Olympique de Marseille: The Main Factors Behind the Club's Dominance

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Olympique de Marseille: The Main Factors Behind the Club's Dominance
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OM's players celebrate winning the Champions League in May 1993

History comes and goes and has little concern for our worries and sentimentality.

Olympique de Marseille, a side that has had its struggles over the years—the matchfixing affair and demotion most notably—have always managed to rebuild and regroup and have been able to remain at the top of French football.

But what are these factors that have led to OM's continued success?

And standing as we are on the precipice of an era where PSG and their billions are set to rule football in France for years to come, what does the future hold for a club like Marseille?

French football's past is littered with legendary teams. Saint Etienne in the '60s and '70s. Lyon in the '00s. Reims throughout the '40s, '50s and '60s.

Yet as each of these teams dominated, so too did their dominance fade, and they were forced to look back on the past and comfort themselves with their memories.

How many Reims supporters alive today can remember the last time their side won the French league? How long ago must it seem for those Saint Etienne supporters who are able to remember an era when their team was among the best on the continent?

How must fans of Lyon have felt when they saw the draw for the Champions League group stages this season and had to deal with the fact that for the first time in over a decade, their team didn't figure among the host of names?

What has set OM apart has been their longevity and their ability to constantly produce teams, which are capable of competing for honours, both domestically and on the continental stage.

In a sense, it's not surprising that OM as a football club is different from any other club in France— Marseille is a city like no other. From the bustling Vieux Port and it's heaving tributary "la Canebiere" to the grandeur of the St. Charles railway station and the cathedral at Notre Dame de la Garde where "La Bonne Mère" keeps a watchful eye over its residents, Marseille has a host of landmarks and locations worthy of note but what really makes the city so memorable is its people—and these people are obsessed with football.

Every kebab shop, every takeaway, and every bar seem to advertise showing all OM matches "en direct" (live) and every other young person on the streets or in the schools seems to be wearing some item of clothing related to the club, whether it's a tracksuit, a baseball cap (both de rigeur for the city's youth) a shirt or a motorcycle helmet.

On matchdays and in particular Champions League nights, the city seems to come to a standstill a good couple of hours before kickoff, and normal service is only resumed once the game is finished and has been properly digested and analysed.

Passion for football courses through the city and it's a passion that has played a huge part in the team's success.

 

Since their first title in 1929 right through to their most recent success in 2009/2010, OM's history has been filled with titles and trophies, yet a glance at the list of previous winners for France's top division shows us that OM has to contend with sharing first place with Saint Etienne.

Mathieu Valbuena scores for OM in their recent home draw with OGC Nice

Can we then really argue that OM are undisputed top dog?

That's up for debate, but while the two teams may have won the same number of league titles, when we look at the years over which these leagues were won, we notice that while for Saint Etienne, success didn't come until 1957, and they haven't won the league once since their last title in 1981; OM's success spans a much larger period of time and indicates the longevity discussed earlier.

This can be attributed to a variety of causes. For one, OM's recruitment, especially their recruitment from abroad has meant that coping with the loss of key players historically has rarely been much of an issue—it was just a case of going out and identifying the right replacement.

Countless star players of genuine world class ability have worn the white and blue of Marseille, from Ballon d'Or winner Jean-Pierre Papin (1991) to European Golden Shoe winner Croat Josip Skoblar in 1971, the prolific Swede Gunnar Andersson, World Cup winners Fabien Barthez, Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly, foreign imports such as Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alen Boksic, Rudi Voller, Chris Waddle, Abedi Pele and Didier Drogba, not to mention other French stars such as Eric Cantona, Franck Ribéry, Samir Nasri, Basile Boli and Franck Sauzée.

Trying to list all of the notable players in the OM's history is as arduous a feat as trying to reach Notre Dame de la Garde by foot—the supply seemed to be endless.

 

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
PSG's star summer signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic

At least until now.

While for years OM had players capable of rivalling the very best in Europe, the current financial situation of football on the continent threatens to forever remove clubs like OM from being able to properly compete at the very highest level, unless they are able to first find the funds to compete in the transfer market.

And what is even more problematic is that this includes a team's ability to keep the players it has produced or discovered as much as it does their ability to go out and pay the big money required to attract football's biggest names—you only have to look at the recent departures of Ribéry, Nasri and Drogba to see the problem this poses OM.

Even so, this seemed to only be of genuine significance on a European scale—within France, competition remained as close a contest as ever, and while the teams with the most money were largely those who would end up walking away with the major honours, the past five seasons have seen five different teams winning the title, in stark contrast to Spain or England where only two and three sides respectively have ended the season as champions within the same period.

Since the takeover of PSG, however, clubs in France have had to face up to the genuine possibility of a dominance never before seen in the league, even in the years of Lyon's seven consecutive championships.

If PSG have the money to bankroll foreign signings of the stature of Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and presumably many more similar players in years to come, it will eventually reach a stage where their success is inevitable and even with OM's history of being able to adapt and adjust repeatedly to new challenges, this one might prove too stern a test.

Long term, signings the calibre of Joey Barton just won't cut it.

 

 

Currently the situation remains relatively far from this bleak scenario. OM sits level on points with their rivals with a game in hand, and have so far displayed a level of consistency, which could lead to them maintaining the challenge over the course of the season.

Yet as the years pass, OM will doubtless soon find themselves in a position where keeping pace with PSG is impossible unless they can find a similar level of investment from somewhere, or are able to unearth a crop of young players with the talent to match Paris's spending power.

As with any club though, the worry would be that in letting an outsider invest so heavily in their club, in doing so OM would risk sacrificing their character and what it is that gives them their identity and for a club characterised by its roots and its relationship with its city, this might serve only to distance themselves from their supporters, even if it does mean silverware.

Fans can only hope then that keeping up with the richest clubs in Europe and maintaining the character of the club aren't mutually exclusive yet sadly, in football today, it remains to be seen whether or not this is possible.

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