Bernard Tapie & Marseille: The Man Who Fell To Earth

An emotional Bernard Tapie hugged wife Dominique before taking to the pitch to revel in his team’s achievement. A glancing header from Basile Boli that balmy May evening in Munich had secured the first European Cup for Olympique de Marseille, inaugural winners of the renamed Champions League. Years of success had finally produced the biggest prize of all.

It would be one of the game’s biggest scandals that would put the full stop on eight wonderfully successful years for L’OM, including five straight French league championships. All under the watchful eye of businessman extraordinaire Bernard Tapie, president since 1986.

Tapie, renowned for taking bankrupt businesses from their knees could not resist the request from Mayor of Marseille Gaston Deferre in 1986, to bring success back to the south coast. French football was on the rise, Michel Platini and Jean Tigana inspiring the home nation to European Championship glory two years earlier.

L’OM too were on the rise, achieving promotion back to the First Division in 1984 with a squad built from young, local players. The arrival of Tapie as president saw a sea of change in the way things were done in southern France. Within the first three years, the team of Minots was peppered with the likes of Jean-Pierre Papin, Franck Sauzee, Chris Waddle, Eric Cantona, Didier Deschamps and Enzo Francescoli. The extravagant spending helped close the gap with the likes of AS Monaco, Girondins Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain. Tapie having previously founded cycling’s most successful team, La Vie En Claire, wasted no time with his managerial appointments either.

Having enticed National Technical Director Michel Hidalgo to the Stade Velodrome in 1986 as Director of Football, he brought France assistant coach Gerard Banide with him. The appointment of former goalkeeper Gerard Gili in 1988 though, was to herald the beginning of the most successful period in the club’s history.

Backed by 22 goals from leading scorer Jean-Pierre Papin, L’OM secured their fifth title finishing three points clear of Paris Saint-Germain. This completed a league and cup double, the first since 1971 in what would be a run of four straight league titles. Papin firing in 30 goals the following year with more to follow, the signings of Chris Waddle and Abedi Pele forming the Magical Trio as the dominance continued.

Domestic triumphs were not enough for Tapie, only glory on the European stage would vindicate him and his growing team of stars. He wanted to build the ultimate squad to fight on all fronts. The squad had been overhauled with ten new signings that summer and the 1990-91 season began in usual fashion with Les Phoceens sitting atop the table seven games in. Tapie persuaded reigning World Cup winning coach Franz Beckenbauer to become Technical Director much to the disdain of Gili. Feeling that his position was being undermined, despite engineering the previous success he quit to join rivals Girondins Bordeaux. The keys to the Marseille machine were handed to the twice named European footballer of the year, Beckenbauer.

The change in manager sent a tremor through the side and following three losses, his position was in jeopardy. After a resounding 4-0 defeat at the hands of Auxerre, Tapie had seen enough. Der Kaiser was swiftly moved back upstairs with Belgian Raymond Goethals replacing him.

Despite the upheaval in players and the management changes Marseille led the league from beginning to end and a historic treble was well within reach. With the league wrapped up, there were two cup finals left to contend. First up, the European Cup. A Manuel Amoros miss in the penalty shootout handed Red Star Belgrade an unlikely victory in Bari, a vapid 120 minutes could not separate the sides with Red Star almost playing for penalties from the first kick off.

The hangover was evident two weeks later when a 90th-minute goal from Gerald Passi secured a 1-0 victory for Monaco in the French Cup. A potential treble winning season had ended in disappointment, the European Cup final being the bitterest pill to swallow.

Normal service resumed in the 1991-92 season with Papin’s goals again leading the way to the title. It was to be his last season on the south coast as he moved to AC Milan at the season end. Three defeats all season gave them a six-point lead over nemesis AS Monaco and their fourth successive title.  L’OM’s frustrations continued in the European Cup however with an away goals defeat to Sparta Prague in the second round.

As the 1992-93 season came around, Tapie’s influence and popularity had seen him named as Minister of City Affairs in President Francois Mitterrand’s government, the former fridge makers son now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy. On the field, the loss of Papin had been tempered by the signings of Alen Boksic and Rudi Voller as L’OM prepared another assault on Europe with the rebadged Champions League at stake.

Marseille topped their Champions League group with an impressive 6-0 win against CSKA Moscow in-between home and away victories against Club Brugge. The main challenge coming from Glasgow Rangers who were held off with two draws, Les Phoceens had made their second final in three years.

With Munich’s Olympic Stadium and AC Milan awaiting Marseille wrapped up their fifth consecutive league title as their domestic dominance continued. A team boasting the youngest captain, Didier Deschamps and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez secured a 1-0 victory over arguably one of the greatest sides of its generation. Marseille had finally arrived at the pinnacle of European football, the reward and recognition so desperately craved by Tapie.

Six weeks later, celebrations of the ultimate double still ongoing, proceedings were about to come to a crashing halt.

French police were investigating allegations of bribery and corruption involving the reigning champions. The allegations, made by Valenciennes player Jacques Glassmann stated that Tapie, through an intermediary, had offered his teammate Christopher Robert money to convince Glassmann and Argentine World Cup winner Jorge Burruchaga to go easy on his players in their league game prior to the final in Germany.

It was alleged the intermediary, Marseille midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie, along with general manager Jean-Pierre Bernes had been asked by Tapie on his yacht Phocea to help ensure a smooth path to the final. Eydelie had links to two of the players, having previously been teammates, so was earmarked as the man to put the deal across.

Marseille won the game 1-0 and went into the final unscathed, Glassmann stating that he refused the deal, Burruchaga saying after initially accepting, changed his mind and received no money. Tapie remained adamant there had been no wrongdoing but the net was closing in.

Two weeks later Eydelie admitted to offering the money, a confession made from his prison cell. Bernes office was searched and Marseille players were met at their Pyrenees training camp by prosecutors with a dozen being take away for questioning.

With news and media ablaze with reports of the corruption, dubbed L’affaire AV/OM the prosecution’s efforts culminated with 250 thousand francs being dug up in the garden of Robert’s aunty. Money allegedly handed over to Robert’s wife by Eydelie. With the envelope matching ones found in Bernes office, he finally caved implicating Tapie in the process.

Marseille were stripped of their fifth straight league title and relegated to the second division as punishment. CSKA Moscow coach Gennadi Kostylev alleged approaches were made to his players before the 6-0 defeat but these were later dropped. Eydelie and Bernes were both found guilty, fined, banned and given suspended prison sentences as were Robert and Burruchaga.  Goethals left the club as did the vast array of assembled stars.

The incredible run of success Tapie enjoyed in the business and football world was over, a guilty verdict handing down a two-year prison sentence, with six months served. His grip on French football was over, his political career in tatters. Further allegations of embezzlement saw Tapie in court for most of 1995 facing bankruptcy. A legacy that should have stood amongst those of the greats was left with an indelible mark forever on the white shirts of Olympique de Marseille.