Pammy, Balotelli and 60,000 Angry Fans: How Marseille's American Dream Went Sour

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 22, 2019

Marseille's supporters group
B/R Football

It took three minutes for nine months of simmering frustration to come to the boil.

Marseille's fans had long been unhappy with their team's performances, but for the most part they had continued to show their support. There were still banners and chants attacking the club's board and urging coach Rudi Garcia to step down (this is Marseille, after all), but in the main, the fans had stood behind the team.

But when Moussa Dembele and Maxwel Cornet scored in the 84th and 86th minutes of Lyon's 3-0 win at Marseille on May 12, extinguishing all hope of European qualification for Garcia's side, something snapped.

Irate fans rushed the security barriers at the foot of the stands in an attempt to invade the pitch and had to be forced back by riot police firing tear gas. Other supporters tried to barge their way into the Stade Velodrome's VIP suites. The violence spilled out into the streets surrounding the stadium, where bellicose, cagoule-clad OM fans pelted police with stones, glass bottles and firecrackers. When the dust eventually settled, at least seven people had been arrested.

Unrest is never far from the surface at Marseille, but the Velodrome had not witnessed such scenes of disorder since the last days of Spanish coach Michel's calamitous tenure three years previously. It was later that same year, in October 2016, that American businessman Frank McCourt took over, pledging to invest heavily and put OM "back on the road to glory." So much for that.

A year ago, a visitor to the Velodrome might also have seen smoke drifting past the floodlights, but back then it came not from tear gas but the flares brandished by fans joyously celebrating Marseille's progress to the Europa League final.

Wins over Athletic Bilbao, RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg recalled some of the stadium's finest hours, and although Marseille lost 3-0 to Atletico Madrid in the final, it felt like the club was heading in the right direction.

Marseille's Italian forward Mario Balotelli (C) reacts past French referee Hakim Ben El Hadj (C-R) during the French Ligue 1 football match between FC Girondins de Bordeaux and Olympique de Marseille at the Matmut Atlantique Stadium in Bordeaux, southwest
NICOLAS TUCAT/Getty Images

Twelve months on from that loss to Atletico in Lyon, much has changed. Marseille have fallen short in their stated ambition to qualify for next season's Champions League and on Wednesday it was confirmed that Garcia would leave the club at the end of the season. McCourt's so-called "OM Champions Project" is in tatters.

The squad that Garcia led to the Europa League final was stuffed full of experienced players on big contracts, and with revenues due to fall next season in light of Marseille's failure to get into Europe, a summer of upheaval beckons. Mario Balotelli, who belatedly arrived from Nice in January, is not certain to stay, and senior players such as Dimitri Payet, Florian Thauvin and Luiz Gustavo have all been linked with moves away.

"Because of what happened last season, the directors didn't realise there were lots of shortcomings in the team," explains Fabrice Lamperti from regional newspaper La Provence.

"The recruitment process wasn't significant enough and the squad wasn't sufficiently refreshed, with only three new [summer] arrivals. There were some departures, but no big ones, so the dynamic and the hierarchy remained the same. And things went downhill quickly."

The first sign that Marseille were destined for a complicated season came in their first away game at newly promoted Nimes. Garcia rushed the team's World Cup playersThauvin, Steve Mandanda, Adil Rami and Croatian new boy Duje Caleta-Carinto his starting XI and saw his side completely overrun at a boisterous Stade des Costieres, where OM collapsed to a 3-1 defeat.

It has been a testing season for all three of Marseille's French World Cup winners. Goalkeeper Mandanda has committed several costly errors; centre-back Rami has lost his place in the side (admitting in February he was suffering from post-World Cup "burn-out" despite not having played a single minute in Russia); and although he made a strong start to the season, winger Thauvin has looked some way off the player who amassed 26 goals and 17 assists across all competition in 2017-18.

Swiftly withdrawn from service, 22-year-old centre-back Caleta-Car has since returned to become one of the few bright spots in Marseille's season, but the same cannot be said for his fellow summer recruits. Serbian winger Nemanja Radjonic, 23, has featured scarcely, starting only seven Ligue 1 games, and experienced midfielder Kevin Strootman has failed to justify his €25 million price tag.

