“At OM, I will apply my motto of the three ‘R’s. R for rêve, R for rire, R for risque.”
When addressing the Olympique de Marseille general assembly in 1986, Bernard Tapie’s plan was clear. To ‘dream’, to ‘enjoy’ and to ‘risk’. A business tycoon, failed pop crooner, politician, actor and football club president, the magnetically charismatic but ruthlessly unscrupulous Tapie would indulge in all three over the next decade as leader of French football’s grandest and most followed institution. Dreams may have been realised, but his concept of ‘risk’ left OM in Ligue 2 and Tapie in prison.
Worth 2bn francs (€760m) in the mid-eighties, thanks to “a fierce desire to earn lots and lots and lots of money,” as a young Bernard Tapie states in L’Équipe’s recent documentary “Bernard Tapie: A Free Man”, the now 77-year-old Frenchman made his fortune rescuing and revitalising bankrupt companies. 1985 and 1986 Tour de France winning team La Vie Claire, named after Tapie’s sponsoring food stores business, proved a successful first foray into the sporting world.
Marseille, meanwhile, were at their lowest ebb. Initially painted as possible challengers, Jules Zvunka’s chaotic outfit had been shockingly relegated in 1980. A 7-2 final day loss to bottom side Brest led to “OM is dead” headlines. Although Marseille were back in the French top flight by 1984, finishes of 17th and 12th proved underwhelming at best.
Prominent in the region, Tapie investing in OM was first mooted by the wife of Marseille mayor Gaston Deferre in 1984. Initially dismissing the idea because he “knows nothing about football,” Tapie was eventually convinced. As was Deferre, who described Tapie as “an enterprising man, a winner.” Although his ascent was delayed by incumbent president Jean Carrieu’s understandable reluctance to step aside, Tapie’s takeover was confirmed in April 1986 following Carrieu’s resignation.
Fresh from coaching Les Bleus to the EURO 1984 title, Michel Hidalgo became Director of Football and Tapie’s right-hand man. Something of a coup, Hidalgo’s arrival was an early example of Tapie’s penchant for convincing respected footballing personalities to join his Provence galacticos.
“I would not undertake anything without having the certainty that Michel Hidalgo, recognised as one of the best coaches in the world, would be with me.” Tapie informed the OM general assembly, then telling the local press: “When I start a business, I always want to have the most qualified people by my side… Michel Hidalgo will be with me in Marseille to build this new OM of which we all dream.”
The Tapie effect was immediate. Jean-Pierre Papin, surprise star of Les Bleus’ run to the semi-finals of the Mexico 1986 World Cup, joined that summer alongside fellow French international Alain Giresse, one corner of the iconic Le Carre Magique (The Magic Square) midfield, central to French success of the mid-eighties. German defender Karlheinz Förster, a losing finalist in Mexico, and Les Bleus’ EURO 1984 hero, full-back Jean-François Domergue – whose only two international goals helped France edge past Portugal and into the final, mirroring Lillian Thuram’s brace against Croatia at France 1998, also arrived.
Aided by Papin’s 13 league goals, Gérard Banide’s OM shot up to second in Tapie’s first full season. Marseille only trailed champions Bordeaux by four points (back when it was two points for a win), and narrowly lost out to the same opponent in the Coupe de France final. Buoyed by a productive first season, Marseille’s spending accelerated that summer as France defender Yvon Le Roux and Germany striker Klaus Allofs joined as marquee additions. Nevertheless, Tapie would have to wait for his first trophy. Although a sixth-place league finish in 1987/88 was a disappointment, one which cost Banide his job, Marseille’s run to the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup showed a burgeoning knack for progressing in European competition. Dennis Bergkamp’s Ajax eventually ended OM hopes on that occasion.
