After 42 minutes of the biggest game of his life, Basile Boli leapt into the air. Abedi Pele’s cross was perfect, and the defender’s connection to it was flush. Sebastiano Rossi could only watch as the ball sailed helplessly into the bottom right corner. It was 1-0, and Marseille were on their way to becoming the inaugural winners of the Champions League.
It should have been the crowning moment of their history. Instead, it was a celebration of everything that is seedy about the global game. Cheating, doping, corruption, scandal: this sordid trip to the Riviera had it all.
Bernard Tapie wasn’t interested in football, and he certainly wasn’t interested in Marseille. Born to a working-class family in Paris, he’d made his fortune resurrecting failing French companies. He was Trump before Trump, a typhoon of populist charisma whose Hollywood smile was paired with scheming brown eyes.
When Marseille mayor Gaston Defferre asked him to buy the city’s ailing football club in 1986, Tapie had already tasted sporting success. His cycling team, La Vie Claire, born from one of the companies he’d saved, had secured consecutive victories in the Tour de France. Everything he touched, it seemed, turned to gold or sold.
Les Phocéens were no exception. Tapie buried millions into the Stade Vélodrome, bringing a clutch of stars to the Vieux Port. Jean-Pierre Papin, Karlheinz Forster and Klaus Allofs were the first to arrive, guarantors of Marseille’s first title in 17 years. It was in the summer of 1989, however, where he truly went for it. Didier Deschamps, Enzo Francescoli and Chris Waddle underpinned a second league triumph, only for a European Cup semi-final exit to Benfica to put a dampener on proceedings.
Leading from the first leg, Marseille lost to a controversial goal from substitute Vata. Replays showed the Angolan pushing the ball into the net with his arm, but referee Marcel van Langenhove had been unmoved. “I learn quickly,” Tapie railed to anybody who would listen after the game. “That will not happen to us again.”
They might have been empty words, the crowing of a bitter loser, but we’d know eventually that Tapie was deadly serious. A heartbreaking defeat to Red Star Belgrade in the final the next year, however, seemed to harden Tapie’s resolve. When his coterie of stars were dumped out early by Sparta Prague the following season, he vowed never to be caught out again.
Even as they disappointed in Europe, L’OM’s domestic dominance had continued unabated. A fourth consecutive title win saw them qualify for the Champions League, UEFA’s money-spinning replacement of the European Cup. Routine wins against Glentoran and Dinamo Bucharest meant they joined Rangers, CSKA Moscow and Club Brugge in Group A.
A blustery November night in Glasgow saw Raymond Goethals’ side make a foreboding start. Strikers Alen Bokšić and Rudi Völler, who would go on to score almost 50 goals between them that year, combined beautifully as the visitors took an early lead. When the German doubled the advantage shortly after the break, the Scots looked dead and buried, only for replies from Gary McSwegan and Mark Hateley to send the bomber jackets and bootcut jeans writhing in the stands.
Four points from the next two games saw Marseille go top. In March 1993, however, came the first hints of a seedy underbelly to their gaudy style. CSKA Moscow had eliminated Barcelona in the previous round, coming from two goals down to win 3-2 at the Camp Nou. When they lost to Marseille in an emphatic 6-0 defeat, eyebrows started to twitch.
Later, CSKA manager Gennady Kostylev would give an interview to a Russian newspaper suggesting that unnamed Marseille officials had tried to intimidate his players. “I received a telephone call at our team hotel in Marseille,” he admitted, “from a person claiming to be a Marseille director, offering money to lose the match.”
The controversy didn’t end there. Jean-Jacques Eydelie, the Marseille defender who would have a crucial role in the scandals to follow, would allege in his 2006 autobiography: “Our leaders had recovered the water packs of the Muscovite players. In front of us, with a broad smile, they used a syringe with a very fine needle to inject I-don’t-know-what through the cap.”
As the whispers and insinuations spread, Rangers had kept stride with Marseille through the winter. A win at home to Brugge meant they had six points, with the French side on the same amount. The penultimate group game at the Vélodrome would have a big say who made it to the first Champions League final in history.
The Blues, however, would have to do it without their star striker. Mark Hateley had been sent off for engaging in some handbags with a Belgian defender, a decision that quickly made him think “something had gone off.” The reason for his suspicion? A strange phone-call in the days leading up to the game. “It was a friend of a friend,” he recalled in 2011. “He was not an agent I knew, but another agent had given him the number. It was a French-speaking person, offering me large sums of money not to play against Marseille.” Hateley refused, but a convenient sending-off meant he was suspended for the decisive tie in any case.
Even without their best player, Rangers went into the Vélodrome on 7 April 1993 with every chance. Marseille were nervous, failing to capitalise on Franck Sauzée’s powerful 18th-minute opener. When Ian Durrant curled in a rebound from Marcel Desailly’s failed clearance, the cries of “Allez L’OM!” grew more beseeching. The visitors were on top, and the home support knew it. A stalemate ensued, with the Glaswegians leaving the south of France with a tremendous point.
