Turmoil at Marseille: threats of violence, resignations, and calls for “profound change”

As the full-time whistle sounded on Olympique de Marseille’s 0-0 draw against Toulouse FC on Sunday, murmurings of discontent resonated around the Stade Vélodrome. If discontent was simmering below the surface, it erupted on Monday, with supporter groups levelling threats against the club’s hierarchy in a meeting that could irreversibly change OM. 

Only 24 hours had passed when President Pablo Longoria, Sporting director Javier Ribalta, Financial director Stéphane Tissier as well as club CEO and Strategy director Pedro met with the supporter groups at Marseille’s training complex – La Commanderie – on Monday. 

At the time, RMC Sport described the nature of the meeting as “extremely tense,” with supporters reportedly saying, “We don’t see the ball. We’re ashamed. You don’t respect us.” However, the seriousness of the comments made in this explosive meeting has since come to light. In an official press release, OM owner Frank McCourt revealed that what was meant to be a constructive meeting, quickly “transformed into an alarming demonstration of aggression, with members of the club’s hierarchy subjected to threats of violence.” 

Marcelino’s vague speech 

On Tuesday, those present at the meeting began to share their experience, notably on video calls with Frank McCourt’s right-hand-man Barry Cohen. One member of OM’s hierarchy present reportedly told Cohen that one of the supporters said, “You and your d***head coach if you don’t leave, you’ll see.” Rachid Zeroual, infamous leader of the South Winners ultras group told the hierarchy that they had four matches to leave. 

By Tuesday word of the meeting is also filtering through the corridors of La Commanderie, as well as onto the training pitches. Marcelino, deeply affected by the events of the previous night, gathered his players before Tuesday morning’s session and made them aware of the contents of the meeting. “We’ll speak about it later,” said the Spaniard, who had nonetheless evoked the idea that he had already managed his final game for the club in what one player described as a “strange and vague” speech. Marcelino’s mood on that Tuesday has been described as “erratic” – understandably so given the turn of events. That erraticism is mirrored in reporting in French media – one minute Marcelino is coming, the next he is staying. 

However, by Tuesday night, the decision is seemingly made. The next morning, Marcelino arrives at La Commanderie at 9am, but he won’t be on the plane that takes the squad to Amsterdam for Thursday’s Europa League match against Ajax at 11am. Instead, he informs his players that he is leaving the club. The officialisation of his departure comes later that afternoon. 

Longoria steps back

On Wednesday night, Marcelino released a statement, stating that the “intimidation, threats, insults and slander” levelled at the club’s hierarchy contributed to a “tense climate” making the continuation of his work at the club impossible. By this point, the club is already in turmoil. The club is without a manager, whilst Longoria and the other executives involved in Monday’s meeting have all temporarily stepped back from their roles in order to give them time to consider their futures at the Phocéen club. Longoria even offered his resignation to McCourt, according to L’Équipe, but this was rejected by the American owner. 

With the squad in Amsterdam, preparing for their Europa League opener, a “tired” Longoria remains in Marseille and sits down with La Provence, revealing a long history of intimidation and threats from the club’s fans, which even led him to instigate an audit of himself, carried out by the McCourt Group. In the audit, which showed no signs of wrongdoing on Longoria’s part, the Spaniard even gave private conversations that he had held with his mother. “It started with insinuations and progressed to threats,” Longoria told La Provence. 

Aurélien Viers, the editorial director of La  Provence said that Longoria believed it was “impossible to continue to work in this way.” The Director added that despite Marseille being without a manager, Longoria said he wasn’t even thinking about Marcelino’s successor.

Jacques Abardonado has been placed in charge on an interim basis, and he will take charge of Thursday night’s game against Ajax, and perhaps Sunday’s Le Classique against Paris Saint-Germain. He and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fronted up to the media in Amsterdam on Wednesday night, with the latter admitting “We’re in one hell of a storm.” However, the former Arsenal and Chelsea forward, who only joined OM this summer, called for focus from his teammates.

Calls for profound change and unity

The storm doesn’t look like passing any time soon, and clouds of uncertainty linger. The question of Longoria’s future is the most imminent, and whilst he has the support of owner McCourt, his continuation at the club remains unclear. “In the face of this situation, I strongly support Pablo Longoria and we endeavour to determine the best path to take for the club and the members of his team,” said the American owner in a press release. 

McCourt has now called for unity and also for “profound change” amidst this troubling context. “Our management of OM has taught us that we need profound change to give the club a real chance of developing, without hindrance, over the long term. This change needs a strong collective effort, inside and outside of OM. Only change will allow OM to preserve its identity by continuing to construct a club of the stature that our fans and the city of Marseille deserve. Let’s all stay united behind Olympique de Marseille, starting with tonight’s very important match in Amsterdam,” he said. 

Amongst the fanbase, there are signs of reconciliation, but also of fracture. A gathering of OM supporters at La Commanderie is scheduled to take place on Saturday in support of Longoria, whilst online there is a petition circulating, calling for the resignation of Zeroual as head of the South Winners. 

“Marseille is like that” has become a common phrase to explain, even justify some of the toxicity surrounding the club in recent times. “I can’t hear that,” said Longoria, and judging by McCourt’s call for “profound change” it is seemingly a mindset that the club are no longer willing to tolerate either. 

GFFN | Luke Entwistle

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