Controversial chairman Bernard Tapie is back at Olympique de Marseille. Patrick Mignon looks at the impact the returning chairman will have and whether he can banish the negativity that surrounded his previous tenure

Bernard Tapie, the most controversial chairman in French football history, has returned to run Olympique de Marseille, eight years after he was driven out after being found guilty of match-fixing.

Before Tapie, French football was small scale. Club chairmen got involved mostly for the sake of prestige and mon­etary gain, with the help of local councils and petty fiddling. Football run like this was in­capable of winning major trophies. Tapie org­anised the marriage be­tween TV and sponsors at Marseille and used sport to project a positive civic image. Marseille became the biggest club in France and won the European Cup in 1993 (though they were later stripped of the honour)..

Since then, football has been ser­ious bus­iness. The new media money boosted players’ wages and increased the cost of running a team as others followed Tapie’s lead. His entrepreneurial methods spread beyond sport too, though strangely Tapie’s style was associated with the left: it was the Socialist mayor of Marseille, Gaston Deferre, who invited Tap­­ie to get involved in OM and he became a staunch opponent of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his extreme right Front National. Tapie rose to become Fran­çois Mit­terrand’s minister for cities, but his corrupt behaviour in foot­ball brought him down. Like Mitterrand, his rep­utation suffered from a re­action against sleaze in public life.

So why has he come back? In France today there is a growing mood of anti-elitism. The state has been hit by various scan­dals and appears impotent in the face of factory closures, BSE and natural disasters. In the eyes of many, the lying and cheating Tapie is no worse than any­one else. Tapie also remains very popular in Marseille be­cause he championed a city that many held in contempt and gave fans a considerable say in the running of the club by, for example, allowing them to manage season ticket sales.

Since Tapie left football, a new generation of chairmen has emerged, who believe clubs must make money and work on business lines. However, in terms of turn­over, French clubs trail far be­hind the other major Euro­pean nations, a fact that has lead to an exodus of players. The result, claim the new chairmen, is a lack of success in Europe – apart from PSG’s 1996 Cup-Winners Cup win there have been no troph­ies and few Champions League adventures. They ar­gue that clubs must float on the stock market, that the state must re­duce taxes, that each club should be al­lowed to negotiate its own TV deal and that big clubs should only have to play each other.

But the lack of success of French clubs could also be blamed on the mistakes of those in charge of them as much as on the actions of an overly interventionist gov­ern­ment. Will Bernard Tap­ie complain along with the others or is he going to want to show that he can do better in identical conditions?

The second challenge will be his relationship with the football authorities. Tapie re­turns just months after the league president, Noël Le Graët, who drove the original match-fixing charges ag­ainst him, was replaced by Gérard Bourgoin, another self-made man who was elected even though under suspicion of embezzlement.

The paradox is that the new breed of club chairmen, who are so rational in terms of the business side of the game, wanted to get rid of the man who had cleaned up football and made it profitable. The new chairmen com­plained that Le Graët was not paying en­ough attention to their demands. How will Tapie fit into this conflict? Will we witness a left against right battle given that Bourgoin is a rightwing politician?

Tapie’s problem is that he is now being watched, both by the sporting and non-sporting press. And the current mayor of Marseille is a lot less well disposed towards him than was his predecessor. Events at the club, where personalities as diverse as George Weah and Javier Clemente have passed through in a nightmare season, look set to make even more compulsive viewing next year.

From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month

Comments (1)
Comment by ChrisBud 2011-04-12 14:56:37

For right or for wrong, Marseille never was stripped of its European Cup. The club did, however, lose the French title it had won that year and was subsequently relegated for financial irregularities.

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