Welcome to Marseille, the second largest city in France and capital of the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region. The Mediterranean coastal location is one of the nation’s most affluent cities and was named European City of Culture in 2013. It is also home to France’s longest-serving football ultras group: the Commando Ultra 84.
For three decades, Marseille’s fanatical diehards have been acknowledged as some of Europe’s most passionate sets of supporters. Their notoriety has often been spearheaded by undercurrents of violence, but there is far more substance to France’s biggest ultra group than brutality alone.
That said, blood has been shed on more than one occasion by a partisan group that often goes beyond the call of duty that most football supporters are prepared to make. Ultimately, though, the Commando Ultras are a family and by definition stand primarily for unity and solidarity – opening its arms to anyone with a congruent love of the club and its ideals.
It’s no surprise that France’s biggest city outside of the capital boasts one of the country’s most successful football teams. Since 1899, Olympique Marseille has been at the forefront of French football, winning nine league titles and 10 French cups during their illustrious history. In 1993, they also became the first domestic club to lift the European Cup since being rebranded as the Champions League and remain the only French side to lift Europe’s ultimate prize.
Despite the recent success of bitter rivals Paris Saint-Germain, as well as the resurgence of AS Monaco, Marseille still boast plenty of on-field achievements in the debate for who is France’s biggest club. When it comes to fan culture, however, Les Olympiens are simply a cut above.
The first aspect that creates the unique allure of OM is without surprise their majestic Stade Vélodrome; the iconic 67,000-seater was certainly the main purpose of my visit in 2009. However it is undeniably the awe-inspiring supporters, led by the Commando Ultras, which truly sets the Mediterranean giants aside from anything else French football can offer.
Anyone who has ever stepped foot inside France’s second city will confirm that football is ubiquitous throughout Marseille. Whilst that statement can of course be attributed to dozens of major cities, the fact that this one is home to just one chief club has certainly helped shape the adulation towards OM – and perhaps more importantly, the way in which the ultra group is run.
Make no mistake, scenes of savage ferocity have accentuated the worldwide reputation of Marseille supporters. Over the years, OM fans have been involved in numerous high-profile clashes both domestically and abroad, earning them the title of France’s most-feared fans.
A Champions League trip to Naples was just one incident where violence dominated the headlines of a match involving OM as fans of both clubs clashed with police. On that occasion a number of supporters were left injured, but the scale of that episode was nothing in comparison to recent confrontations with fierce domestic rivals PSG.
There is nothing extraordinary about a rivalry between clubs from a nation’s two biggest cities, particularly when taking the respective successes of each team into account. Geographic and on-field wars are the most common in any sport and so the organic growth of this particular battle is perhaps quite predictable.
However Marseille versus Paris isn’t only a rivalry born from football or geography, it is also a war of the classes. Whilst the capital is the focal point of French style, Marseille represents the working class, and those contrasting ideals add an extra spice to the seemingly never-ending battle. Nevertheless, the fact that away fans were banned from attending Le Classique due to problematic interactions between fans underlines just how deep theses passions of hatred run.
A 1995 Coupe de France semi-final clash saw nine policemen hospitalised as a record 146 arrests were made. In the two decades since, the fixture has seen hundreds more arrests as well as serious injuries, and an infamous fire inside the Parc des Princes. One clash saw mass violence despite the lack of a match, as fans brawled on the streets of Marseille after the scheduled fixture was cancelled due to an outbreak of swine flu in the PSG camp.
In 2010, one PSG fan sadly lost his life after conflicts between two rival sets of supporters, prompting the decision to ban travelling supporters in the derby.
On the face of it, the list of conflicts paints a brutish image of Les Olympiens’ fan base but those headlines only tell part of the story. The football club is arguably the only thing preventing the city from plummeting towards meltdown.
Marseille isn’t just the second most populated city in France, it is additionally a hotbed for mass immigration. The Mediterranean port remains the main gateway into the country and, as a result, it has become a hub for multiculturalism with various nationalities and religions embodied by its residents.
Easily overlooked by those that have never visited the city, Marseille is a truly beautiful place. The liberalised culture combined with a glorious climate makes it easy to understand why it is such a popular destination for so many. Unfortunately, though, unemployment is rife throughout the city – especially with the young – and with that comes worryingly high crime rates. Reports of drugs, violence and even murder have decimated the city’s reputation. Football, though, offers a real beacon for pleasure and Olympique Marseille is a cornerstone of the community in a way that few other teams on the planet can match.
Despite the negative connotations held by the uneducated, the world ‘ultra’ is not directly synonymous with hooliganism. In the case of Marseille, at least, football actually offers a temporary form of escapism and that temporary rest-bite allows the cities people to unite if only for 90 minutes. That fact is the fundamental reason why football is everything to this city. That feeling is perfectly captured by the Commando Ultras.
However, the CU’84 is not the only large scaled ultra group in Marseille. Three years after their inception, the South Winners were born and since then a number of others have emerged to show their undying love of the club.
Marseille’s supporters largely take a left-wing stance which can be attributed to the cultural background. Those political disparities only further fan the flames in the ongoing rivalry with PSG’s Bologne Boys.
There are minor differences between the varying OM supporter groups, but ultimately they all pull together in support of the team, especially when confronted by the northerners.
The hub for all fervent support is the magnificent Stade Vélodrome; a remarkable feat of architecture that has the unique ability to amplify sound and capture the imagination upon entering.
In a city of multiculturalism, football is the common religion and the fans ensure that the travelling legions of away counterparts know that the Vélodrome is their temple of worship. France’s football is often not known for its atmosphere, but Marseille is unique in that sense and the noise created at both ends of the ground is deafening. The Commandos are situated behind in the Sud stand, alongside the South Winners, whilst other splinter groups are located in the North, next to the away fans. This combination creates a crescendo of noise that easily outweighs that of any other French side and ranks amongst the very best in European football.
Marseille fans pull no punches when it comes to visual effects. Flares, banners, pyrotechnics and choreography all add to cauldron of emotion, whilst constant chanting from both ends ensures the atmosphere bubbles throughout. As a visitor, you quickly acknowledge that watching an OM game at the Vélodrome is a special experience indeed, and that appreciation undoubtedly spreads to the players and coaching staff – which is ultimately the chief purpose of the ultras, to spur their side on to success.
The continued support of the Commandos and other groups has been recognised on several occasions by the club, and the relationship between the two is largely positive. One example of OM’s gratitude came in 2007 when the team wore an orange shirt in European fixtures to celebrate 20 years of the South Winners existence. The choice of colour supposedly originates from an ultra-led anti-fascist demonstration against PSG in 1989.
As for the current Classique meetings, travelling fans have recently been slowly reintroduced to the fixture, but that does not include the CU’84 as the group refuses to make the journey for political reasons. This is a family found on a belief system and they will not baulk on them, even if that means sacrificing their most glamorous trip of the season – a far cry from the picture of thuggish Neanderthals painted by ignorant naysayers.
Marseille’s supporters aren’t only France’s original ultras, they are undoubtedly the best too. The unique blend of cultures and backgrounds among the residents of Marseille, combined with the one-team nature of the city, makes OM uniquely positioned to enjoy some of the most spectacular, noisy and loyal supporters in Western Europe.
By Liam Newman. Follow @thatliamnewman