'A Pistol Against a Tank'—The Ultras' View on the PSG vs. Marseille Rivalry

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 28, 2018

Getty / B/R

Kylian Mbappe has barely put a foot wrong, on or off the pitch, since joining Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco last summer, but there has been one significant misstep.

PSG had just won 4-0 at Anderlecht in a Champions League group game in October, Mbappe opening the scoring, when the teenage striker strolled into the mixed zone at Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. A black Air Jordan cap framing his boyish features and the straps of a black rucksack hooked over both shoulders, he was asked by a radio reporter from RMC Sport about the importance of PSG's forthcoming trip to Marseille in Ligue 1.

"It's a match like any other," he said. "Even if it's a great stadium and there will be a great atmosphere. We're used to it. It will be a special match, it will be a Classique, but the Champions League is something else."

Mbappe's team-mate Thomas Meunier had been even more dismissive. In an appearance on Canal+ the previous weekend, the Belgian right-back had described the game as "an ordinary match."

"I don't really hear people talking about it in the squad," Meunier said (h/t Yahoo Sport). "The supporters are always completely up for it. But in the squad, there are lots of foreign players. It's not the same."

Both players would be in for a rude awakening. In a raucous, seething Stade Velodrome, PSG twice fell behind to Marseille and lost Neymar to a second-half red card before Edinson Cavani rescued a 2-2 draw with a 93rd-minute free-kick.

Mbappe found life tough at the Velodrome
Mbappe found life tough at the VelodromeRobbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Mbappe had a shocker. He was booked for manhandling the referee after PSG were denied a penalty early in the second half and then hauled off with 10 minutes to play. Chastened, he admitted after the game that "there was a problem with the way that we approached the match."

"They were waiting for this match," he said. "Perhaps we should have been waiting for it a bit more as well."

PSG's supporters were less than impressed. A group representing the Collectif Ultras Paris (CUP) was invited to meet the players at PSG's Camp des Loges training centre last week, ahead of the return fixture against Marseille. They used the opportunity to remind Mbappe and his superstar team-mates that even with the return leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid looming, a match against OM demanded complete focus. The players responded on Sunday with a 3-0 win.

"It upset us (what Mbappe and Meunier said) because even though we know that in a sporting sense PSG are at a higher level, it remains a unique match," CUP president Romain Mabille told Bleacher Report.

PSG and Marseille in action last weekend
PSG and Marseille in action last weekendAurelien Meunier/Getty Images

"It's the match that everyone puts a circle round when the fixtures come out. We talked about it to the players at the training centre and we reiterated the message.

"As much as the match against Real Madrid is paramount for the season, you can't neglect a match between PSG and Marseille. It's a match you have to win."

Founded in 1970, PSG have always been viewed as upstarts by their foes from the south coast, but the seeds of the rivalry between the clubs were truly sown in the late 1980s.

With Bordeaux a fading force, Marseille's scheming president Bernard Tapie needed a new domestic rival to keep his team on their toes and help them achieve his goal of becoming France's first European champions.

Marseille and PSG went head-to-head in the 1988-89 title race, and a showdown at the Velodrome in May 1989 set the tone for the years that followed. Tapie and his PSG counterpart Francis Borelli cranked up the temperature by exchanging barbs before the game. Played out amid a taut, frenzied atmosphere, the match was settled in the 90th minute when Franck Sauzee drilled a shot past PSG goalkeeper Joel Bats from 25 yards, effectively sealing OM's first title in 17 years.

Didier Deschamps in action during a Classique in 1991
Didier Deschamps in action during a Classique in 1991JACQUES DEMARTHON/Getty Images

When Canal+ bought PSG in 1991, Tapie encouraged their directors to help him boost interest in the championship by whipping up the enmity between the two clubs, and the early 1990s witnessed the peak years of the rivalry. Between 1989 and 1992, Marseille won four successive Ligue 1 titles, and their encounters with PSG were characterised by ferocious intensity. One particularly brutal match at Parc des Princes in December 1992 earned itself the nickname "The Butchery of 1992."

Marseille became the first French club to lift the European Cup in 1993, but a match-fixing scandal saw them stripped of the Ligue 1 title that they won the same year, and they were demoted to the French second tier in 1994. PSG stepped into the void, winning the championship in 1994 and claiming their first continental silverware in the 1995-96 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.

As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, sporting underachievement for both clubs meant that their rivalry came to be typified by off-pitch violence rather than on-pitch drama. Encounters between the teams served up regular flashpoints—street battles, arrests, hospitalisations—until matters tragically reached a head in February 2010. Prior to a match at Parc des Princes, from which Marseille's supporters had been banned, clashes between rival factions of PSG fans led to one man later dying.

Away supporters have been forbidden from attending league fixtures between the teams in recent years, although around 400 Marseille fans have been allowed to attend Wednesday's Coupe de France quarter-final in Paris.

Christian Cataldo, president and founding member of Marseille ultras group the Dodger's (the erroneous apostrophe has never been corrected), says a rivalry that was born on the pitch has flourished in the stands due to the mutual antipathy that has long existed between residents of Paris—the bourgeois, image-conscious capital—and the people of Marseille, seamy working-class stronghold of the French Mediterranean.