Although Marseille had briefly plateaued, Papin started to blossom as the league’s top scorer with 19 strikes. Across six years at the Vélodrome, Papin’s marauding 134 goals in 215 league games saw him top the French goalscoring charts five times in a row thanks to his clinical, confident finishing and fabled volleying ability. So majestic and exacting were Papin’s volleys that the term papinade, initially coined by Le Provençal sports journalist Alain Pécheral, has since become a by-word in French for any spectacular volley.
Despite losing Domergue and the retiring Giresse, the following campaign brought another influx of stars. Another French international, midfielder Franck Sauzée, arrived from Sochaux and as did the league’s most sought after young talent.
Having risen to prominence at Auxerre under legendary coach Guy Roux, Eric Cantona had just turned 22 when he made his Marseille debut – paired with Papin in attack – against Montpellier in July 1988. As Philippe Auclair points out in “Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King,” Tapie had initially struck a chord with the forward. “If everyone was as interesting as Tapie, I’d buy papers more often,” said Cantona in 1987 the year before Tapie beat Matra Racing Paris to his signature.
A Marseille native, Cantona’s signing represented a dream homecoming. “When I was a little boy, what made me dream was the Stade Vélodrome,” Auclair quotes Cantona via a 1994 interview with L’Équipe. However, the ever-fickle Vélodrome crowd took ‘Canto’s’ iconic chest-out, collar-up, haughty demeanour for a mixture of arrogance and disdain and, after a relatively slow start, Cantona quickly became the Vélodrome’s scapegoat. Angrily likening Les Bleus coach Henri Michel to “a bag of s***” after he was left out of a France squad did not help his situation.
Cantona was soon gone. Having become increasingly frustrated by icy conditions during a charity match in January 1989, Banide’s replacement Gérard Gili decided to withdraw Cantona before his temper was lost. As Cantona despised being substituted, the decision dramatically backfired as an infuriated Cantona ripped his shirt off and threw it toward the bench. Immediately exiled from the squad, Cantona was swiftly sent on loan to Bordeaux. The incident became infamous in France and was often used to illustrate all that the Vélodrome support and sections of the media perceived to be wrong with the precocious forward’s attitude.
Regardless of the Cantona incident, Marseille had started to improve. After one win in their first six games, a sole loss in 17 during the second half of the season, helped by another 22 strikes from Papin, saw OM lead the way for the last 12 rounds, eventually finishing three points clear of PSG after Franck Sauzee’s 90th minute drive was enough to see off Paris in an intense week 35 encounter at the Vélodrome. A Papin hat-trick in a thrilling 4-3 Coupe de France final win over a Monaco side coached by Arèene Wenger and featuring George Weah, Glenn Hoddle and Emmanuel Petit completed the double. In just three seasons Tapie’s leadership and investment had helped end OM’s 13-year wait for a trophy and brought the club’s first league title since 1972.
The pinnacle for many sides, the 1989 French double was just the start for both Tapie and Marseille. That same year, Tapie won a seat in the French Parliament to represent Marseille under the socialist banner during François Mitterrand’s presidency, before later taking a position in Mitterrand’s cabinet as Minister for Urban Affairs. In 1990, in a classic piece of opportunism, Tapie also acquired an 80% stake of the flagging Adidas, expanding his buying reach. Hidalgo meanwhile went into overdrive. The summer of 1989 may have seen Le Roux and Allofs depart, but they were replaced by a raft of big name additions. Tapie’s target was obvious: Europe.
‘The Prince’ Enzo Francescoli, much to the delight of a teenage Zinedine Zidane, joined from Matra Racing. Such was the graceful creator’s effect on Zidane, that he named his son after the Uruguayan and later stated: “When I saw Francescoli play, he was the player I wanted to be… Enzo is like a God.” Brazilian centre back Carlos Mozer arrived from Benfica, while French internationals Jean Tigana, Alain Roche and Manuel Amoros complimented a growing Les Bleus contingent. Most costly of all, however, was England winger Chris Waddle.
