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