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FEATURE | The life and times of Bernard Tapie

“If everyone was as interesting as Bernard Tapie, I’d buy more newspapers,” said Eric Cantona in 1987. Described at one time or another as “a bandit”, “an enterprising man, a winner,” and “a megalomaniac”, Tapie, Marseille president between 1986 and 1994, will be remembered in many ways. However, after losing his battle with stomach cancer this weekend at the age of 78, his impact on France’s grandest footballing institution will endure regardless. Having helped Marseille become the only French club in history to lift the European Cup, Tapie, the club said, “will leave a great void in the hearts of Marseillais and will forever remain a legend of the club”.

Thanks to a penchant for reinvigorating failing companies and, according to a young Tapie in a recent L’Équipe documentary, “a fierce desire to earn lots and lots and lots of money”, the charismatic and ambitious Tapie became a prominent figure during the early eighties across Provence. Despite his wealth, estimated at 2bn francs or €760m in the mid-eighties, and notoriety in the region, OM wasn’t on Tapie’s radar, focusing on cycling instead. When asked to invest in Marseille by mayor Gaston Deferre in 1984, Tapie initially refused saying he “knew nothing about football”.

Tapie would eventually agree, despite his election to parliament in 1989, later becoming Minister for Urban Affairs and acquiring an 80% stake in a struggling Adidas, the OM presidency would define Tapie in the eyes of the French public. His magnetism and ambitious approach to squad-building, in partnership with former France coach Michel Hidalgo as director of football, attracted a host of big names which brought unprecedented success.

One of Tapie’s first additions, Jean-Pierre Papin, would become the league’s top scorer five seasons in a row. Defender Marcel Desailly spent a year at the Velodrome, helping to win the Champions League in 1993, before leaving for AC Milan. German international striker Rudi Völler netted 24 times in 58 league games between 1992 and 1994 for OM. Uruguayan creator Enzo Francescoli, who Zinedine Zidane once described as being “like a God”, joined via Racing Matra Paris in 1989. Chris Waddle arrived for a British record fee and placed tenth for the 1991 Ballon d’Or ranking.

Cantona, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, Basile Boli, Fabien Barthez, Abedi Pelé, Didier Deschamps, Klaus Allofs and Alen Bokšić all featured for Marseille across the period too. Tapie and Hidalgo even made a serious attempt to sign Diego Maradona from Napoli. “Tapie told me to take his private plane to go there incognito”, Hidalgo later told L’Équipe. “He told me to promise Maradona everything.”

Although it took time for Tapie’s OM to gather pace, trophies soon arrived. Of Marseille’s ten French titles, four came during the Tapie era between 1989 and 1992, as did the club’s only Coupe de France triumph since 1976. But it was in Europe where Tapie’s true ambitions lie. Later losing the 1991 final on penalties to Red Star Belgrade, Marseille were ousted at the semi-final stage of the 1989/90 European cup by Benfica on away goals after Vata used his arm to score the deciding goal. Tapie was furious, ominously vowing: “I learn quickly. That will not happen to us again.”

Dragan Stojković, who signed for Marseille in 1990 from Red Star Belgrade, described Tapie as having “two different faces”. Tapie was “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.”

Tapie’s unscrupulously ruthless reputation was well-earned. According to Le Monde, to beat Monaco in signing Abedi Pelé from Mulhouse in 1988, Tapie ‘leaked’ that Pelé had previously tested positive for HIV, before telling the player to refuse a blood test during his Monaco medical. It was enough for the deal to collapse, allowing OM to swoop.

His underhand style, lightning-rod media persona and boardroom flair aside, Tapie’s ego and volatility often became overbearing, even for Marseille. Quintessential Tapie-era coach Raymond Goethals was removed and reinstated three times, contributing to eight coaching changes in as many years. Tapie also regularly sparred with rival presidents in the press. Bordeaux chairman Claude Bez once labelled Tapie “a traitor, a crook and a charlatan” while Tapie said of Alain Afflelou, also of Bordeaux, that “by driving people crazy, he’s starting to become crazy himself. Every time he speaks, it’s bullshit.”

Tapie also claimed he invented Marseille’s Classique rivalry with PSG, insisting he convinced broadcaster Canal+ to invest in PSG while stoking animosity between the clubs in the media, simply to keep his team on their toes. “Everyone has forgotten that I pushed Canal towards PSG”, Tapie describes in pundit Daniel Riolo’s book PSG-OM: A History of a Rivalry: “I talked about it with [Canal director Charles] Biétry, I convinced him that it was a good thing for everyone.” Biétry later dismissed those claims as “pure megalomaniac delirium”.