The £4.5m Marseille paid Tottenham for Waddle equalled a British record fee and the sixth highest ever paid at that point, as per Transfermarkt. ‘Magic Chris’, as he was eventually nicknamed by the Vélodrome, enjoyed the zenith of his career in France. French journalists even speculated that, after some sparkling form throughout the 1990/91 Champions League season, Waddle could win the Ballon d’Or if OM won the competition. They didn’t and Papin, perhaps unsurprisingly in hindsight, won the award, but Waddle still finished an impressive tenth that year ahead of Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov, Rudi Völler and Marco Van Basten.
As with Cantona, Waddle initially started sluggishly and OM fans had become inpatient. “I hadn’t done any pre-season and within days I was playing at Lyon,” Waddle explained in 2012, as quoted by These Football Times, “I’d barely done any training and I wasn’t fit. They were trying to train me during the day fitness-wise and it was like 90 degrees. I nearly fainted on a couple of occasions.” Papin, with whom Waddle would establish a thrilling partnership, put Waddle up at his house and things started to change after an eye-catching goal in beating PSG at the Vélodrome that October.
As PSG raced out of their area after a corner had been cleared, Eric Di Meco’s looped cross beat the offside trap and Waddle, completely alone, controlled with his chest, flicked the ball over the onrushing Joël Bats and casually back-heeled into an empty net. Magic Chris had arrived.
Across three seasons and 149 games with OM, Waddle won three French titles, scored 29 goals and provided many more for Papin, often playing just off the Frenchman alongside Ghanaian Abedi Pele, almost as duel number 10s. Waddle even had time to form another unlikely pop duo with centre back Basile Boli: Although, ‘We’ve Got A Feeling’, featuring Waddle rapping in French, failed to match the impact of Waddle and Glenn Hoddle’s drum-heavy electro-pop masterpiece ‘Diamond Lights’ which reached number 12 in the UK charts in 1987.
Despite signing six internationals that summer, Tapie and Hidalgo were not finished. Aware that Diego Maradona had become unsettled at Napoli, an audacious attempt was made to add El Diego to an already unwieldy squad in June 1989. Hidalgo later explained to L’Équipe that Tapie “told me to take his private plane to go there incognito. He told me to promise everything to Maradona.” L’Équipe, however, uncovered OM’s plans and the deal became front page news, which spooked Maradona. “No, I will be on my boat with my daughters,” the Argentine told the press when asked if he would meet Tapie later that week: “It’s forty meters shorter than Tapie’s, but it suits me perfectly.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pair did eventually meet, but for once Tapie’s charm wasn’t enough, despite offering to double Maradona’s salary and throwing in a villa with a large garage to house his selection of sports cars.
Although Tapie failed to capture Maradona, his manoeuvring in the transfer market remained cut-throat. To beat Monaco to the signature of Abedi Pele from second division Mulhouse in January 1988, Tapie ‘leaked’ to those connected with Monaco that Pele had previously tested positive for HIV, before telling Pele to refuse a blood test during his Monaco medical. When the player did as asked, it was enough for the deal to collapse, allowing OM to swoop. Dragan Stojković, who signed in 1990 from Red Star Belgrade, summed Tapie up: “I knew [Tapie] as being crazy for football, crazy for success, crazy to create the best team in the world.” Stojković told The Blizzard: “He was a real boss. On the one hand a very nice person, clever and intelligent, on the other hand a bandit. Two different faces.”
The ensuing two years were peak Tapie and peak OM as domestic omnipotence was confirmed. Papin and Francescoli amassed 41 goals between them as Marseille again edged Bordeaux by two points in the 1989-90 title race. Four points was the winning margin over Monaco the following season, Papin again comfortably the league’s premier goal-getter as OM only spent one week off top spot from mid-August onwards. UEFA Cup qualifiers Lyon were routed 7-0 in January and six were rattled past Nantes two weeks later. The league belonged to the Vélodrome, but it was in Europe where their true challenge awaited.
