Tuesday, September 18, 2007

La Marseillaise

If you happen to be a Liverpool supporter, then I've got good news for you. Olympique de Marseille, who are drawn against them in the group stages of this year's European Cup, are lousy this year. Rotten. And if you want any further proof of this, consider that Toulouse, who Liverpool brushed aside in the last round of that competition without even breaking into a sweat, beat them 2-1 at the Stade Velodrome last Saturday. Not that I was in the ground, of course. A fatal miscalculation meant that I ended up watching it in a bar in the centre of the city though, given the result of the match, I was somewhat relieved that we were some way away from the stadium.

It was my own stupid fault, really. I had the order ready, my credit card out, and the mouse pointer was hovering over the button marked “purchase”. Something, however, stopped me, and by the time we actually got to Marseille, tickets for the match had sold out. Something to do with the end of summer and the Rugby World Cup, apparently. I made a couple of discreet enquiries at ticket offices in the town centre and even tried online again, but no dice. I had, somewhat simplistically, arrived at the conclusion that, because Le Velodrome holds 60,000 people and OM's average home crowd is seldom over 48,000, that there would be plenty of tickets available. Not true. They keep parts of the stadium completely shut off. Still, never mind. We would travel up there on the Metro and have a look around, and then return to watch it in one of the bars on Le Vieux Port area of the city. After the chaos surrounding last Wednesday's France-Scotland match, I'd done my homework and sounded out three bars that were showing the match live.

So, on the Saturday morning we took the Metro out Rond-Point du Prado to take a look around. Even from the outside, Le Stade Velodrome is an impressive sight, all steel and concrete, with the curves of the vast open stands that make it so distinctive framing it against a clear blue sky. The combined museum and club shop are somewhat less alluring. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, approximately ninety per cent shop and ten percent museum. The museum part consists of a wall of foot and hand prints in concrete (and might I just add the following comment at this point – my word, but Chris Waddle's left foot is a strange shape. All those years of passing the ball with the outside of his foot appear to have left it permanently bent into that shape) and a couple of glass cases containing old shirts, newspapers and, curiously, a vase given to them by Manchester United. No mention of Bernard Tapie, who bought them Le Championnat in 1992, though. With the kick-off still five hours away it was all quiet outside, except for a young lad who offered me tickets twice. My "scam-o-meter" went off the scale, and I easily resisted the temptation to enter into conversation with him, brushing him off with a swift, "merci, non".

It has to be said that OM put on a good show. Massive flags, deafening noise (even on the TV) and a segue of Van Halen's "Jump" and Def Leppard's "Animal" as the teams came out onto the pitch. Marseille had started the season in a very mediocre fashion, however, and the nerves were there to see in a very obvious fashion. The pressure on them is massive. In that part of the world, they are the only show in town (literally - Marseille doesn't even have a professional rugby club yet), and their badge and "Droit Au But" ("Straight To Goal") cover the town centre. It's impressive marketing, if nothing else. Within five minutes, the natives were getting restless. The slightly drunk man with a crutch sitting next to me had stopped singing "Allez, OM" and had started swearing under his breath. On eleven minutes, they took the lead when Emana played a neat one-two with Elmander and put the ball away tidily. After this, Marseille got themselves on top and created a couple of decent chances, but eight minutes before half-time the Marseille midfielder Nasri passed the ball lazily straight to Johan Elmander, who ran through to score Toulouse's second, a goal that looked exactly like the sort of goal you score on the easiest level of Pro Evolution Soccer.

One might have expected Marseille to improve in the second half, but they didn't. The man next to me started taking out his frustration by cheering Toulouse every time by shouting "Dommage!" ("Shame!") every time they took a pot-shot at the OM goal. Supporters inside the stadium made their displeasure known by setting fire to some of the seats, high up behind the goal. With just over twenty minutes to go, things went from pretty bad to absolutely terrible when their captain, Rodriguez, swung an elbow and received a straight yellow card. Five minutes later, Toulouse's Ilunga joined him in the dressing rooms when he picked up a second yellow card for time-wasting from a throw in. Some might have believed there to be a pro-Marseille conspiracy levelling up the number of players on the pitch, there. Still they huffed and puffed, but it took until the ninety minutes were up for the Toulouse goalkeeper to clatter into one of his own players, spilling the ball for Ronald Zubar (one of the few Marseille players to emerge from this debacle with any credit) to pull one back. Too little, too late, though, and Toulouse went away with the points.

By this point, the atmosphere in the bar had turned from mild anger to meek acceptance. Marseille are a massive club in France, and their enormous support deserve better than the bunch of charlatans that were wearing their shirts on Saturday. I had to wait until I got home from France to check that the Djibril Cisse playing for them was the same one that won a European Cup winners' medal for Liverpool a shade over two years ago. At full-time, they didn't even look as if they cared that they had lost another league match. This result, however, left them sixth from bottom in La Ligue 1 table, with just one win from their opening eight matches. Toulouse, meanwhile, sit two places above them, though they have two matches in hand on the rest of the league. You can see the goals from the match right here, and normal service will resume tomorrow.


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