Twenty four years ago saw French football’s first, and to this date, only success in the Champions League when Olympique de Marseille beat the mighty Milan in Munich. The same year also saw Whitney Houston top the music charts with her hit single “I will always love you”, and the European Cup was renamed the Uefa Champions League, hard as it is to imagine a time when this competition wasn’t known as such.
Since then, Ligue 1’s finest have struggled to make much of a lasting impression on the competition. Monaco have had some memorable runs, including in 2004 when they made it all the way to the final. While Paris St Germain continue to flatter to deceive, with their most memorable moment being on the receiving end of the greatest comeback in Champions League history last season against Barcelona.
But in 1993, Marseille conquered Europe without losing a single game. I take a look back and remember the heroes, and sadly the villains, of the greatest team ever seen in France.
Under the Presidency of Bernard Tapie, Marseille set about signing the required talent that would achieve Tapie’s ultimate aim of winning the European Cup. Players such as Jean-Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle and Marcel Desailly arrived, and domestic success soon followed. Four successive League titles, plus the French Cup, were all won but the European Cup remained elusive, as a penalty shootout defeat in the 1991 final against Red Star Belgrade, meant Tapie’s ‘obsession’ had still to be realised.
The 1992-93 campaign would soon change all that. With Barcelona the reigning champions, and an AC Milan team filled with players of the calibre of Marco Van Basten and Franco Baresi, Marseille were far from fancied to go all the way. However, a kind draw that included matches against teams like Glentoran, Dinamo Bucharest, Rangers, Club Brugge and CSKA Moscow, meant Marseille found themselves in the showpiece final against AC Milan.
The nomadic Basile Boli would line up for the French side in the final, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win, but perhaps best remembered as the man who head-butted Stuart Pearce at the European Championships a year earlier. Yet just four years later, the French international would retire aged just 30 and having played a year in Japan for Urawa Reds.
However, the real story in this season of success for Marseille, and Bernard Tapie, would soon unfold.
Allegations of match-fixing had been made against the club and their President, regarding their league match against Valenciennes. Marseille needed to win the match to secure the title, and it was alleged that bribes had been offered on behalf of the Marseille board for the Valenciennes players to ‘go easy’ on them. This would mean the Marseille players weren’t overly exerted before the Champions League final against Milan.
The man who lined up alongside Marcel Desailly at the heart of the Marseille defence in the final, Jean-Jacques Eydelie, was at the centre of the allegation. In an extract from his own book, Jean-Jacques details the exact goings on;
“Bernard Tapie said to us, ‘It is important that you get in touch with your former Nantes team mates at Valenciennes, as we don’t want them acting like idiots and breaking us before the final with Milan’.”
Tapie would claim that money paid to Valenciennes player Christophe Robert was a loan to start a restaurant, however he would later admit to being in relation to bribery. The resulting punishments would see Barnard Tapie sentenced to over two years in prison, with Eydelie and two of the Valenciennes players (Christophe Robert and Jorge Burruchaga) also given prison sentences. The French Football Federation would strip Marseille of their League title and an enforced relegation to the second tier of French football. While Uefa would prevent Marseille from defending their Champions League crown the following season, as well as forbidding them from taking part in the European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup finals.
But Uefa wouldn’t strip them of their Champions League success as the match in question to the match fixing, wasn’t in that competition. Whether that was indeed the correct call, is open to debate, but Marseille do have their place in Champions League history. It remains a solitary place for French football, as clubs from England, Germany, Italy and Spain have all but dominated in the intervening years, and all seem better placed to win Europe’s premier prize for the foreseeable future.
It’s sad for the Marseille players and coaches, and of course fans, that their greatest success will forever be tarnished. But a tarnished victory, is still a victory.