Marseille reached the semi-finals of the 1989-90 European Cup undefeated, but were cruelly ousted by Benfica on away goals after substitute Vata used his arm to score the second leg decider. Tapie was furious, ominously vowing that “I learn quickly. That will not happen to us again.” With European success not forthcoming, Gili, despite winning the league in consecutive seasons and the 1989 double, was slowly forced out. Extending his Galactico policy to the coaching staff, Tapie signed Franz Beckenbauer as a director after the 1990 World Cup, Der Kaiser having coached Germany to the title in Italy.
Although OM began the 1990-91 campaign with five wins and two draws from seven games, Gili was gone by mid-September with Beckenbauer, who had been looming over his shoulder, being parachuted in. Although OM continued to perform and remained top, little changed under Beckenbauer and he too was out by the start of 1991, unable to retain friendly relations with Tapie. Asserting his authority in the dressing room after Tapie attempted to address the team before a game was the beginning of the end for Beckenbauer and the German was eventually shuffled upstairs.
Still a prominent part of the French national side under Michel Platini and following successful loan spells with Bordeaux and Montpellier – where in tandem with Laurent Blanc he’d won the Coupe de France earlier that year – Cantona made an unexpected return to the Vélodrome for the 1990-91 campaign. This time Cantona grasped his opportunity, under Gili and then Beckenbauer. Renewing a partnership with Papin that also proved fruitful for Les Bleus, Cantona, also aided by Pele, who had returned from loan at Lille, and new signing Stojković, formed a dynamic and skilful supply line for the routinely prolific Papin.
A Cantona brace to beat Caen at the Vélodrome in early August was followed by key strikes against Lyon, St Étienne and PSG, as well as a pair of assists for Papin in a 2-0 win over Bordeaux. A pariah two years previously, the Vélodrome was now singing Cantona’s name, but his success would prove fleeting. A week 14 encounter with Brest in late October saw Cantona withdrawn with knee ligament damage four minutes after bringing his league tally to seven in an eventual 3-1 win. Having initially settled into what Cantona saw as a far more like-minded squad compared to the one he left in 1989, arriving at training everyday on his Harley Davidson, the Marseille he found on his return from injury was very different.
Beckenbauer had been replaced by Belgian coach Raymond Goethals who preferred a 3-4-3 set up with Waddle and Pele supporting Papin in attack. There was no place for Cantona in his team. Often only making the bench, much to Cantona’s disgust, Goethals famously told reporters that if he didn’t like sitting on the bench, Cantona was welcome to sit “next to it.” After an inevitable confrontation with Tapie, the forward eventually disappeared from the Marseille squad and was sold to Nîmes in the off-season.
Over three separate spells as coach – Tapie moving him into a director’s role in between times – Goethals would become the quintessential manager of the Tapie era. Distinctive in his typically nineties baggy pastel coloured Adidas tracksuit, with a cigarette protruding precariously from his lips and a sweeping dark coiffure – which led to the moniker ‘Elvis’ – Goethals was far more astute at subtly handling Tapie’s volatility than his predecessors. A thick Belgian accent, routinely (and likely often deliberately) mispronouncing his players’ names – including calling full back Jocelyn Angloma “Thing” because he couldn’t pronounce ’Joce’ – and joking along with the press, quickly endeared Goethals to the OM support and local journalists.
Also referred to as the Magician or the Wizard, “Raymond la Science” was Goethals’ most common nickname due to his tactical awareness and a desire to acquaint his players with in his depth ideas. “In two months, you will play like Milan,” Marseille players were told during one of the Belgian’s first training sessions. Despite his jovial persona, once entering a press conference and shouting “silence in the barracks!” at waiting journalists, there remained a domineering undercurrent. The Cantona incident was one of many disagreements with players and staff throughout Goethals’ career.
