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Mar 10, 2011

The shame of Marseille

On Sunday, Marseille play Paris Saint Germain at Stade Velodrome in the latest instalment of French football's most intense rivalry. Political, social and cultural issues all feed into this fiercely contested fixture, while, in 1993, it was impacted by one of the biggest scandals in the sport's history.

The great French cities of Paris and Marseille have rarely seen eye-to-eye; their well-established rivalry is informed by historic debates about power and geography. But curiously, the fact that PSG were founded as recently as 1970 dictates that their internecine football warfare is one of Europe's more embryonic grudge matches.

Indeed, it has only genuinely festered since the late 1980s to early 1990s, with the arrival of the infamous Bernard Tapie as president of l'OM and television station Canal+ as owners of PSG. Buoyed by wealth, and calling on the two biggest supporter bases in the country, the football clubs of the two disparate cities began to embody the strained regional divide in the sporting sphere.

Rivalry was nurtured on both sides, but Marseille proudly accelerated away from their northern rivals when becoming the first French side to win the European Cup in 1993, the first season of the Champions League. A solitary goal from Basile Boli defeated Fabio Capello's great Milan side of Van Basten, Maldini, Baresi and Rijkaard in Munich, and just three days later, Marseille secured the Ligue 1 title for the fifth consecutive season when defeating none other than their rivals PSG, Boli again on target with a famous header.

But even in the midst of a glorious week, deep controversy had erupted. Two days before that crucial victory over PSG, who finished second in the table, an investigation had been opened in response to allegations of attempted match-fixing in a 1-0 win over Valenciennes that preceded the Milan tie. At the centre of the storm, though he initially deflected scrutiny, was Tapie, a man described by Le Figaro as arriving back in Marseille after the Milan victory "like a Roman general at the head of his legionnaires". But within two years of that epic triumph, he was in jail, a football outcast.

Tapie was no stranger to attention, though. Raised in the North-East Parisian suburb of Le Bourget, he became chairman of adidas and in 1992 also achieved political recognition when appointed as the socialist urban affairs minister in the government of Prime Minster Pierre Beregovoy. As an independent candidate, he had even been endorsed by President Francois Mitterrand and it was rumoured that, as well as coveting the position of major of Marseille, he had aspirations of national office in future. It was not for nothing that Tapie was being compared to Silvio Berlusconi, the man whose Milan side had been defeated in Munich.

Just seven weeks after his ministerial appointment, though, Tapie was forced to resign the post after being charged in a fraud probe relating to alleged payments involving Toshiba. He was reinstated in December 1992 after charges were dropped, but scrutiny over his conduct would not abate during a string of controversies over the following years, and it was not restricted to his political and business dealings. Marseille's title win of 1992 had also been overshadowed by allegations of fraud relating to payments to former players, and it was against this unpalatable backdrop that one of football's great scandals erupted.

Seeking to ensure Marseille approached the Milan final in the best shape possible, and without sacrificing the club's league campaign, Tapie plotted to pay off certain Valenciennes players prior to the Ligue 1 fixture on May 20. He instructed general manager Jean-Pierre Bernes to set-up the deal, and with Marseille's Jean-Jacques Eydelie as a conduit, Bernes spoke over the phone to Jacques Glassmann, Jorge Burruchaga and Christophe Robert in order to offer them money to ensure they took it easy in the league fixture.

As Eydelie later revealed in a book published in 2006: "Bernard Tapie said to us, 'It is imperative that you get in touch with your former Nantes team-mates at Valenciennes (there were two of them including Burruchaga). We don't want them acting like idiots and breaking us before the final with Milan. Do you know them well?"

Robert took the money, Burruchaga was later charged with responding positively to the offer while not actually receiving any money, but Glassmann blew the whistle and informed the Valenciennes hierarchy. As rumours gathered pace, and investigations were launched, Tapie was forthright in his denunciation of the probe. "I'm sickened," he said after his side won 1-0. "It's a lynching, and there's not the slightest proof of guilt."

However, the controversy began to unravel further on June 30 when Robert admitted taking a bribe, declaring ominously: "The world of football is much more rotten than people like to think." He led police to his aunt's garden in the Dordogne town of Perigueux and dug up an envelope containing 250,000 Francs (£30,000). According to Robert, he chose the unusual place to hide the cash as "that money stank so much that I threw it in a hole".

