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OM, the Velodrome and Prince Al-Walid, Marseille tragedy

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In this ancient Greek colony that is the Phocaean city, the Velodrome stadium looks more and more like an arena these days. And the spectacle on his lawn to an ancient tragedy. On the football side, each of the matches played at home by Olympique de Marseille borders on disaster, for this club today relegated to the middle of the pack in the French Ligue 1.

On the financial side, the end of the reign of the American Frank McCourt – who had bought the club from Margarita Louis-Dreyfus in October 2016 – seems scheduled, after the Friday dismissal of his henchman, President Jacques-Henri Eyraud, hated by supporters. “In the United States, McCourt’s name has always rhymed with bankruptcy and resale of its teams (like the Los Angeles Dodgers, a flagship baseball team, bought in 2004 and sold for $ 2 billion in 2012). Marseille daily Provence in the form of a coup de grace, evoking in passing a favorite banner of supporters’ clubs: “McCourt, the King of the Guignols”.

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Against the backdrop of the financial decrepitude of the second city of France, indebted to the tune of 1.5 billion euros, OM is, like Marseille, facing a painful end of reign where the major associations of supporters – the Yankees, the Commando Ultra and the South Winners – lead the revolt. On January 30, several dozen of them invaded and partly ransacked the premises of the Commandery, its training center. Twenty-five people are arrested, and several spend a few days later before the judges for immediate appearance. The chaos is total. The CEO, Jacques-Henri Eyraud, is now afraid for his life. On February 24, 11 supporters responsible for acts of depradition were sentenced to 6 months suspended prison sentence, while another 3 months was closed. Nothing is going well, in a context where OM is skating on the field, far behind Paris Saint-Germain, victorious at the Vélodrome 2-0 on February 7. While the ghost of the one who, in Marseille, continues to be praised because of the European Cup won by the club in 1993 (against AC Milan) is agitated: the entrepreneur, ex- minister and media star Bernard Tapie, 78 years old …

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A good summary of the current impasse is the situation of the Orange Vélodrome, the official name of the Marseille stadium since June 2016, after 550 million euros of works renovation and expansion (from 48,000 to 64,000 spaces). Officially, this sports arena, one of the most famous in France, is an unparalleled municipal emblem. Close to the Prado roundabout, surrounded by a shopping center and a residential area that has stood out for ten years, the stadium and its white roof visible from the Provençal mountains embody the sporting and economic vitality of the southern port. Except that nothing is going well.

Last February, the municipality, its owner, announced its probable sale. No question of supporting at arm’s length a monument that has become synonymous with defeat, with a strong hint of corruption. Former conservative mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin (1995-2020), placed in custody a few days ago (then released) for embezzlement of public funds, cajoled this football theater so Marseille at the exorbitant maintenance cost of more than 1 million euros per month! His socialist successor Benoît Payan, elected on a “citizen” list, does not have the same fiber. Worse: he knows that we suspect him, him the apparatchik of the PS, of being tempted to cover up the mistakes of the past: “The stadium, I want to sell it because it costs us too much money. I want to sell it because it is a financial mismanagement, ”he ruled on February 8, during the first City Council of the year.

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This Marseille-style tragedy, with its ulcerated supporters and his team disoriented by the departure of coach André Villas-Boas – a resignation transformed into dismissal – is also played out in the shadows. It’s hard to believe that the new club president, the Spaniard Pablo Longoria, 34, will be anything other than the man of a transition. It is also difficult to imagine, at this stage, a rapid sporting resurrection thanks to the only imminent arrival of Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli. It is a revolution and fresh money that OM needs. However, who can bring some since Frank McCourt, expected in the Old Port in the next few days, does not seem to want to put his hand in his pocket? Answer: possible investors from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, eager to do battle with rival Qatar, owner of PSG.

One name outclasses all the others: that of the wealthy Prince Al-Walid ben Talal, whose arrest by Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman, at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, hit the headlines in February 2018. Al-Walid , owner of the entertainment company Rotana Group, has just concluded an agreement with the American Warner. Olympique de Marseille, a leading figure in Mediterranean football, is very popular in the Muslim countries of the Maghreb. Better: his name had already been mentioned in the past, including by… Bernard Tapie, even if the latter admitted “not very convinced”. “Al-Walid has so far denied the rumors, but the fact is that OM could attract him. Do not forget either that this is the favorite club of the Head of State Emmanuel Macron ”, recently smiled in front of us a deputy mayor, at the foot of the Town Hall on the quays of the Old Port.

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The supporters, them, dream without admitting it of an investor of this type: rich, influential in Paris, able to make of the OM a world power. McCourt, eager to make each bay of the Velodrome profitable, has been in open battle since 2016 with several associations. At the end of January, the denunciation of the convention which binds the groups of supporters to the club for the ticket office in the bends of the Vélodrome was the fatal spark which ignited the fire of the assault on the Commanderie, after several previous clashes. Difficult, therefore, to convince them with his letter sent this weekend in which he affirms that “OM is not for sale, and it never was, neither yesterday nor today”. “I am coming to Marseille to sit down with you, dear supporters, to build our future together and move forward!” Frank McCourt continues in this missive. But in this Marseille cauldron, homeland of high words and often betrayed promises, few are those who, under the roof of the Vélodrome and on the side of the Canebière, believe that salvation will come from this Yankee.

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