“He was natural, very simple. He loved people,” then OM director general Jean-Pierre Bernès told L’Équipe. “It looked like he had been at Marseille for years. For me, he was a Belgian from Marseille.” Tapie meanwhile explained that they “trusted each other, nothing was one-sided. I loved working with him, he was warm and affectionate.” When Pele was asked to present the Raymond Goethals Trophy to the year’s best Belgian coach he said: “For Dad, I will go to the end of the world.”
Having taken Belgium to third place at Euro 1972, won the 1977-78 Cup Winners Cup when in charge of Anderlecht and Belgian league titles with Standard Liège in 1982 and 1983, Goethals rose to prominence in France with Bordeaux, who ran Marseille close in the 1989-90 campaign, beating Gili’s OM 3-0 at Parc Lescure and impressing Tapie in the process.
After easily negotiating the first two rounds of the 1990-91 European Cup, beating Dinamo Tirana then Lech Poznan 5-1 and 8-4 on aggregate respectively, Goethals took OM to the San Siro for their quarter-final tie with the holders Milan in March 1991. Although calamitous indecision in the Marseille defence allowed Ruud Guillt to slide home a 14th minute opener, a visionary Waddle through ball found Papin who quickly equalised and OM left with an away goal and a deserved draw. Despite the thrashings of Lyon and Nantes that season coming with Goethals as coach, the Belgian’s famed pragmatism proved useful in Europe thanks to such a reliably efficient forward line.
Just after Papin turned provider for Waddle in the second leg with 15 minutes to play, putting OM within reach of the semi-finals, the Vélodrome floodlights failed. The Milan players and officials, sensing a possible postponement, refused to return when the matter was fixed. UEFA however awarded OM a 3-0 win and banned Milan from the following year’s competition. “I didn’t think there was enough light, and the players told me they didn’t feel in the right spirit to continue playing again,” Milan director Adriano Galliani insisted afterward.
Following an off-the-ball altercation with Paolo Maldini, Waddle meanwhile would end the night in hospital. Celebrating over dinner with Hoddle and an injured Paul Gascoigne, Waddle began to feel ill. Although Dr. Gascoigne gleefully prescribed another pint, Waddle began to vomit and an ambulance was called. Refusing to allow Gazza along for the ride to hospital, it became apparent that the Maldini incident had left Waddle concussed.
“Lightgate” was perhaps the peak of a long running rivalry between the clubs. Although Milan won the European Cups of 1989 and 1990 under Arrigo Sacchi and in 1994 with Fabio Capello, Marseille were party to preventing Milan’s attempt to win another three in between. Goethals’ OM ended Milanese hopes in 1991 and 1993, while Milan were banned from the 1991-92 campaign thanks to the floodlights incident at the Vélodrome. Milan too either regularly poached Marseille’s best players – Papin moved to Serie A in 1992 and Marcel Desailly followed a year later – or tried to hijack major Marseille transfers, making last minute attempts to torpedo deals for Cantona and Stojković.
With OM comfortably through, via UEFA’s ruling, Spartak Moscow were swept aside 5-1 on aggregate in the semi-final and it was on to Bari’s Stadio San Nicola for the final with Red Star Belgrade. Having overcome Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich led by Brian Laudrup and Stefan Effenberg in their semi-final tie, Red Star boasting an impossibly gifted midfield four of Vladimir Jugovic, Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic and Sinisa Mihajlovic plus the lethal Ballon d’Or runner up Darko Pancev in attack.
But in what has become the standard bearer for turgid, nervy, uneventful finals, Red Star effectively played for penalties. 0-0 after 120 minutes led to a 5-3 win on spot kicks for Belgrade – Miguel Amoros the only man to miss. Waddle, a year on from wildly lashing his World Cup semi-final shoot-out penalty over the bar in defeat to Germany with England, refused to take another. As did Stojković.