"It's a rivalry of mentality, of way of life, of culture," he says. "We're the south, they're the north. They're the capital, we're the biggest city in France after Paris. It's like a team from Manchester or Liverpool against a team from London. The provinces against the capital. The provinces against the power."

Marseille's supporters cheer their team before the French L1 football match Rennes against Marseille on February 7, 2015 at the route de Lorient stadium in Rennes, western France. AFP PHOTO / DAMIEN MEYER        (Photo credit should read DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/

Marseille currently have six main ultras groups—the Dodger's, the Commando Ultra '84, the Yankee Nord, the South Winners, the Fanatics and the Marseille Trop Puissant (Too Powerful)—and their obsessive members keep the club's players under constant pressure.

"Marseille's supporters have more frequent contact with the players, so they make sure that they understand the importance of the rivalry," says Jean-Francois Peres, a journalist (and OM fan) who has co-authored two books on the relationship between PSG and Marseille.

"The players know very well that a victory or a draw against Paris will be a source of pride and will help to keep the peace for the weeks and months ahead."

Players can try to ingratiate themselves with Marseille's fans in different ways, but for the ultras there is only one thing that matters: effort on the pitch. From the current squad, Cataldo picks out Brazilian midfielder Luiz Gustavo and Japanese full-back Hiroki Sakai as two players who really "get" what it means to be un Marseillais. Though PSG are hated, there is admiration among Marseille's support for Cavani, whose tireless work rate and humble demeanour have moved some to think of him as an OM player in a PSG shirt.

Along with Neymar and Mbappe, the two other members of PSG's gilded front three, Cavani is a symbol of the gulf that has separated OM from their arch rivals ever since Qatar's sovereign wealth fund brought its mind-boggling wealth to Parc des Princes in the summer of 2011.

Marseille acquired their own rich investor in 2016 when the club was bought by American businessman Frank McCourt, but there can be no comparison between the two regimes. The club-record fee of €30 million that Marseille paid to bring Dimitri Payet back to the Velodrome from West Ham United in January 2017 would be loose change for PSG, who authorised an outlay of €367 million last summer on just two players—Neymar and Mbappe.

PSG have won four of the last five Ligue 1 titles and have completed a clean sweep of the domestic cups in each of the last three seasons. Marseille have not beaten them in 16 games.

Paris Saint-Germain's supporters hold a tifo representing a character of Japanese manga Dragon ball as the words 'Here it's Paris' is seen above prior to the French L1 football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Marseille (OM) at the Parc des Pri

"When the Qataris arrived at PSG, I said to myself, 'It's finished. As long as the Qataris are there, we won't be able to beat them anymore.' And that's what's happened," says Cataldo, 52.

"The rivalry will always be there. It's just that on a sporting level, we're going to war armed with a pistol and they're in a tank."

The current state of financial inequality between the clubs has only served to entrench Marseille's position as the sooty-faced street urchins seeking to give their regal rivals from the capital a bloody nose.

"Marseille is a city that has a fairly problematic image," explains Peres. "There's that feeling of the second city, the city of the poor and the working class. For a long time, Marseille has felt abandoned by the central powers. PSG is the representation of those central powers."

Peres believes that PSG have "moved on a bit" from the days when beating Marseille was all that mattered, "because they now measure themselves against Real Madrid or Manchester City or Barcelona." But Cataldo says that from Marseille's perspective, success against PSG is now prized "even more than ever".

"Imagine if we beat them now," he says. "It would be like a bomb going off at Paris because we're still their sworn enemies. The repercussions would be enormous."

PSG's ultras were forced out of Parc des Princes as part of an initiative to combat violence launched by former president Robin Leproux in 2010. In a testament to the successful repackaging of the stadium as a glamorous hospitality venue, it is not unusual to see celebrities like Rihanna, Beyonce and Leonardo Di Caprio sitting in the posh seats at PSG home games.

Celebrities like Rihanna have been taking in PSG games
Celebrities like Rihanna have been taking in PSG gamesJean Catuffe/Getty Images

The ground's atmosphere inevitably suffered, however, and in 2016 the club's president Nasser Al-Khelaifi made a move to restore some colour to the stands by inviting a newly formed group of ultras—the CUP—to take up residence in the Tribune Auteil.

Mabille, 30, has been president and capo (leader) of the CUP since the group was established in March 2016, and he welcomes that OM supporters will be present for Wednesday's cup match, in what he hopes is a sign that PSG's fans will soon be allowed to attend fixtures at the Velodrome.

The CUP says that it wants to be a different kind of ultras group and obliges its members to sign a charter committing to non-violence, but although PSG's objectives have been revised in recent years, Mabille says a game against Marseille gets pulses racing just as quickly as ever.

"The people at the club have changed a lot and the standing of the club has changed, but it's up to us to remind them that for the city of Paris and PSG's supporters, this match is so important," he says.

"We're the representatives of the Parisian identity and Marseille represent everything that we don't like. When we see OM on the pitch at Parc des Princes…it's difficult to explain. It has to be victory and nothing else."


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