There’s very little entente cordiale between the presidents of Marseille and Lyon. James Eastham examines their latest row

Some transfer sagas leave no trace; Hatem Ben Arfa’s summer move from Lyon to Marseille does not fall into that category. The 21-year-old attacker’s transfer marked a new low point in the increasingly fractious relations between the clubs. The sticking point was a contractual clause stating Lyon had to pay Ben Arfa €1.5 million (£1.19m) if they sold him. Instead of reaching an amicable agreement, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas and his counter­part at Marseille, Pape Diouf, used it as an excuse to verbally beat each other up over a deal for the second time in three years.

“A catalogue of omissions and lies,” is how Diouf described Lyon’s initial refusal to sell Ben Arfa – a €12m deal was done only after the Ligue de Football Professionnel stepped in to mediate. The dispute turned sour to such a degree that Ben Arfa, desperate to join Marseille, threatened to retire at one point. Aulas eventually claimed he had allowed the talented young player to leave at “mates’ rates” – mates not exactly being the first word that comes to mind with these two men. Diouf hit back, saying: “It leaves him looking faintly ridiculous. His reputation as a shrewd operator has taken a hit. The guy has a habit of manipu- lating figures. He calls ten, 11 and 11, 12.”

The bad blood between the pair dates back to 2006, when Franck Ribéry was caught in the middle. Lyon, used to buying whoever they like in the domestic market, wanted to sign the winger, but Diouf refused. Angry words were exchanged in the press. Ribéry and his agent clearly hoped that a deal could be struck, but Diouf kept his man, thus enjoying a symbolic as well as sporting victory.

Since being appointed in 2005, Diouf has challenged Aulas’s position as un­elected chief power-broker in the French game. Marseille cannot match Lyon’s recent on-field achievements – “OL” have won the past seven titles, while “OM” are trophyless since 1993 – but Diouf’s off-field manoeuvres suggest Aulas has met his match and the former’s CV underlines his credentials. He covered the club he now runs for the newspaper La ­Marseillaise before becoming one of France’s leading football agents in the 1990s, representing Basile Boli, Marcel Desailly and Didier Drogba, among others.

It’s hard to avoid feeling that the pair go out of their way to find uncommon ground. Last October, Aulas was the driving force behind the formation of Foot Avenir Professional (FAP), a lobby group purporting to represent the interests of France’s leading clubs. He sidestepped Diouf in order to get Marseille on board, showing up conflict within the latter’s management system. But Diouf ultimately vetoed Marseille’s involvement, thus undermining the FAP’s authority. A score draw, on that occasion.

The feud has echoes of French football’s last heavyweight presidential battle. In the late 1980s, Claude Bez, moustached boss of Bordeaux, and Bernard Tapie, flamboyant owner of Marseille, seemed unable to live with or without each other. They clashed colourfully, if not always cleanly – both served jail time following financial scandals. It’s ironic that Tapie played a central role in Aulas’s arrival at Lyon. Aulas was a regular guest on a television show called Ambitions, which Tapie hosted. In 1987, the Marseille chairman, impressed with the way Aulas had set up technology company CEGID and turned it into an enterprise of more than 1,000 staff in under four years, recommended the young businessman for the top job at Lyon’s football club.

More worrying for Aulas than an ego bruised by maladroit transfer dealings is the reality that Diouf could be the man to harness Marseille’s popular appeal and turn them into the club they should be. Aulas must smart at the fact Marseille have 42,000 season-ticket holders this season – 1,500 more than Lyon’s entire Stade de Gerland holds. And Marseille still celebrate winning the prize Aulas covets most – the European Cup, in 1993.

Ben Arfa has already turned up the heat on his former employers, saying: “Unlike in Lyon, the people in Marseille truly understand football.” The first league meeting between the pair, scheduled for the weekend of December 13-14, will be worth watching – as much for manoeuvres in the presidential box as Ben Arfa’s dribbling on the wing.

From WSC 261 November 2008

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