Although Stojković’s stay was heavily truncated by injury, he had a lasting effect on the Vélodrome support and, despite a hint of divided loyalties having left Belgrade only a year beforehand, rues only being used as a sub that day because Red Star were “scared” of him. “Emotionally, first of all you don’t believe that you are going to be on a different side to your friends and former teammates. But this is life.” Stojković recounted in The Blizzard. “It was very hard for me to accept but I was on the bench… I didn’t want to take a penalty… I didn’t want to take that responsibility against Red Star.”
Despite a brief intermission as a director with Tomislav Ilic as coach, Goethals was back in charge in December 1991 as OM cantered to a fourth successive league title, only losing three games. However, a shock second round European cup defeat to Sparta Prague instigated a squad overhaul in the summer of 1992. Waddle, fellow England man Trevor Steven (who only lasted a single season in France), Papin and Mozer were replaced by Alen Boksic – who had spent a season on loan with Cannes after signing during the previous off-season – Desailly, Rudi Voller and Fabien Barthez (when he still had hair). Didier Deschamps also began to assert his authority, having spent the 1990-91 campaign on loan at Bordeaux after joining OM in November 1989 from Nantes.
Meanwhile, Tapie’s personality was becoming increasingly overbearing. Regularly sparring with a colourful selection of fellow club presidents in the media and supposedly instructing Marseille players to put OM first and not to join up with their national sides, Tapie also claims he invented Le Classique. A Parisian himself, Tapie insists he convinced television station Canal + to invest in PSG, simply to keep his team on their toes, such was their dominance, while also helping to stoke animosity between the clubs in the media.
“Everyone has forgotten that I pushed Canal toward PSG.” Tapie describes in Daniel Riolo’s book “PSG-OM: A History of a Rivalry”: “I talked about it with [Canal director Charles] Biétry for a long time, I convinced him that it was a good thing for everyone. Canal and Paris, but also Aulas and Lyon, it was I who brought them in, there was no point in being alone [at the top].” Biétry however dismissed Tapie’s claims as “pure megalomaniac delirium.”
However, the spite was fostered, the PSG-OM rivalry amped up in the early nineties, as a ferocious encounter at the Parc des Princes, now referred to as “The Butchery of 1992” shows. The fact that no one was dismissed that day was approaching farcical after a series of reckless high tackles and scrupulous flailing limbs, nowadays the match likely would have come close to being abandoned. As it was, Alen Boksic’s goal won the game for OM.
David Ginola’s PSG nevertheless remained Marseille’s closest challengers throughout the 1992/93 league season and took an early lead in the title race, losing just once in their opening 15 games. In characteristic fashion however, OM accelerated in the second half of the campaign and returned to top spot after a week 30 win over St Étienne. Despite their squad turnover that summer, Goethals’ Marseille – the Belgian was again back in charge after Luis Fernandez had unsuccessfully assumed control before leaving in November – were again proving a force on the continent.
UEFA’s revamped Champions’ League of the 1992-93 season was the first edition of the European Cup to feature groups, encompassing the final eight clubs, a stage OM reached with little fuss as Glentoran and Dinamo Bucharest were dispensed with without conceding a goal. Glasgow Rangers, CSKA Moscow and Club Brugge joined Marseille in Group A. Only the group winners would advance, with a final set for May 26th at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. After a pair of draws at the Vélodrome and Ibrox, Rangers and Marseille began their final fixtures undefeated and level on points but Marseille’s 1-0 win in Brugge allowed OM to progress as Rangers could only draw in Scotland against CSKA. Milan would be Marseille’s opponents in Munich once more.
Less than a week before Tapie and Marseille’s defining moment however, the empire had already begun to fall. OM would visit relegation threatened Valenciennes on Thursday May 20th to allow extra preparation time ahead of the Champions’ League final the following Wednesday. Tapie nevertheless was worried. PSG were bearing down on OM in Ligue 1 with a potentially decisive meeting between the clubs scheduled for three days after the final. Haunted by previous European defeats, desperate for continental success and concerned by the thought of injuries that affected the build-up to the 1991 final with Red Star, Tapie and Bernès weren’t going to let history repeat itself.
