Olympique de Marseille have endured a week of chaos. Between some of their fans rioting and breaking into their training ground on Saturday and the resignation of their manager Andre Villas-Boas on Tuesday, before their 2-2 draw with Lens in Ligue 1 on Wednesday, the past few days have been a nightmare. And things could even get worse on Sunday with the visit of PSG for what is one of the most anticipated edition of Le Classique in recent years.
So what happened, why did it happen, and how will things resolve for the club and their fans?
What happened on Saturday when fans attacked the training ground?
There have been protests against the club’s owner and president before, but last Saturday, three of the biggest groups of Ultras — the South Winners, the Fanatics and La Vieille grade — were joined by members of other, smaller fan groups and decided to walk from the city centre to la Commanderie, the Marseille training ground, to show again their collective anger at the club’s direction. Approximately 300 fans gathered together with banners asking for the president, Jacques-Henri Eyraud, to leave and the club’s American owner, Frank McCourt (and former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team), to sell the club. They sang songs criticizing them, carried banners against them and tagged the walls of la Commanderie with insulting graffiti like “Eyraud OUT,” “The Olympians hate you!” and “Get the f— out.”
The protest escalated when 50 of the ultras stormed the training ground, entering the property and the first-team building where the players were preparing for the evening game against Rennes at the Stade Velodrome. Refurbished in 2011, the new training ground has many bedrooms to lodge players ahead of games.
Once rioters gained entry to the training ground, they smashed windows, stole things and ransacked the place. They attacked Alvaro Gonzalez, who came down from his bedroom to try to calm things down and was hit in the back by a projectile. They threw bottles of water at Villas Boas and stole his briefcase, which they opened and emptied. AVB had come down from his room to open a discussion with the troublemakers and try to reason with them, but the Portuguese had never seen anything like that and was reportedly shocked at the greeting.
Most of the players stayed in their rooms, stunned by what they were seeing and hearing. Eventually, the rioters left and while 25 of them were arrested and 14 prosecuted almost immediately, the scars will remain for a long time.
Why were the fans protesting in the first place?
Though McCourt is a problem for Marseille’s fans, he’s rarely in town; Eyraud is the target of the fans’ ire. They accuse him of not understanding either the club or their relationship they have with it. They don’t like the fact that he is a Parisian, that he graduated from Harvard, that his culture is different to theirs.
For a start, Eyraud had never worked in football prior to taking the Marseille job. He was head of communication at a theme park for a time, then in sales for Holiday resorts Club Med before creating a sports website and even running a newspaper devoted to horse racing. All of these seemingly corporate roles quickly made him unpopular among the fans. As René Malleville, one of the most famous Marseille fans and a respected voice for the Ultras, said recently: “I have seen 26 different presidents at the club in my lifetime and you, Eyraud, you are the worst president of them all. You don’t deserve this club.”
French national team defender Manuel Amoros, who played five seasons for Marseille over two spells in the 1980s and 1990s, said something similar on French radio station RMC in December: “Eyraud doesn’t care about how Marseille fans just live for the club’s result. He doesn’t care, he is from Paris.”
Eyraud has been inflaming fans since taking over the club in 2016, with some of his comments reflecting a lack of interest in the Marseille culture. “Why not having a new rule that if you score from a 30-yard shot, it counts double?” he said back in April 2019. A few months earlier, he explained that “PSG, Monaco and Lyon are my rivals, but Netflix are my competition… Fortnite are my competition too because they are entertainment businesses.”
And that’s the heart of the problem in the eyes of the hardcore Marseille fans. Eyraud is treating Marseille as a business, a company listed on the stock market, not a football club. He treats the fans like customers, and he doesn’t get the passion and love they have for the club.
In December, Eyraud said: “When I arrived at the club, I was struck to see that 99% of the employees where from Marseille. It is a danger and a risk. (…) In terms of productivity, the impact of a defeat on the employees is strong, and that’s not good.” The opinion infuriated fans. The following day, banners with “Eyraud, get out” were everywhere in the city, while the retaliation on social media was huge.
In the days since the training ground assault, several former Marseille players like Eric Di Meco — and even a former club president in Bernard Tapie — have said that Eyraud is damaging the club and that he has to go. “Eyraud has to understand by himself that this is not his place. He has showed that he may be very good in certain things, but not in running a football club like Marseille. I am not interested in what this idiot has to say,” Tapie said on radio station France Info.
“I made mistakes in what I said about Marseille people, but it still doesn’t justify the hatred and violence we saw on Saturday,” Eyraud reacted on Sunday.
Has this happened before?
It might sound cliche, but Marseille is a club like no other. The entire city of Marseille is crazy about its football team, and is a city that seems to live for football. This is one of the biggest clubs in the country, famously known worldwide for their success of the past — like their famous Champions League win in 1993 and many French league trophies, too — but also for the fervour of their fans. The Velodrome, on its day, boasts one of the best atmospheres in the world. The fan-led choreographies are spectacular and they never stop singing.
