revolutionary faction, Fréd tells me that the Mémorial is new: a much more recent construction, in fact, than the Memorial des Camps de la Mort, which recalls those killed in the Holocaust which (at least in Theodor W. Adorno’s eyes) ended the Enlightenment that produced the Revolution of 1789.

Fréderique takes me to Marseille’s most radical building, Unité d’Habitation (literally 'Housing Unit'), designed by the great Modernist architect Le Corbusier. Hugely influential on Sixties Brutalist architecture, this “machine for living in”, which holds 337 apartments on 12 stories as well as medical, sporting and educational facilities, immediately becomes my favourite building. There is an exhibition in the foyer of photographs by Matthieu Parent, showing people at work: artists with their canvasses, writers at their desks, musicians in their studios. Le Corbusier aimed for his masterpiece to transform the lives of the city’s proletariat: instead, it has become highly desirable for bourgeois artistes with an interest in experimental architecture, as removed from public taste as when it was built in 1952.

Fréd and I take Le Petit Train, climbing one of the many hills on which Marseille stands, up to the thirteenth century basilica at Notre Dame de la Garde. There, 162 metres above sea level, we look over the entire city, then enter the church, where people are lighting candles (Fréd jokes that the many L’OM fans light them in prayer for a home win), and see stones all over the walls thanking the Virgin Mary for various miracles.

Stepping outside, we see the bullet holes from the Second World War. The cathedral was crucial in liberating Marseille: the North African troops knew a passage into the building and up to the roof, from which the French Army could rout the surrounding Nazis. We step around the corner: we can see one stand at the Stade Vélodrome, L’OM’s stadium, built in 1937 for the 1938 World Cup, the tournament overshadowed by the ascendancy of Fascism – winners Italy played their first round and semi final matches here, switching to Paris – and black shirts – for their quarter final victory over France.

Fréd leaves to watch the Qatar Moto GP, and I head to the stadium. I enter what calls itself the Musée L’OM: there are handprints belonging to a number of the club’s greats. I see prints belonging to Jules Dewaquez, star of the 1926 and 1927 Coupe de France winning teams, Algerian defender Jean-Louis Hodoul and others, and a few small exhibits commemorating L’OM’s back-to-back titles of 1971 and 1972, then the golden age of the late eighties and early nineties. The small ‘musée’ feels like a ruse to tempt me into another OM Boutique, and the exhibit celebrating the Champions League triumph is obscured by boxes of DVDs featuring L'OM's finest victories, priced at 25 euros.

I meet Frédérique’s friend Laetitia three hours before kick-off: we can already see supporters stood on the Virage Nord, which hosts L'OM's feared Ultras. Drinking in a bustling crowd of fans, she says she’s not optimistic about retaining the title – she expects it to go to Lille, who beat L’OM in their last home match. A win will at least knock PSG out of the race: like everyone else here, she desperately wants L’OM to transcend the disappointment of their Champions League exit and beat their hated rivals.

I take my place in the Tribune Ganay Haut, the stand I saw from the Notre Dame de la Garde. None of the terraces have roofs, and I can see some of Marseille’s skyscrapers over the tops of the Virages Nord and Sud. These stands gradually fill, apart from a small section in the Nord occupied by police, where the away fans would usually be. Without the opposing support, the Ultras have nowhere to direct their anger – until PSG come out to train, when the whistles and boos are intense.

PSG’s players head back down the tunnel, and the Marseillais concentrate on their own club. The Nord fly flags of Argentina, to celebrate playmaker Lucho González and former PSG defender Gabriel Heinze (who swore he’d never join L’OM but did after Manchester United blocked his desired switch to Liverpool) and Ghana, in support of Abedi Pelé’s sons Jordan and André Ayew, both in the squad for Le Classique.

Just before kick-off, the Nord crowd raise placards, covering the Virage with L’OM's badge: after seventies legend Josip Skoblar joins the captains on the pitch, there is a request for a minute’s silence for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims. It’s not impeccably observed, but the Nord Ultras cover the sky blue L’OM badge with red, forming the flag of Japan – a moving, kind-hearted tribute from a group usually noted for their fierce hostility.

After an open start, L’OM’s playmaker Mathieu Valbuena is fouled on the edge of PSG’s area. Heinze wins the argument over who will take the free kick, and curls a perfect shot past Grégory Coupet to put the home side ahead. Nearly full, the stadium erupts: PSG hurriedly restart. The veteran Ludovic Giuly and Brazilian playmaker Nenê threaten, and after Nenê hits the post following comical L’OM defending, PSG midfielder Clement Chantôme follows up to score.

This is met with a strange silence. The PSG players pause, stare at the empty space next to the Nord’s quietly furious Ultras, and then race over to embrace manager Antoine Kombouaré. L’OM press hard to restore their lead: on 37 minutes, striker André-Pierre Gignac, the player in this side whom I find most intriguing, crosses for André Ayew to head the champions into the lead. Gignac, a man proud of his Romani gypsy heritage who joined L’OM for a huge fee in the summer despite his disappointing part in France’s World Cup debacle, has been struggling, but is slowly winning over the crowd after three recent goals: this is his only contribution, however, and during a goalless second half, he is substituted.

L’OM unnerve their fans with some careless defending – new acquisition Rod Fanni is especially lax at times – but they hold on for their thirtieth victory over PSG, which leaves them four points behind Lille. Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent: certainly for the fans and police involved with Le Classique, much is simplified by their absence. L'OM have proved repeatedly over the years that their greatest enemy is themselves, but for now, they have succeeded, and I walk away with 50,000 others, happy that the Provence has asserted itself over the capital.

Thanks to Commando Ultra '84 for the photos

You can follow both Juliet Jacques and European Football Weekends on Twitter

You can read more of Juliet's work at The Guardian.

Like this? You might also like Michael Cox from Zonal Marking on Barcelona

- Feel free to comment below -


Anton said...

Really enjoyed this article. One of my "to do"-games this.

Eddie 21 said...

OM is our friends in France and they displayed both AEK and Hammer flags this year