Bernès instructed Marseille midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie to contact his former Nantes teammates, Jorge Burruchaga, Christophe Robert and Jacques Glassmann, all then with Valenciennes, on behalf of the club’s hierarchy to offer large sums of money in exchange for taking it easy against Marseille in an attempt to avoid injuries and fatigue ahead of the final with Milan. Glassman refused, Burruchaga later claimed he considered the offer before rejecting it, but Robert accepted. The night before the game, Robert’s wife Marie met with Eydelie in a hotel car park where a brown envelope was handed over. Robert, however, eventually buried the envelope in his aunt’s garden.
The game finished 1-0 to Marseille but suspicion had already started to rise. “Burruchaga usually challenged everything,” referee Jean-Marie Véniel remembers in L’Éxpress, “However, that evening, not only did he not dispute anything, but he asked the others to be silent. Conversely, Jacques Glassmann ran everywhere as if he was trying to prove something.” Glassman’s wife Audrey meanwhile had already persuaded Jacques to expose the plot. “It’s a crazy story! I do not know what to do. If I didn’t speak, I would curse myself. If I speak, no one will believe me,” Glassmann was later quoted in L’Éxpress.
Glassmann explained events to VA coach Boro Primorac the following morning but, as reported by France Info, Valenciennes club president Michel Coencas didn’t believe Primorac and Glassmann’s story and the game went ahead. All three players started the game, as did Eydelie, although Robert was forced off after 20 minutes following a seemingly innocuous challenge by Di Meco. At full time Glassmann approached Véniel with his concerns before telling the media, leading to players being questioned in their dressing rooms by officials.
Tapie immediately denied the story, telling TF1 later that evening, as per France Info: “Who could believe that Marseille have so little confidence in their team that it is necessary to buy the players of Valenciennes to win? In my heart, I don’t believe it.” But what is now known simply as L’Affaire VA-OM, wouldn’t go away.
Amid the ensuing storm, the two biggest games of OM’s season, and arguably the club’s history, rapidly approached. Tapie remained typically confident however. Stojković remembers the OM president telling the dressing room before the Champions’ League final that he knew Marseille would win. “Do you know why? Because I’m looking better than Berlusconi!” And it was Tapie, with arguably his final meaningful act as OM president, who would be decisive in bringing the European Cup to the Vélodrome.
Five minutes before half-time, centre back Boli was struggling with an injury and signalled to Goethals that he wanted to come off. Goethals was ready to oblige when he received a call from Tapie. “With a walkie-talkie, from the stand, I prevented Goethals from replacing Boli,” Tapie later told the AFP. “I preferred to continue with a diminished Boli than play without him.” Two minutes later Boli – only on the pitch because of Tapie’s intervention – rose to power home a towering header that would win the game, and the Champions’ League, for Marseille.
At full-time Tapie was carried from the pitch, trophy in hand, by the OM players. “We were absolutely sure of winning, none of us had any doubt,” Tapie said at full-time. “Two years ago, on paper, maybe we had a better team, but in 1993 I had 11 players who were ready to die for each other.” The image of Deschamps holding the European Cup aloft that day often appears on Marseille’s Twitter feed, usually carrying the tagline ‘Forever First,’ as a means to taunt PSG following their annual Champions’ League collapses.
Although L’Affaire VA-OM heavily taints their success, for Marseille, becoming the first (and still only) French team to win any major European trophy is something PSG’s exorbitant recent wealth cannot eclipse. And they remain proud. Marseille beat PSG 3-1 to seal the title three days later. An era-defining double had been achieved as had an unprecedented fifth successive league championship. The glory would quickly fade however.
