Didier Deschamps & Marseille: A Love Story

Didier Deschamps - ZICOBALL (1)

Upon viewing the Ligue 1 landscape and the big hitters who dominate, you would be forgiven for thinking that France’s one boastful Champions League winning club resides in the capital. Perhaps the Qatari-backed mega-club have it nestled amongst a stash of domestic silverware spanning a decade? Well, the 64,400 onlookers in Munich’s Olympiastadion who witnessed a Didier Deschamps captained Olympique de Marseille side in 1992/93 can recite a different tale.

An underdog story revered in the port city of Marseille but not since replicated in France.

Didier Deschamps’ Champions LEague Winning Marseille

It could be labelled a love story, of sorts. Euphoric, vivid memories of the somewhat unexpected European triumph lines the foundations of the adoring, football-mad city. It is a topic of conversation occasionally washed up on shore at the quayside fish market at Vieux Port as the local fisherman gather their morning catch, and a topic forever welcome in the vicinity of the Stade Vélodrome.

Didier Deschamps, kitted out in white and sky blue, donning a captain’s armband snug on his left arm with the Champions League trophy aloft and a beaming grin from ear to ear. The image so fondly remembered by fans of an Olympique de Marseille persuasion. 

The 5 “7 defensive midfielder claimed six trophies in a hugely successful period in Marseille. His stay was sandwiched between stints at Nantes and Juventus, as the Frenchman’s time with the Old Lady of Turin showed equally as fruitful with one European success in UEFA’s flagship domestic competition.

The Didier Deschamps we know today is no longer a combative presence in midfield. There is no intelligent pressing, no dispossessing opponents in the engine room of a European giant before progressing play upfield. Now, almost organically, like many great players, the dugout is where he operates. The mastermind of France’s 2018 World Cup win on the international stage can trace the honing of skills that underpin his new role back in Marseille. 

The city that embraced him as a player would enjoy another stint with their former captain. This time it would be in a managerial capacity, a decade before Deschamps oversaw the World Cup trophy’s return to his homeland.

Bernard Tapie Corruption

As with most love stories, this isn’t all butterflies and roses. We haven’t yet touched on the sizeable corruption scandal sitting in the corner of the room. What should have been Marseille’s most satisfying period as the champions of Europe during Deschamps’ playing career soon turned sour.

Following their seismic victory, UEFA decided that the club wouldn’t compete to retain its title next season. Marseille, removed from the glamour of European competition, would also face relegation from France’s top-tier and be stripped of their freshly crowned Ligue 1 title. It was a nightmare of epic proportions, principally thanks to one man.

Bernard Tapie was a businessman from the capital and a politician endorsed by then President of France, François Mitterrand. Tapie, the appointed Club President of Marseille in 1987, was the mastermind of dominance in the early 90s. Tapie brought finances and an alluring influence to Marseille, which subsequently moulded the club into something that could attract France’s superior football talent.

Tapie’s want to win, in the end, was ultimately his downfall. As the Marseille squad readied themselves for the Champions League final, the biggest game in the club’s, and perhaps French domestic football’s history, Tapie sought to ensure the build-up to the fixture was a saunter. 

You see, AC Milan had been in five European finals going into the tie, winning four of them. The Italians were up on a pedestal; European royalty, if you must – the most recent trophy lift three years prior, in 1990. Comparatively for Marseille, the French outfit had appeared in only one, the 1991 heartbreaking penalty shoot-out loss to Red Star Belgrade. 

If Marseille were to beat Valenciennes, they would clinch Ligue 1. The domestic fixture came six days before the battle with AC Milan, and Tapie viewed the Valencienne obstacle as an annoyance. He wanted to be rid of it to ensure smooth sailing towards the final, but of course, that was never an option. The next best bet in Bernard Tapie’s mind was to use that alluring influence that made him such an imposing figure in business and instead influence the outcome of the Ligue 1 fixture.