To make sure of their progress, Marseille needed to secure victory in the final game in Bruges on 21 April. It was handy, then, when Bokšić capitalised on a sloppy error to rifle in the winner with just two minutes. It was convenient, too, that the Belgians failed to muster much in the way of attacking threat.
As the final whistle blew, Rangers were dumped out, having drawn a blank against CSKA. They had come within a single point of qualifying. “It still sticks in the back of my mind,” Walter Smith would later admit about the circumstances that robbed him of his most potent striker, just when he needed him the most. “It still rankles.” Smith would find no sympathy in Marseille, who were through to their second final in three years. Before they lined out against Fabio Capello’s AC Milan, however, there was a league title to wrap up.
It had been a close race, with Paris Saint-Germain and Arsène Wenger’s Monaco nipping at Marseille’s heels. Four days before they travelled to Munich for the showpiece, they could effectively secure the trophy with a win over lowly Valenciennes. Tapie saw an obstacle – and he found a pragmatic way to fix it. “It is imperative that you get in contact with your former Nantes teammates at Valenciennes,” he is reported to have told Eydelie in the days before the game. “We don’t want them acting like idiots and breaking us before the final with Milan.”
Feelers were put out to the Athéniens players Jorge Burruchaga, Christophe Robert and Jacques Glassman, all of whom had starred with Eydelie at Les Canaris. Glassman waved off the advances, but his teammates were less strident. Later, Burruchaga would protest that he had considered Eydelie’s offer before refusing.
Fatefully, however, Robert accepted the deal without question. On the evening of 19 May, in the car park of the Novotel where Marseille’s players were reposing ahead of the Valenciennes game, his wife met Eydelie. An envelope containing 250,000 francs was secreted into her possession. Nobody complained about Marseille’s ensuing 1-0 win. After all, there was a European final to contend, the chance for L’OM to become a jamais les premiers – ‘forever the first’ French winners of the continent’s most glamorous competition.
Milan had their own designs on the trophy. Eight wins from eight games and one goal conceded meant they were installed as the firm pre-match favourites. Marco van Basten was the best striker in the world, supported by the best defence in history. Whoever made it through Messrs. Costacurta, Maldini, Baresi and Tassotti would be worthy winners indeed.
The match itself was gladiatorial, a pulsating game of chicken between two warring teams. Goethals’ hidebound defence of Desailly, Boli and Jocelyn Angloma worked overtime to inhibit Van Basten and the elusive Daniele Massaro, but Fabien Barthez was still needed to make a string of saves before half-time. On the wings, Gianluigi Lentini and Roberto Donadoni had the beating of Eydelie and Eric Di Meco. For 40 minutes, Milan pressed and pinned the struggling, gasping Frenchmen to the canvas.
Then Abedi Pele broke away from the attentions of Frank Rijkaard and Demetrio Albertini. After being forced wide for a corner, he took the kick himself, finding Boli just outside the six-yard box. Four minutes earlier, the centre-back had asked to be taken off with an injury, only for Tapie to refuse his pleas. One of the owner’s more sensible decisions saw Boli rise to score what would ultimately prove to be the winner.
Two years before, Boli had lain stricken on the field in Bari, his heart broken by Red Star. Now, the tears streaming down his face were of an altogether different kind. “It was a header for eternity,” he beamed after the game.
At the final whistle, Tapie bounded onto the pitch, following the photographers as closely as the players’ jubilant faces. His garrulous features beamed from every picture. This, he seemed to say, was his triumph as much as the players. “We were absolutely sure of winning, none of us had any doubt,” he boasted. “Two years ago, on paper, we had maybe a better team, but in 1993 I had 11 players who were ready to die for each other.” Team spirit wasn’t the only thing they had going for them, as the whole of France would soon find out.
At half-time of Valenciennes’ match against Marseille, Glassman had approached his manager, Boro Primorac. He claimed that Eydelie, as well as Marseille director Jean-Pierre Bernès, had offered him bribes to take it easy.
Two weeks after Deschamps lifted the trophy, a criminal complaint was filed in the office of Valenciennes magistrate Éric de Montgolfier. Robert, laden with guilt and at the insistence of his manager, admitted to his complicity in the whole affair. He led police to the back garden of his aunt’s house, where the envelope of cash had been hastily buried. “That cash stunk so much I had to bury it,” he would later complain.
Robert’s collapse was followed closely by Eydelie, who insisted from his police cell that he had acted on the instructions of the Marseille hierarchy. His testimony was corroborated when police raided the club’s headquarters, finding an envelope that matched the one used to bury Robert’s bribe money.
Even as the wolves circled, Tapie attempted to manoeuvre his way out. Having been elected as a member of the French National Assembly in 1992, he was initially given immunity from prosecution. With typical hubris, he offered Primorac another deal, payable on the condition that the Bosnian admit to orchestrating the whole thing. Primorac refused, reporting the Marseille owner to the police. With public pressure growing, Tapie’s parliamentary privilege was revoked. in February 1994, he joined Robert, Burruchaga and Bernès in police custody, charged with corruption and attempted witness tampering.