Despite initially pleading ignorance and still an MP, thus hiding behind parliamentary privilege, by February 1994 Tapie was charged with corruption and witness tampering. The OM president was sentenced to two years in prison, plus a year suspended, which was later reduced by 4 months on appeal, and he was also fined 20,000 francs. However, Tapie eventually only served six months. Bernès too was heavily fined and given a two-year suspended sentence. Christophe Robert, Marie Robert, Burrachaga and Eydelie – who served a short spell in prison – were all also fined and given suspended sentences. Glassmann meanwhile was awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award in 1995 for exposing the plot.
Marseile were stripped of the 1992-93 league title. The trophy and accompanying Champions’ League spot were offered to PSG who refused, reportedly due to investors Canal + fearing a backlash from their subscribers in Provence. As such, the league remained unawarded, while third placed Monaco ventured into the Champions’ League. OM completed the 1993-94 season in the top flight, finishing second to PSG with much the same team, but were eventually punished with relegation to Ligue 2. Marseille remained in the second division for two seasons as financial issues – and the notoriously strict French football financial watchdog – prevented an immediate return despite winning the second-tier title in 1994-95. Ironically, given Tapie’s ability for saving troubled companies, Marseille were forced to file for bankruptcy in 1995.
Aside from the VA-OM affair, various other allegations have been made against the Marseille of that era, although none have been proven and all have been denied. Most famously, in 2011 former Rangers forward Mark Hateley claims he was contacted by an unknown source and offered money to not play against Marseille in the 1992-93 Champions’ League group stage game, he refused. Then Rangers manager Walter Smith has also aired his misgivings over how that campaign played out.
Marc Fratini, Tapie’s former fixer and key lieutenant, gave a startling interview to Le Monde in 2019 in which he also claimed issues ran far deeper than the VA-OM Affair and into doping and further bribery. Tapie denied the accusations and threatened legal action against Fratini. Incredibly, although not implicated in 1993, Goethals too was banned after a match fixing scandal – which carries many parallels to the VA-OM Affair – when coaching in Belgium before joining Marseille.
Nearly three decades on, the 77-year-old Tapie remains a prominent figure in France. Now owner of the regional La Provence newspaper and regularly appearing on television, he received significant support during his battle with cancer in 2017.
Marseille fans displayed banners of affection during a league game after which current Marseille forward Florian Thauvin said: “I give my full support to Mr Tapie and his family. It’s good to have won tonight, I hope we give him strength. We are all aware that he was a great president. When I walk around Marseille, we often talk about him. People love him very much here.” Even in September 1993, after the scandal broke, a Le Parisien survey showed that 47% of people thought Tapie should remain in charge of Marseille while that number rose to 77% in Provence.
Most bafflingly, the plot that led to L’Affaire VA-OM seems entirely unnecessary. OM led the league by four points (or two wins at that time) with three games to play before the meeting with Valenciennes. As a result, even if OM lost to both VA and PSG the following weekend, Paris and Marseille would at worst still be level on points going into the final day. Plus, if Tapie and Bernès were concerned about sustaining injuries before the final with Milan, resting key players against a far weaker force in relegation-threatened Valenciennes was a clear and simple alternative to what took place.
He may be a proven criminal, a “megalomaniac” and a “bandit” but, to some extent, Tapie kept the promise he made to Olympique de Marseille’s general assembly in 1986. Waddle, Papin, Francescoli, Pele, Deschamps, Boksic, Voller and many more made the Vélodrome dream. They still do. Their success was remarkable, their football was sparkling and the pride Marseille holds over being ‘Forever First’ remains largely undimmed.
However, for the rest of the footballing world, the indefensible, abhorrent and utterly unnecessary ‘risk’ Tapie and Bernès took on May 19th 1993 severely tarnishes the glory and memory of what otherwise might have been French football’s greatest ever club team. Marseille have never truly recovered from the fallout of the Tapie era, managing just one further title – in 2010 with Deschamps as coach – and three Coupe de la Ligue wins in 27 years. The club is once again in financial difficulties.
Tapie may have made the Vélodrome dream, but now dreams are all Marseille have.