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As I’m sure many of you are aware, ‘Le Classique’ pits Olympique de Marseille, representing the largest city in south of France, against Paris Saint Germain, the most popular team in France’s northern capital.
As with all great football rivalries, the animosity behind the fixture stems largely from a cultural divide between the two teams; Marseille was once Europe’s chief port & as France’s colonial influence waned, the importance of Marseille declined similarly. In the interim, Marseille has struggled to reinvent itself economically, with parts of the city home to some of the highest unemployment rates in France.
Paris, on the other hand, has thrived economically – becoming the engine of France’s economy & indeed, one of the most influential cities in Europe.
In fact, football is one of the few areas that Marseille has traditionally experienced success over its northern rival, affording the city’s inhabitants a unique opportunity to get one over Paris, the seat of the French government & a region that many ‘Marseillais’ feel has neglected the southern city.
Nowadays, ‘Le Classique’ is firmly established as France’s premier footballing rivalry. However, this hasn’t always been the case – in reality, the formation of PSG in 1970, through the merging of Paris FC & Stade Saint-Germain, was largely borne out of frustration that the nation’s capital had not yet produced a football team that was capable of rivalling the traditional French superpowers of Olympique de Marseille, AS Saint-Étienne & FC Girondins de Bordeaux.
PSG delivered their first Ligue 1 title in 1986, a title win that forced OM to take notice of their Parisian counterparts in earnest for the first time, giving rise to a bitter rivalry that would dominate the French championship for the next decade.
What ‘Le Classique’ lacked in historic pedigree it more than made up for in spectacle & intensity. Throughout the late ‘80s & early ‘90s, the power struggle between the two clubs was consistently marred by fan violence & corruption.
Seeing PSG capture their inaugural league title enraged one OM fan in particular, controversial businessman Bernard Tapie, who acquired the club and swiftly proceeded to purchase a host of household names capable of silencing the northern upstarts. Cantona, Völler, Desailly, Deschamps, Papin, are just some of the stars who found themselves plying their trade in the southern port city during the late ‘80s & early ‘90s. This added investment in the club soon paid dividends, ushering in an era of unprecedented dominance for OM. Between the years of 1989-1992, Marseille picked up four consecutive league titles, as well as becoming the first (& to this point, only) French club to have won the Champions League, in 1993.
OM’s Champions League win, remains the primary middle finger that ‘Les Marseillais’ hold up to their rivals in the capital. To this day, “A Jamais Les Premiers’’ (Forever the First) remains one of the most familiar chants to reverberate around OM’s Stade Velodrome.
Off the pitch, the rivalry was becoming more & more toxic. The French TV Channel Canal+ became PSG’s majority shareholder in 1991 & set about using their programming to deliberately stoke tensions between the two teams, believing that an increasingly heated rivalry between the two would result in improved ratings.
This added vitriol was to have a tangible effect on the rivalry, physical clashes between the two sets of supporters became increasingly common on match days; causing a heavy police presence to become synonymous with the meeting of the two teams.
Heightened tensions between the two clubs weren’t just reserved for their supporters however. As the two clubs engaged in a type of ‘Space Race’ to become the first French team to win the Champions League, rumours began to emerge that members of the Marseille team & backroom staff had orchestrated the match-fixing of domestic matches.
These rumours were confirmed in bizarre fashion in June 1993 – just three weeks after Marseille lifted the Champions League trophy, with the discovery of an envelope containing 250,000 francs buried in the back garden belonging to the aunt of then Valenciennes FC player, Christophe Robert.
Upon interrogation from the police, Robert confessed that he and a number of his teammates had been offered money by Marseille midfielder, Jean-Jacques Eleydie & Marseille general manager, Jean-Pierre Bernes to throw a league game against OM which took place six days prior to the Champions League final. Robert’s confession set in motion a chain of events that would come to be known as the ‘affaire VA-OM’; which remains to this day, the single greatest scandal that French football has ever seen. The fallout from the ‘affaire VA-OM’, precipitated OM’s spectacular fall from European football’s top table, a fall from which the club has never truly recovered.
The scandal resulted in the prosecution of Eleydie, Bernes & Marseille owner, Bernard Tapie. Marseille were also stripped of the league title that they had won for the 1992-1993 season, leaving a stain on the proud club’s history. As a final nail in the coffin of Marseille’s golden era, OM were relegated to the French second division as further punishment, causing many of their world-class players to depart the club.
With Marseille’s golden generation out of the picture, French football went through a state of unpredictability throughout the rest of the ‘90s into the early ‘00s, with six different clubs lifting the league title between the years of 1994 to 2001. This period of instability in French domestic football concluded with the emergence of a formidable Olympique Lyonnais team who earned seven Ligue 1 titles in a row, starting with the 2001-2002 season.
Meanwhile, Marseille’s quest to be recognised as France’s top team again has been largely unsuccessful, with the famous southern club having celebrated just one league win over the past 27 years.
This pursuit became immeasurably harder in 2011, with the acquisition of Paris Saint Germain by the infinitely deep pockets of Qatari Sports Investments. The purchase of PSG by their oil-rich owners has allowed the club to amass a world-class squad that has secured 6 of the last 7 league titles.
We often wonder if a club can hold on to its own distinct identity after having been bought by new, external owners. But in truth, it is not just the identity of the individual club that is affected by such an acquisition, but all the other relationships that the club has cultivated over the years.
Cultural context ensures that, ‘Le Classique’, will never truly lose its edge, however, the competitiveness of the game itself has been dented enormously over the last number of years, with matches now often just another obstacle for PSG to surmount on their way to winning Ligue 1.
These days, you can see young ‘Marseillais’ happily donning PSG jerseys adorned with the likes of ‘Mbappé’ & ‘Neymar’, as you stroll along the streets of Marseille’s central vieux-port, something which would have been unthinkable during the height of the rivalry.
Marseille shop owners now begrudgingly stock PSG jerseys in-store, with many retailers bitterly admitting that PSG jerseys are outselling those of OM – emblematic that although traditional superpowers such as OM will always have an important role to play in France’s football heritage, football in France has now gone the way of French society as whole; Paris calls the shots.