• Sáb. May 18th, 2024

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‘A Ferrari without brakes’: How Bernard Tapie built his triumphant but tarnished Marseille team


As president of Marseille, Bernard Tapie built one of the greatest teams France had ever seen, winning four league titles in a row between 1989 and 1992, a Coupe de France and the 1993 Champions League. Those glory years were brought to a sudden halt by a match-fixing scandal involving Tapie. In this extract from Tom Williams’ new book, Va-Va-Voom: The Modern History of French Football, we can see how the story began…


Paris, October 1985.

Elected leader of the Soviet Union seven months previously, Mikhail Gorbachev is visiting the French capital to ask his counterpart, Francois Mitterrand, for assurances that France will not sign up to American president Ronald Reagan’s proposed missile defence system known as the “Star Wars programme”.

During a dinner staged in Gorbachev’s honour at the Embassy of the Soviet Union, an imposing Soviet-style building in the 16th arrondissement that backs onto the Boulevard Peripherique, an encounter occurs amid the clinking glasses and tinkling cutlery that will set Olympique de Marseille (OM) on a radical new footing. Gaston Defferre, the socialist mayor of Marseille, is in attendance in the company of his wife, writer Edmonde Charles-Roux, who finds herself sitting at the same table as a charismatic Parisian businessman called Bernard Tapie.

When conversation at the table moves on to football, Tapie voices his opinion that OM are crying out for a new owner and that, backed by the club’s wildly passionate fans, there is an opportunity to build something special. Charles-Roux leaves the table to tell her husband about the exchange and by the time the coffees come round, he and Tapie are deep in conversation.

Then aged 42, Tapie had already tried on multiple careers for size before setting his sights on the world of elite sport. Born into a modest family in the north-eastern Paris suburbs — his father, Jean-Baptiste, a milling machine operator turned refrigeration mechanic; his mother, Raymonde, a healthcare assistant — Tapie tried his hand as a television salesman, shopkeeper, healthcare entrepreneur, actor and pop star before finally finding his calling in the late 1970s: turning around failing companies and selling them on for millions.

The firms he took over, many at the cost of a symbolic franc, included household goods manufacturer Terraillon, cycling equipment company Look, health food chain La Vie Claire, weighing machines manufacturer Testut, electrical battery producer Wonder and sportswear firm Donnay. Tapie made his first sporting acquisition in 1982 when he bought the sailing yacht Le Phocea, on which he would break the world record for the quickest Atlantic crossing in a monohull in June 1988.

In 1984, he set up his own cycling team, sponsored by La Vie Claire, which won the Tour de France with Bernard Hinault in 1985 and again with Greg LeMond in 1986. In OM, he saw an opportunity to restore one of French sport’s sleeping giants to former glories and simultaneously create a local support base that would help to advance his ambitions to enter politics.


Tapie in discussion with Marseille manager Michel Hidalgo (right) before a 1989 game against PSG (Jacques Demarthon/AFP)

Mindful of his outsider status in football, Tapie spent the months leading up to his acquisition of Marseille meeting top-level coaches, players, administrators and agents in a drive to expand his knowledge of the game. In his first major coup, he succeeded in convincing Michel Hidalgo, the amiable architect of France’s watershed triumph at the 1984 European Championship, to be the club’s general manager (the French sports media dubbing the pair’s collaboration ‘Tapidalgo’).

After a protracted and tetchy takeover process, Tapie eventually completed his acquisition of OM in April 1986, paying a trademark one franc to become the financially imperilled club’s new owner. Jean-Pierre Papin was one of the first players to sign up for Tapie’s project and remembers meeting him for the first time at his opulently furnished offices on Avenue de Friedland in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe.

“The first thing that I remember was the huge model of Le Phocea that he had in his office. It was larger than life, magnificent,” Papin tells me. “At the time, he was very young. He had that self-assurance that he could have anything. He said: ‘In three or four years, I want to be European champions’. It’s his ambition that attracts you. And then he puts in the resources you need for that. When you leave his office, it’s hard to say no.”