By 1993, Tapie was finally on the verge of history, as Marseille faced AC Milan in the inaugural Champions League final. Haunted by previous European defeats and fearing the same injuries that affected the build-up to the 1991 final, Tapie and OM director general Jean-Pierre Bernès weren’t going to let history repeat itself.

A week prior to the final in Munich, Marseille faced Valenciennes in the league. Bernès instructed Marseille midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie to contact his former teammates, Jorge Burruchaga, Christophe Robert and Jacques Glassmann, all then with Valenciennes, and offer large sums of money in exchange for taking it easy against Marseille ahead of the final. Glassman refused, Burruchaga later claimed he considered the offer before rejecting it, but Robert accepted.

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.” Having failed to convince the Valenciennes hierarchy of the plot beforehand, Glassmann approached Véniel at full time with his concerns before telling the media.

Initially denying the story, Tapie still had time to secure his legendary status at the Velodrome. Five minutes before half-time in the final against Milan, centre-back Boli was struggling and signalled to Goethals that he couldn’t continue. Goethals was preparing a sub when he received a call from Tapie. “With a walkie-talkie, I prevented Goethals from replacing Boli”, the club president later told AFP. “I preferred to continue with a diminished Boli than play without him.” Two minutes later, Boli lept to power home a header that would win the game, and the Champions’ League, for Marseille.

After being hoisted onto the shoulders of the Marseille players at full time, Tapie’s glory was to be only fleeting. The VA-OM Affair, as the scandal is referred to in France, wouldn’t go away. By February 1994 Tapie had been charged with corruption and witness tampering, and was sentenced to two years in prison, plus a year suspended, which was later reduced by 4 months on appeal. Marseile were stripped of the 1993 league title and relegated to Ligue 2. Glassmann, meanwhile, was awarded the 1995 FIFA Fair Play Award for exposing the plot.

Bafflingly, the entire scheme still seems entirely unnecessary. OM led the league by four points (or two wins, back then) with three games to play before meeting Valenciennes. Even losses to both VA and title rivals PSG the following weekend would leave Paris and Marseille level on points for the final day. Meanwhile, resting players in fear of injury against relegation-threatened Valenciennes was a simple alternative to what took place.

Although the VA-OM Affair would usually be enough to see its orchestrator permanently ostracised, Tapie’s popularity in Marseille remains strong. Tapie later insisted “the affair ended me, ruined me. It put me in a personal, professional and political situation called ‘nothingness’”, which wasn’t entirely true. A 1993 Le Parisien survey showed 77% of people in Provence thought Tapie should remain OM president regardless of the scandal. A former pop crooner and a celebrity by sheer force of personality, Tapie remained a prominent figure in the French media, acquired regional newspaper La Provence in 2013 and even returned as Marseille Sporting Director in the early noughties.

Over the years Tapie was accused of further misdemeanours. In 2019, former fixer Marc Fratini accused Tapie of meddling in matches, claims he denied, while a 1995 report by the Attorney General of the Aix-en-Provence court pointed to “serious irregularities committed from 1987” relating to the management of the club. Rangers forward Mark Hateley also later claimed he was contacted by an unknown source and offered money to not play against Marseille in the 1992/93 Champions’ League, he refused.

Following Monday’s news, Giresse paid tribute to Tapie as “an extraordinary character” and praised his “caring attitude” towards his players, while Kylian Mbappe tweeted “RIP to this great man”. Former cyclist Bernard Hinault, meanwhile, described his team’s former manager as “dynamic”, a “fighter” and “a go-getter” while Lyon president Jean Michel Aulas said “your passion was a beacon… without you, today would be very different, even for Lyon”. Didier Deschamps commented that he was “deeply saddened” by Tapie’s passing, a “passionate and fascinating man.” L’Équipe devoted 22 pages to Tapie in their Monday edition following his death.

“At OM, I will apply my motto of the three ‘R’s. R for rêve, R for rire, R for risque”, said Tapie when addressing the Marseille general assembly in 1986. Tapie’s plan was clear, to ‘dream’, to ‘enjoy’ and to ‘risk’ – and he achieved all three for himself and the Marseille fans. Each season when PSG are knocked out of the Champions League, Marseille gleefully reiterate their self-given title of France’s “Forever First” European champions. That triumph was made possible by Bernard Tapie, and Marseille became the behemoth they are today largely thanks to Tapie. However, regardless of his successes and enduring legendary status at the Velodrome, Tapie also ensured it would forever be tainted.

Adam White

 

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