Tapei used Marseille midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie and Marseille’s General Manager, Jean-Pierre Bernes, as his pawns. His plan? To offer payments to a select few who would line up for Valencienne, with the promise that they would take it easy on Marseille with the Champions League final in sight. 

Money changed hands, Marseille won 1-0, and the authorities eventually unravelled Tapei’s shady moves and the motive behind it. Tapei ended up in prison, with Marseille’s time in the spotlight left tainted amidst a haze of corruption.

Deschamps and MArseille: Righting Wrongs

Didier Deschamps won two league titles in the south of France in 1989/90 and 1991/92 before being stripped of the 1992/93 Ligue 1 title. However, the European triumph would stand for both player and club. Although not involved in the scandal, the youngest captain ever to win the Champions League, at 24-years-old, was heavily involved on the pitch. A personal achievement fought so hard for, almost instantly smeared by the actions and greed of the Olympique de Marseille hierarchy. 

Deschamps stuck it out for another year in France, but just before Marseille were administratively relegated to Division 2, he moved to Italy. There must have been a sense of ‘what if?’ for Deschamps. Realistically, without Tapei’s meddling, he could have captained Marseille’s golden generation to a series of victories on the most prominent European domestic stage of all.

There was unfinished business between Deschamps and Marseille, and maybe that is what lured him back as head coach. Deschamps began his role in July 2009, and just like when he was a player in the city, success naturally followed. 

For the first time in 18-years, Olympique de Marseille were crowned champions of France. It was as if Deschamps could do no wrong in that part of the world. 

It clicked almost instantly for the new coach as the stars aligned. The playing staff ran through walls to return better days to a club who eventually saw off Lyon by six points at the head of the Ligue 1 standings. Not only did Deschamps mastermind a league finish not achieved in nearly two decades, but Marseille also lifted the 16th edition of the Coupe de la Ligue. Marseille’s success in the cup competition snowballed during Deschamps’ reign, as Les Olympiens also secured the 17th and 18th instalments of the now-suspended competition.

Although still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the dugout, Deschamps landed in Marseille in an assured fashion, with the necessary experience to take on the role of rejuvenating a fallen giant of French football. The new Marseille man had previously spent one successful campaign in Turin, although obtaining the Juventus job under peculiar circumstances. 

Deschamps’ Recognition in the dugout

In the wake of the Calciopoli ‘match-fixing’ scandal, Deschamps replaced Fabio Capello as Juve geared up for life in Serie B as dramatic events saw them banished to life in the second tier of Italian football. Deschamps navigated Juventus back to the top-flight but announced his resignation after the final game of the season to Mantova – a disagreement with the Juventus hierarchy being the catalyst for change.

It was Deschamps’ initial managerial post that garnered widespread attention from those within football. Monaco was his home between 2001-2005. Joining Les Monégasques at only 32-years-old, one specific Champions League run would announce the head coach as one of the best young managers in the business. Miserably for AS Monaco, there was no silverware at its culmination – that was claimed by José Mourinho’s plucky FC Porto. 

The 2003/04 Champions League encouraged the romanticism of both FC Porto and AS Monaco. Everyone enjoys an underdog story, and AS Monaco’s was pretty spectacular. Progressing from a group of Deportivo La Coruña, PSV Eindhoven, and AEK Athens may have been deemed quite the task in the opinion of onlookers oblivious to French football. Still, this Monaco squad was brimming with class; their Ligue 1 runners-up status the previous season confirmed as much. 

After beating Deportivo La Coruña in Spain weeks before, an 8-3 drumming of the eventual semi-finalists against Porto set the tone of Monaco’s presence in the competition. Deschamps masterminded Real Madrid’s demise in the quarter-finals and Chelsea’s slump in the semis. AS Monaco’s games were a joy to watch as a neutral, with the aggregate scores in the knockout stages threatening to resemble that of a different sport (5-5 vs Real Madrid and 5-3 vs Chelsea). AS Monaco were lively, always on the front foot, and keen to advance through the lines whenever given a chance. They were fearless, playing with an arrogance usually found in the camps of the European powerhouses they brushed aside in the knockout stages.