Strootman's move to the Mediterranean coast reunited him with Garcia, who was the 29-year-old Dutchman's coach for three years during his time at AS Roma.

According to French media reports, Marseille's success last season meant Garcia was effectively given full control over the club's transfer dealings, allowing him to drive through deals such as the Strootman one despite the reservations of sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta.

The loss at Nimes proved an accurate precursor of things to come. There were several one-sided defeats in the first half of the campaign4-2 at Lyon, 3-0 at Lille, 3-0 at Montpellierand in the Europa League, things were even worse.

Seven months on from losing in the final, OM finished rock-bottom of Group H, picking up a solitary point from a 2-2 draw at Cypriot outfit Apollon Limassol. Rami and Payet argued on the pitch at the end of the 3-1 home defeat by Lazio. When the campaign came to a fittingly pitiful end with a 3-1 loss at home to Apollon, there were only 9,274 supporters in attendance.

More humiliation followed in the domestic cups. After losing on penalties to eventual winners Strasbourg in the Coupe de la Ligue, Marseille were beaten 2-0 by amateur side Andrezieux in the Coupe de France. In an interview with L'Equipe that came out shortly after, Mandanda said the team's performances had been "shameful."

Matters reached a head at the end of January when a firecracker thrown from the stands caused Marseille's 2-1 home defeat by Lille to be held up for 38 minutes. There had already been tense exchanges between fans and some of the senior players following a 1-1 draw with Monaco earlier in the month.

On the last day of January, a meeting between fans, players, coaching staff and board members was held at Marseille's Commanderie training centre, during which the supporters present pledged to throw their weight behind the team in the interests of solidarity.

The firecracker incident against Lille meant Marseille were obliged to play their next home game behind closed doors, and with no angry supporters to worry about, Garcia's men produced an improved display to beat Bordeaux 1-0. It proved the start of a short-lived revolt.

Following Balotelli's arrival from Nice on a six-month deal worth a reported €500,000 per month, Garcia reconfigured the team to suit his new recruit, switching to a 4-4-2 formation and pairing the Italian up front with the selfless Valere Germain. Ably assisted by Argentinian winger Lucas Ocampos, with whom he formed a fruitful understanding, Balotelli scored five goals in his first seven appearances. Despite the likes of Rami, Strootman, Luiz Gustavo and Payet all being benched, Marseille's form picked up and a run of five wins in six games raised hopes of a late assault on the Champions League places.

Inevitably, Marseille then lost at Paris Saint-Germain, ceding momentum that they have never recovered. After letting a 2-0 lead slip to draw 2-2 at home to Angers, they lost to Bordeaux and Nantes before succumbing to the defeat at home to Lyon that effectively ended their season. OM have conceded 52 goals in their 37 games to datetheir worst defensive figures in 34 yearsand go into Friday's final match of the season against Montpellier knowing they can finish no higher than fifth.

"Marseille took the risk of establishing a policy based on signing players who were supposed to be able to perform immediately and help the project gain time," says Lamperti.

"That policy bore fruit last season, but no longer. OM will now try to move a lot of them on, but it will be difficult because they're all saying they want to stay."

Garcia's impending exit does not come as a surprise, despite estimations that sacking him and his staff could cost Marseille up to €15 million. Financial fair play considerations will only increase the pressure to sell players this summer, and the club have even had to contend with being hectored on Twitter by Pamela Anderson, glamorous partner of Rami, over the allocation of funds to the rebuilding of Notre Dame during a charity fundraiser for needy local youngsters.

With the policy of investing in proven performers in their late 20s and early 30s having ultimately failed, Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud has confirmed that the club will now look to recruit younger players with more resale value, marking a new phase in McCourt's OM project.

"I can't hide it, I'm very, very disappointed. And there will be a lot of changes, that's for sure," Eyraud told France Football recently.

"We know we'll have to take another direction and rely more on young players, which has already started with Caleta-Car and Radonjic or the playing time given to [Boubacar] Kamara and [Maxime] Lopez. We always intended to move progressively towards that in order to sustain the project economically."

The Marseille team that starts next season could look very different to the one that finishes the current campaign. The fans, though, will be just as expectant as ever.

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