Yet the passion of the fans means they often go too far with voicing their unhappiness. The club’s Ultras, which is 25,000-strong, feel that the club belongs to them. After Saturday’s incidents, some of the rioters even tweeted that they owned the club and could do whatever they wanted. In similar fashion to some of the bigger Italian clubs, the Marseille fans are a huge part of this club and feel that they must be taken in consideration when it comes to daily operations. At least that’s what they want, because when they turn on the players or the direction the club is heading, it gets ugly.
Frank Leboeuf shares his thoughts on Marseille fans storming the clubs training ground in protest.
Many times in the past, Marseille ultras have threatened players after a bad run of results and put pressure on them. The Ultras had almost total “freedom” under Tapie during the club’s glory years at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. They were pretty much allowed to do whatever they wanted at matches. They had a less cordial relationship with owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus (1996-2016), which turned more sour when Vincent Labrune became the president between 2011 and 2016, because he wanted to give them less access and wanted to control much more the place of the fans at the club. He is the one who really confronted them and it clashed many times.
With Eyraud, they were against him from the start. In 2018, he disbanded the Yankees, one of the most powerful Ultras group, because they sold fake tickets for a game. For many years, the club was letting the group of supporters sell season tickets and single-game tickets to their own members. They had control over how some of the tickets for home and away games were sold, to who and for how much.
“The fans are too powerful in this club. They have been for too long and in total impunity,” one source tells ESPN.
So why did André Villas-Boas leave? How do the fans feel about that?
Villas-Boas has always been a spiky manager prone to feuds with his bosses — Chelsea, Zenit — and his time at Marseille has been no less difficult.
His decision to depart this week has many contributing factors: there’s the club’s dismal run of results (one win in their last nine games), the weekend attack, the fact that he only had six months remaining on his contract, a tough relationship with Eyraud, a sense of escalating tension with some players in the dressing room (especially Dimitri Payet) and a feeling that his voice was not valued inside the club anymore. Talks about a new deal never happened, and AVB himself knew what the future would look like.
“Will it be over in June? Yes I think so. We all think it will be the case. There has been nothing with my agents” he said on the Friday before the attack in his pre-game press conference.
The peak of his frustration came in the January transfer window. Marseille recruited midfield Olivier Ntcham from Celtic on loan on the last day of the transfer window to replace Morgan Sanson, who left for Aston Villa. But AVB didn’t want the loanee and had said no to his signing when asked. Yet the club and sporting director, Pablo Longoria, still went ahead with the transaction and the Portuguese manager didn’t agree with it.
As a principle, Villas-Boas thinks that a manager and a sporting director should be moving in the same direction. The Ntcham deal was the last straw and the former Chelsea boss felt there was no way back after what he considered as a humiliation. “I was not involved in the recruitment of Ntcham. I learned about it in the press. He is a player I said no to. He was not on our list (of targets) but he still came and I knew nothing about it.”
Was Villas-Boas looking for an excuse to leave?
Here, Villas-Boas can’t really argue as he has tried to get out before, despite only joining the club in 2019. Last summer, he resigned, only for the players to convince him to stay. After a great start of the season (only one loss in their first 12 matches in Ligue 1 this season), things went pear-shaped quickly with a disastrous Champions League campaign — they broke Anderlecht’s all-time record for most consecutive defeats in the competition, with four straight losses to open the competition taking them to 13 in a row — poor form in Ligue 1 and many clashes in the dressing room.
Villas-Boas and Payet fell out earlier this season as the former French international’s fitness levels weren’t considered up to par and he was sidelined from the starting lineup. Payet and Florian Thauvin also had a big argument where they both accused each other to be too selfish and not fit enough — Villa-Boas then revealed the fight to the media. Villa-Boas threw punchlines like never before — “to be bad, to be sh*t in the Champions League, you have to get there first. We are there and we are doing sh*t” was maybe his best one — before saying last week after the defeat against Monaco that if the club doesn’t want him anymore, they can get rid of him.
Villas-Boas’ contract was expiring in June and clearly he was looking for a way out. He found it.
Marseille have the dubious honour of being the first club to sack a manager who has already resigned. In an incredible twist to make a point, hurt AVB’s image and trying to make him pay for resigning, the club decided to suspend him for gross misconduct and start the process of sacking him. They won’t have to pay him and he doesn’t want money anyway, he made that very clear.
Nasser Larguet, the head of the academy, was on the bench in the manager’s role for Marseille’s game at Lens on Wednesday night. They were 2-0 up at one point, but ended up settling for a draw after a poor second-half. The good news of the night is the first start and first goal for Arkadiusz Milik up front. The former Napoli striker arrived in January and has the talent to take this team forward.
Nevertheless, they have to find a new manager as soon as possible. But who would want to come in this mess? Sources have told ESPN that Longoria contacted Maurizio Sarri and Rafa Benitez about the position, and both said no. Ernesto Valverde is on the shortlist, but the former Barcelona manager is not keen either. Lucien Favre, previously of Borussia Dortmund, is another option. Longoria reportedly had a chat with him already but it was more for next season, when the club were thinking AVB would at least finish the season. Favre is a great coach but not the type to be able to work in this context and atmosphere. Leonardo Jardim, who won the title with Monaco in 2017, is a candidate, like Patrick Vieira, who was sacked earlier this season by Nice.
Finding Villas Boas’ successor won’t be easy. Harder still will be repairing the bonds between a struggling club and its devoted fans.