For Marseille, the sporting punishment was instant. They were barred not only from defending their European title but also from contesting the Intercontinental Cup against São Paulo. The following season was almost an afterthought as the legal deliberations continued.
Finally, however, the French Football Federation announced Marseille’s punishment. Despite finishing second to Paris Saint-Germain in the league, they would be relegated with immediate effect. Deschamps, Barthez and Desailly led an exodus of the club’s talent. Les Phocéens still managed to be promoted at the first attempt, only to be barred from competing in Ligue 1 as Tapie’s profligate spending came to light. With Marseille’s debt nearly tripling during his tenure, bankruptcy was a real and imminent possibility.
Tapie, who until the scandal broke had fostered ambitions for higher political office, served eight months in jail. Bernès received psychiatric counselling, as well as a two-year suspended sentence. Arsène Wenger was so disgusted that he fled to Japan, taking a job thousands of miles away with Nagoya Grampus Eight. Primorac, the man who did so much to bring Tapie down, joined him as assistant coach. “It was gangrenous from the inside because of the influence and the methods of Tapie at Marseilles,” the former Arsenal manager would later recall about one of the “most difficult” periods of his life.
It was Eydelie, though, who suffered the worst. Banned from football for 12 months, he served 17 days in prison. His career never recovered from the scandal and he served out the rest of his playing days with anonymous spells in Corsica and Switzerland. L’affaire-OM, and his role in it, followed him wherever he went. “Cheating had become second nature,” he would later admit about the culture at Marseille in his autobiography. “We were all solicited at one time or another to make a call to a former teammate or a friend.”
Bribes weren’t the only tool at Tapie’s disposal, if Eydelie’s testimony is to be believed. The defender also claimed that Marseille’s players received “suspicious injections” just days before the Milan game. “The only time I agreed to take a doping product was the 1993 Champions League final,” he admitted. “In all the clubs I played in, I saw some doping going on … but this was the only time I accepted. We all took a series of injections and I felt different during the game, as my physique responded differently under strain. The only player who refused to take part was Rudi Völler.”
Eydelie’s claims were corroborated by Tony Cascarino, who joined Marseille in the summer of 1994. “It was always before the match,” the Irishman admitted to L’Equipe. “We received an injection in the lower back. I was not quite sure what it was but as everybody told me it was good and as I felt great after every injection, I accepted what was being done to me.”
“The world of football is much more rotten than people would like to think,” Robert had mused shortly after his arrest. Marseille, as the bribes and the syringes and the intimidation showed, provided evidence of his macabre insight.
Some parts of Marseille’s triumph might have remained unsullied. Fabien Barthez’s glittering acrobatics in the final, perhaps, or Abedi Pele’s surging, slaloming runs. The sheer dominance of Desailly’s defensive performances, maybe, or the moulding of a youthful Deschamps as one of football’s most gifted leaders. Any lingering glory, however, is quickly subsumed in a vortex of criminality and deceit. This was not a sporting triumph, but a poisonous and hollow one.
Not that it harmed Tapie too much. After serving his sentence, he reinvented himself as a dramatic actor, channelling his talent for deception into an altogether more healthy route. He quickly assumed control of Le Provence newspaper, becoming an outspoken and frequent presence on French television screens as well as an influential press baron.
Controversy, however, has never been too far from the devout Christian who makes a point of carrying a crucifix in his pocket. For years, he had campaigned against the French government at what, in his mind, had been an obvious swindle. Having been appointed as Minister of City Affairs under the government of François Mitterand in 1992, Tapie had been advised to divest himself of his commercial interests, so as to avoid any suggestions of conflict.
Adidas, the company he had transformed from bankruptcy, was handed to Credit Lyonnais, the state-appointed bank, for around two billion francs. Days later, the bank sold it on for a fee approaching four billion. Tapie was incensed, but despite years of protest, his claims fell on deaf ears. When he declared his support for presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 elections, however, he was awarded a generous settlement of £280m pounds by the incoming regime, paid almost exclusively by the French taxpayer.
The deal caused a massive outcry in France. Christine Lagarde, the Finance Minister who sanctioned the deal, was convicted of negligence by a special tribunal, although the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund has so far managed to escape further censure.
Tapie’s doggedness is, in a way, admirable. There is much to like about a man that the writer Franz-Oliver Giesbert describes as a “charismatic, filthy bastard”. Tapie’s brash self-regard, even in the face of the hatred, the imprisonment, and the cancer that currently invades his stomach and oesophagus, elicits a quiet and knowing respect. He is a hustler and a survivor, who brought the biggest sporting triumph to a city brimming with hustlers and survivors.
“If there are any who hate me, it’s because they adore me or they would like to be in my shoes,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “I have certainly put some loaves in people’s mouths, but there aren’t many on this earth who can say that I’ve hurt them.”
That might be true, but Tapie’s machinations might have hurt football. The lies, the bribes, the corruption and the scandal; they could have killed the Champions League before it even started. Football survived, though, because it always does. There’s too much money to be made, and too many people scheming for their own share.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45