Tapie was already a well-known figure in French public life. His business success had opened the door to regular appearances on television talk shows and the more viewers saw of this attractive, confident and unapologetically ambitious fortysomething with the expensive suits and the easy manner, the more they liked him. But beneath the charming exterior, Tapie was an uncompromising workaholic who ran his business affairs at 100mph and expected his collaborators to approach their work with the same unyielding intensity. He boasted of needing only four hours’ sleep, would abruptly cancel meetings if someone was more than five minutes late and used to assail his staff with phone calls at all times of the day and night. His business associate Patrick Le Lay, the former president of commercial TV network TF1, described him as “a Ferrari without brakes”. 

Jean-Pierre Bernes was a childhood Marseille fan who had grown up watching games at the Stade Velodrome with his father and who joined the club as general secretary in October 1981. Kept on when the takeover went through, the 28-year-old was quickly swept into Tapie’s turbulent orbit. With Tapie detained in Paris during the week due to his business and TV commitments (he had begun presenting a Friday night show called Ambitions on TF1 in February 1986), Bernes became his eyes and ears on the ground. According to Bernes, Tapie expected him to be available to take his phone calls “24 hours a day”. “I no longer saw my daughter, my wife, nor my parents,” Bernes recalled in his book, Je Dis Tout: Les Secrets de l’OM Sous Tapie (I Tell All: OM’s Secrets Under Tapie). “I started to turn down invitations to dinner, to evenings out — I was too scared that he wouldn’t be able to get hold of me.” But if working for ‘Le Boss’ was exhausting, maddening, overwhelming and all-consuming, it was also thrilling. “Tapie’s great strength, when you work with him,” Bernes said, “is that it makes you feel alive.”

When Marseille’s fans turned up at the Velodrome for the first game of the 1986-87 season, the club’s transformation was already well underway. Over the summer, Tapie had installed a state-of-the-art sound system and erected a giant video replay screen on the Virage Nord. The players emerged from the tunnel to the springy synth intro of ‘Jump’ by American rock band Van Halen, which has been played before OM home games ever since. After a 3-1 win over Monaco, in which Papin scored a debut brace, the supporters were treated to a spectacular laser show and firework display. Only 14,950 spectators had attended Marseille’s final home game of the previous season against Le Havre. For the first match of the new era, the attendance shot up to 46,411.

Tapie was busy behind the scenes too. Drawing on his experiences in elite cycling and what he had learned about the practices at the era’s leading football clubs, he increased the size of the players’ medical team, improved the quality of the food that they were served and arranged for them to fly to away matches rather than travel by bus or train. He also had a pizza restaurant, Le Maracana, built beneath the Velodrome’s Tribune Jean-Bouin to give the players (as well as VIP guests and sponsors) somewhere to eat after matches.

The biggest splash he made was in the transfer market, bringing in peerless German centre-back Karlheinz Forster from Stuttgart and pulling off two major coups by signing Papin and France playmaker Alain Giresse. By then 34, Giresse was more Bordeaux than red wine, but his relationship with the club’s president, Claude Bez, had become strained, while 22-year-old Papin had been on the brink of joining Monaco after a breakthrough season in Belgium with Club Bruges.

Tapie was determined to send out a message. “When I arrive, I’m not an idiot,” he later explained. “I see who the two bosses of French football are: (Monaco president) Jean-Louis Campora and Claude Bez. By pinching Giresse from Bordeaux and Papin from Monaco, I made them understand that from now on, I was the boss.”

Giresse quickly found his feet and was named French Player of the Year by magazine France Football for a third time in 1987, but it took Papin a little longer to get going. He scored only 13 league goals in his first season, prompting OM’s impatient fans to declare that his ‘JPP’ initials stood for “J’en peux plus” — “I’ve had it”. It moved Papin to take a decision that would transform his career.

