Olympique de Marseille are a club that boast nine Ligue 1 titles, ten French Cups, and a Champions League triumph as part of their famed history. Last season saw Les Phocéens finish in 4th place in the league, rewarding the club with Europa League football for the following campaign. The squad that harboured talents such as Dimitri Payet, André Pierre Gignac, André Ayew and Gianelli Imbula was thoroughly treating the Stade Vélodrome most weeks under manager Marcelo Bielsa’s trademark high-energy system.
However, as this season reaches its conclusion, Marseille find themselves in a vastly different situation. The aforementioned quartet of star players have all departed; and so has Bielsa, and his successor, Michel. There have been clashes between fans and police at home matches, as supporters protest against club owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus. The team stumbling over the line to avoid relegation by winning 1-0 at newly promoted Angers SCO last weekend does not seem to have given supporters any solace, nor appeased their demonstrations.
The combination of owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus (widow of former owner and fan favourite Robert Louis-Dreyfus) and chairman Vincent Labrune have governed Marseille since 2011. On the back of a title win in the 2009/10 season and a second placed finish in 2010/11, Louis-Dreyfus replaced then chairman Jean-Claude Dassier with Labrune, who had worked as an advisor to her late husband Robert. Louis-Dreyfus was eager to assert her authority in her newfound position at the club, and elected Labrune, with whom she had already struck up a rapport, as her right hand man. If the footballing world needed a forecast as to how successful this pairing might be, a 10th placed league finish that year gave an early warning sign. Manager Didier Deschamps walked away from the club to manage the national side, amidst conflict between himself and senior figures at Marseille.
Although Marseille managed to finish second in the 2012/13 season, controversy never strayed too far from the Riviera, as a sixth placed league finish and two managerial changes ensued in the following season. By this point Labrune had already begun the process of downsizing the cost of players to the club. Outgoing players were at large only replaced by free agents or players on loan contracts, despite Marseille being named as the 16th richest club in world football in 2012. Some fans took to voice their discontent at missing out on European football qualification, but the disheartening stories emerging from the club were set to continue. Marcelo Bielsa, taking the helm as manager in 2014, guided the team to 4th spot in the league that season with an exciting attack minded philosophy. Sadly, just minutes after the opening day defeat to Caen in the following campaign, Bielsa was gone too, another resignation attributed to instability within the club. Reportedly he had been due to sign a contract extension at Marseille, but Labrune changed the terms of the contract shortly after the original offer.
And so another disappointing season has been played out in Marseille, one in which they currently lie a dismal 13th in the table. Brazilian coach Michel was brought in to follow on from Bielsa, but failed to last until the end of the season. Labrune has declared that he would like to sell on more of his top performers from this season, the likes of Michy Batshuayi, Lucas Ocampos and Benjamin Mendy. Labrunes’ intention is for Marseille to become a hot bed for young, unproven players that have been signed by huge clubs on the continent, to come and play on short-term deals so that they can experience regular football and hopefully catch the eye of their parent clubs. Meanwhile, fans’ outrage at this policy is reaching boiling point and protests are now commonplace at home and away fixtures. Banners scattered across the stadium call Louis-Dreyfus a ‘rich, incompetent heiress’ and demand that she and Labrune leave their club.
Whilst it remains to be seen if fans’ wishes will be heeded in their entirety, change may be on the horizon for the south coast club, with Louis-Dreyfus declaring that the club had been put up for sale last month. In a statement, the Swiss national insisted that the price at which the club was sold was not the main concern, but the long-term future of the club. Fans can only hope that the departure of Louis-Dreyfus will eventually see fellow pantomime villain Labrune leave too, but the chairman has actually described the imminent sale of the club as “very good news for all who love Olympique de Marseille” and has given no hint that he will abandon the apparent sinking ship.
But should football club owners be given a more strict assessment of whether or not they are fit to govern a team, other than simply a gigantic inherited fortune? No doubt Blackpool fans would agree enthusiastically with this notion in the case of their lamented owner, Karl Oyston. Marseille fans will wait in hope for a new mega rich businessman or woman to take over and provide a brighter outlook for the club. But what would stop a new business tycoon buying Marseille, with the sole intention of sucking more funds out of the club and into their already bulging pockets?
The legendary Marseille and its fans are in desperate need of some new heroes on the pitch, to replace the likes of Payet and Imbula, who supposedly did not want to leave the club, or need to in order for Olympique de Marseille to balance its books. But mismanagement of the club has meant that it is not only the short-term contracts of players that make the clubs’ future an uncertain one. Worryingly, despite the unwavering adulation for the football club from its supporters, OM appears to be a club that is rotten at its core. And the situation may soon improve, but it could just as easily get a whole lot worse.