Marseille on the cusp of memorable season with Europa League glory
Valere Germain has not forgotten anything about May 19, 2004. He was 14 at the time, but the memory of Gothenburg has never left him.
On that sunny evening, the Marseille team he supported lost to Rafael Benitez and Valencia in the UEFA Cup final, 2-0. He can still name the starting XI from that day. "[Fabian] Barthez, [Didier] Drogba, [Mathieu] Flamini... I went there with my dad [Bruno, a former Marseille player himself]. The club had invited a few former players. I was so sad when we lost. I can still remember the referee, Pierluigi Collina, sending off Barthez just before half-time! The team had had such a great season, probably my favourite as a fan. But it ended in a sad way with the loss," he told ESPN FC last week during Marseille's media day.
Wednesday will be a special day for the the entire Germain family. Bruno played in a European Cup final with Marseille too, back in 1991 against Red Star Belgrade, losing 5-3 on penalties after it finished 0-0. A father and a son who each play in a European final is rare. The Maldinis, the Sanchis, the Busquets, the Anderssons, the Cruyffs, the Reinas or the Gudjohnsens are other illustrious examples of European finals family pedigree.
The Germains have lost one and Valere is hoping he can level the score.
The year 2004 was the last European final for l'OM. Fourteen years later, Germain will start up front for the club he has always loved in their fifth one, against another Spanish club, Atletico Madrid. "There is no pressure for us. Atletico are the favourites. We will go for it and be 200 percent. We will give everything because over one game, anything is possible," added Germain.
It has been a long road to Lyon for Les Olympiens. It all started against Belgian side Oostende at the end of July in the third qualifying round but remarkably, Rudi Garcia and his players managed to balance their domestic league responsibilities and the long Europa League campaign.
"We have played 18 games to get to the final," said Garcia last week talking to ESPN. "We would have never thought we would get this far but we did. Now be believe we can do it."
This 2017-18 Marseille team is not the most talented in the club's history. It is nowhere near as strong as the 1991 one, with Chris Waddle or Jean-Pierre Papin, the 1993 one that boasted Marcel Desailly, Rudi Voller or Didier Deschamps; it's not even at the level of the 1999 one that lost 3-0 to Parma in the UEFA Cup, with Laurent Blanc or Robert Pires, or the 2004 one. But this is a team with incredible spirit and personality that Garcia has built.
The experience brought by Luis Gustavo, Rolando and Adil Rami, all of whom have won a European trophy before, is priceless. Gustavo is the guide and the leader of this team. He has had an incredible impact since joining the club last summer.
Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin are the outstanding talents though, Marseille's technical leaders. Their numbers this season are fantastic. Thauvin is having the best campaign of his career. At 25, he has finally matured. He is consistent, efficient and has been involved in 42 goals this season (26 goals in all competitions, including 22 in Ligue 1 and 16 assists). Payet started slowly and had a couple of injuries but is finishing strongly. He was decisive in the last two rounds and has 10 goals and 21 assists in all competitions this season.
Their manager, Garcia, has also played a big part in the success story of the season by making a lot of perfect decisions on and off the pitch. Finally, l'OM will feel at home in Lyon on Wednesday. The support of their fans will be like a 12th man.
This is a huge week for Marseille and their supporters. First, there is this final with so much at stake: a first Europa League trophy and a direct qualification for the Champions League. Then on Saturday comes their last Ligue 1 game of the season, at home against Amiens.
After their 3-3 draw at Guingamp last weekend, Marseille are now fourth in the table, three points behind Monaco in second and one behind Lyon in third albeit with a worse goals difference. They need to win and for the results of Lyon against Nice and Monaco away at Troyes go their way. Otherwise, they could miss out on a Champions League spot for next season.
"We can lose everything, we have that in mind. But we are only thinking about achieving great things. We have given ourselves a chance to have an amazing end of the season. We don't want to miss this opportunity," said Payet last week. In 1993, Marseille won the Champions League, 1-0, against AC Milan. Twenty-five years later, the club can add another glorious page in its history.
"It may be our destiny..." whispered Garcia. The Germain family, the whole of Marseille and every member of the squad and the club will hope the manager is right again.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.