“I started working in front of goal,” he says. “That’s the only thing that changed. I was sick of the criticism from the fans. When the next season started, every day I’d do 45 to 60 minutes of shooting practice. And during the five years that followed, I did that every day.” Buoyed by his work on the training pitch and a new determination to shoot at the earliest opportunity, Papin would finish as the French top flight’s leading scorer for the next five seasons in a row.

OM came second in Tapie’s first campaign and sixth the following year before things fell into place in season three. When his side began the campaign by drawing at home to Montpellier and losing at Lille, Tapie sacked Gerard Banide as head coach and replaced him with inexperienced academy director Gerard Gili. Despite his rookie status, the moustachioed Gili succeeded in creating a relaxed, positive atmosphere and with Papin and feared German striker Klaus Allofs banging in 50 goals between them in all competitions, the club claimed their first league title since 1972. A 4-3 victory over Arsène Wenger’s Monaco in the Coupe de France final, in which Papin scored a magnificent hat-trick, was the cherry on the cake.


England winger Chris Waddle joined Marseille from Tottenham in July 1989 (Mark Leech/Getty Images)

Marseille failed with an audacious attempt to sign Diego Maradona from Napoli in the summer of 1989, but the prospect of a tilt at the European Cup enticed several other stellar names to the Velodrome: tough-tackling Brazilian centre-back Carlos Mozer; France internationals Jean Tigana, Manuel Amoros and Alain Roche; regal Uruguayan playmaker Enzo Francescoli — and a stoop-shouldered winger from Gateshead called Chris Waddle.

Looking for a striker to replace Bordeaux-bound Allofs, Tapie started scouting Tottenham Hotspur’s Paul Walsh, only to be blown away by his team-mate Waddle’s free-spirited dribbling and eye for the spectacular. It cost a French-record 45million francs (about £6m; $7m) to prise the 28-year-old away from White Hart Lane, which made him the third-most expensive footballer of all time — but although his new team-mates were sceptical at first glance (“He was as red as a beetroot!” recalls fellow recruit Roche), he would go on to become one of the club’s greatest players.

“What did he bring to the team? Fantasy,” says Papin of Waddle, smiling. “We were already pretty good. Chris brought fantasy. And effectiveness at every set piece. He did things in training sometimes and you said to yourself: ‘He’s an extra-terrestrial’.” With sweeper ‘keeper Gaetan Huard in goal, Amoros, Mozer, Forster, Roche and Eric Di Meco at the back, Tigana, Franck Sauzee, Didier Deschamps (a November signing from Nantes), Philippe Vercruysse and Bruno Germain in midfield and a spectacular Papin-Waddle-Francescoli attack, this side is considered by some observers as the finest to have worn the club’s colours.

Marseille finished as champions again in 1990, but for all the team’s success, they remained a ramshackle outfit. They had no permanent training centre, obliging the players to train on local municipal pitches. At Luminy, where Marseille shared a playing field with the sports science faculty of Aix-Marseille University, former players recall having to dodge javelins hurled by student-athletes. Waddle was amazed to discover that he and his team-mates were expected to wash their own kit.

Despite that, the players from that period remember it with immense fondness. “It was like Club Med,” says left-back Di Meco, who was a rare graduate from the club’s long-neglected youth system. “I remember training sessions that went to the dogs completely. You’d have Carlos Mozer playing centre-forward, Chris Waddle as a libero… it was all about having a laugh and taking the piss out of each other. I remember Papin playing jokes, calling the stadium announcer from the changing room and asking for announcements with made-up names. Nobody fell out with anyone or took themselves for somebody else. They were my best years.”

But Marseille’s age of innocence would not last.

Va-Va-Voom: The Modern History of French Football by Tom Williams (Bloomsbury) is available to buy now in hardback, ebook and audiobook

(Top photos: Getty Images)




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