Passing comments

Marseille's late owner has left the club with a legacy of big investment but underachievement, as James Eastham reports

Did Robert Louis-Dreyfus die an unhappy man? In his role as owner of Olympique de Marseille, he was certainly unfulfilled. The Franco-Swiss billionaire (rated the fifth richest man in France this year, with a family fortune of €7 billion) passed away on July 4, 2009, succumbing to the leukemia he had suffered from for more than a decade. He became OM’s owner on December 14, 1996 but failed to win a single trophy during his 12-and-a-half-year reign. Marseille came close on several occasions – runners-up in the French League three times (1999, 2007 and 2009) and losing finalists in the UEFA Cup (1999 and 2004) and French Cup (2006 and 2007) – but are still seeking their first piece of silverware since 1993.

Ever the astute businessman, RLD, as he was known, snapped up OM for a knockdown €3 million in the messy aftermath of the Bernard Tapie era, yet the moment he got his hands on France’s most popular club, he appeared to lose the acumen that had made him a fortune as head of pharmaceutical research company IMS in the 1980s. After selling IMS for $1.7bn in 1988, RLD became seen as a specialist who was adept at turning around struggling firms. He was appointed CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in 1989 and then Adidas in 1993, transforming the fortunes of both ailing businesses.

Yet rather than running OM coolly, he never gave his appointees enough time – there were 17 changes of manager, three men held the post twice and all but four (Rolland Courbis, Alain Perrin, Albert Emon and Eric Gerets) lasted less than a year. Players came and went at a suspiciously frenzied rate, raising fears of a return to the dark days of book-cooking. Those concerns proved well-founded when RLD was among several figures punished for improper financial dealings relating to transfers between 1997 and 1999. Most observers thought Dreyfus’s ten-month suspended prison sentence and €200,000 fine owed more to inattentiveness than deliberate wrongdoing, but that will have been little consolation to a proud man who felt his involvement brought shame on the family name.

The financial scandal was the lowest point, although the lack of silverware rankled. All those years without a trophy were made worse by the fact that, on his arrival, RLD had declared his intention to transform OM into “le Bayern du Sud”– yet he ran the club like a fan, never imposing the financial and managerial rigour that has enabled Bayern to become multiple Bundesliga winners and reach two Champions League finals. Such laxness left the way open for Lyon, with smaller home crowds and less merchandising muscle, to dominate French football in the 21st century.

For four years RLD struggled to revive the club’s fortunes and, when he delegated, Marseille fared no better. Most alarmingly of all, he allowed Tapie to return for an abortive spell as sporting director in 2001. The move may have silenced the sizeable minority of OM fans who felt the disgraced former owner deserved a second chance, but did little to suggest RLD had a coherent plan.

Finally he got things right, appointing Pape Diouf as president in 2005. The former agent’s calmness was ideal for the job, and his smartness in the transfer market ended a lengthy period of financial recklessness. Diouf also found Marseille’s best manager in more than a decade when he appointed Gerets, who steered the team from 17th to third place after taking over in September 2007 before guiding his gifted squad to runners-up spot last season. By the final game, however, the former Belgium right-back had already announced he was quitting as a direct result of an interview in which RLD had called his abilities into question. Diouf followed soon afterwards, although not before pulling off another managerial masterstroke when he named Didier Deschamps as Gerets’ successor.

By the end, RLD cut a hugely unpopular figure with OM fans, who rightly blamed him for Gerets’ departure and accused him of running the club from Paris, the enemy city. Yet it was impossible to doubt RLD’s love for this most irksome of assets. If an owner’s commitment is measured by the scale of his investment – €220m in Dreyfus’s case – the man could not be faulted.

In December 2002, he said: “I’m not capable of running a football club. I want to win so badly that sometimes I lose all powers of logic and reason.” If only he’d applied the principles that had made him a highly respected figure in other fields, his dreams for OM may have come true.

From WSC 271 September 2009