Unfortunately for Deschamps, he couldn’t add the 2003/04 Champions League to his managerial CV. Outwitted by an extraordinary boisterous Mourinho, the only European trophy under Deschamps’ spell remains from his days as a player. Admittedly, if Deschamps had wrestled the trophy from Mourinho’s firm grip, he would likely never return to Marseille, instead opting for one of the prominent vacant posts in European football as Mourinho did at Abramovich’s Chelsea that summer.

The Frenchman was seemingly equipped to carve out a distinguished career for himself, just like he did whilst playing the game. Discussing his approach to management in Ben Lyttleton’s ‘What business can learn from football,’ Deschamps pinpointed his adaptability as pivotal to his success;

The key thing is knowing how to adapt. Adapting to the group that you have at your disposal; adapting to the place where you’re working; adapting to the local environment. This is crucial: adaptability. It means being aware of the strengths and weaknesses inside the group; being aware of all the outside factors that can influence your sphere, and adapting to all of that, then modifying what you’ve done and not being afraid to change.

A Victorious Ligue 1 Season in Marseille

Six years after his spell with AS Monaco, and with a squad boasting the likes of Steve Mandanda between the sticks, Gabriel Heinze marshalling the back-four, Mathieu Valbuena providing creativity behind the strikers, and a what would be 18-goal Mamadou Niang (29 Ligue 1 appearances) up top set to register better than one goal every two games – Deschamps was equipped to lay siege on European qualification.

However, ending the 38-game season victorious was just out of sight for even the most ardent of Marseille fans.

A 2-0 away win against Grenoble kicked off the season in the right way. Marseille were unbeaten in their first six games with four wins and two draws. Valencienne away saw the first defeat of the campaign seven games in, followed by a 2-1 slump at home to Monaco – the only real stutter in what was a dominant season. Marseille won the return tie against both Valencienne (5-1) and Monaco (2-1) and lost only four more games after these back to back losses, amassing seven in total.

The thrashing of Valencienne kickstarted a period of 15 games undefeated for Deschamps’ side, a stint that consequently seized the Ligue 1 title and kept their competitors at arm’s length. Marseille never found themselves below fifth in the league once in the 2009/10 season, remaining in the conversation throughout. 

The 2-1 victory over main rivals, Lyon, on matchday 28, was crucially important. Bafétimbi Gomis’ equaliser for Lyon with only ten minutes left looked to set up a nervy ten minutes at the Stade Vélodrome, but Taye Taiwo had different ideas. Not known for his knack in front of goal, the Nigerian defender emerged with an instant reply that proved to be the winner. Marseille remained in top spot after the Lyon victory and was unmoved during the business end of the run-in towards Ligue 1 delights.

Deschamps’ Marseille outfit would claim the Ligue 1 title at a jam-packed Stade Vélodrome, on the back of a convincing 3-1 victory against Stade Rennais. Red flares dotted around the terraces alongside the flags being waved from left to right in the moments after Heinze curled a left-footed free-kick past Stade Rennais’ goalkeeper to open the scoring. Despite Jimmy Briand’s leveller, the atmosphere intensified by the minute, as Deschamps’ Marseille were on the cusp of something magical; a resurrection. The city was jubilant at the final whistle. The atmosphere both inside and outside of the stadium was raucous. Scenes inside the home dressing room mirrored the happenings in homes, pubs, and the sky blue-lined streets of Marseille at that very moment. 

Deschamps had returned at the start of the season as a poster boy of success in the 90s – a hero of a generation of Marseille fans. That adoring generation had merged into the next. The children of those who still distinctly remember the success in 1990 now witness a history made in 2010, twenty years after Deschamps had first led the club to victory in Marseille. He had overcome all odds to do it once more. 

A sense of disbelief and euphoria took its hold on a city that night in equal measure. Deschamps, the author of it all, spent just three seasons as manager, yet his first still waits to be bettered eleven years later. Olympique de Marseille awaits its next rennaisance.

Words & Feature Graphic by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_