With Le Monde reporting that the envelope and paper clips buried with the package matched those in Marseille's offices, and Burruchaga and Robert charged by officials, the net was closing on Bernes, at least. Placed under investigation for "active corruption", the Marseille general manager was taken into psychiatric care in custody in Lille and, according to his lawyer Jean-Louis Pelletier, was a "sick fragile man, broken by the torrents of mud being thrown at him and his family".

Still Tapie was protected from the scandal, despite it slowly constricting the club, even when Valenciennes manager Boro Primorac alleged the Marseille president had offered him £66,000 to take the blame. With Valenciennes fans demanding that Marseille be stripped of their title, l'OM supporters claimed victimisation as they protested in the streets.

As Nick Bidwell wrote in The Independent on July 13: "With unemployment at 18% and the municipal finances in anaemic shape, Marseille's footballing hegemony represents one of the few sources of civic pride for a population long frustrated by the Paris-dominated centralism of the French state. To defend their football dream many have adopted a siege mentality, refusing to give credence to tales of wrongdoing and ever willing to explain the scandal as a Parisian plot to destroy Tapie and his club." Or, as one supporter simply put it in the New York Times, "France is against Marseille".

Tapie tapped into this sentiment when likening French justice officials to "the Inquisition or the Gestapo" as he complained of unfair treatment - an outburst that saw his overworked lawyers adding a libel charge to their to-do list - but still the investigation had not unearthed any evidence that could result in a prosecution of the president.

Marseille, though, were punished. On September 7, UEFA ejected Marseille from the Champions League to prevent them defending their trophy, while days later, the club were also stripped of the title they had earned through illicit means and told they would be relegated in time for the start of the 1994-95 season. Bernes, Eydelie, Burruchaga and Robert were also suspended as the French Football Federation (FFF) took action. According to FFF president Jean Fournet-Fayard: "We had to take sanctions in this affair, which has seriously harmed the morality of our sport."

Bernes remained adamant he was innocent - "They're feeding me to the dogs. Have I got to commit suicide before they believe me?" - but Eydelie was playing ball and alleged in October that Tapie had attempted to buy his silence, resulting in a fresh investigation into the president's conduct. When French MPs voted 432-72 to remove his parliamentary immunity - though with regard to an unrelated case - Tapie was exposed, and in February 1994 he was placed under investigation for alleged corruption and interfering with witnesses (namely Primorac and Eydelie). After being ordered to resign the presidency by April 20, Tapie claimed "they are trying to destroy the club".

Still he clung on - indeed, in March he was even elected to Marseille's council despite the continuing controversy. It was not until a court case in March 1995 that Tapie was finally snared, with Bernes admitting "it is time to tell the truth" as he testified that "Tapie ordered the corruption from his boat in Marseille".

After the club were placed in receivership - the financial impact of their relegation and expulsion from the Champions League having a disastrous effect on a team that had already been shorn of Marcel Desailly, Alen Boksic, Rudi Voller, Didier Deschamps and Abedi Pele since the scandal broke - the judgment was delivered on May 15. Tapie was guilty, and after appeal was jailed for eight months, with a further 16 suspended. Burruchaga and Robert were given suspended six-month sentences, while Eydelie was hit with a suspended one-year sentence for his role in the plot.

Even in the wake of a legal defeat, anti-establishment sentiment was prevalent. Helene Foxonet, Marseille reporter for L'Equipe, said of the reaction to the news in the city: "What everyone really wishes is that Tapie had never been found out. He was a great antidote to the French ruling classes, and Marseille loved the fact that he had adopted the city, even though he was born near Paris. He and OM were a perfect double act."

But this scandal was bigger than a squabble between two cities. The union of Tapie and Marseille tarnished both reputations, and cast a dark pall over French and European football for years to come.

What happened next? Further corruption was alleged in 1997 when a judicial report claimed Tapie was involved in fraud relating to European games. Bernes would also claim that every year "four to five matches were the object of illegal dealings", but Tapie avoided further charges and indeed returned to Marseille for a spell as sporting manager in 2001. Burruchaga returned to his native Argentina to continue his career, Eydelie finally retired in 2003 and Robert returned to French football in 1995, but Glassmann was derided as a traitor and was forced to play on the island of La Reunion. Bernes now works as an agent.

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