Le Classique: a brief history

A couple of weeks ago, something really got to me. All over European football media, there were reports dubbing Paris Saint-Germain vs AS Monaco as the biggest game of the season in terms of French club football and a great advert for Ligue 1. It’s not.

For me, the biggest game of a season is and should be a game deciding who could win a title but more importantly, it’s also about the history between the two clubs and the history between the fans. English football fans will know that. Manchester United vs Liverpool was for a very long time the game of the season for fans around the country, even for the neutrals. Spain have El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona. France have Le Classique between Paris Saint-Germain vs Olympique de Marseille.

Whereas of late, Manchester United vs Liverpool has been more or less irrelevant in terms of a title decider and El Clasico is more of an opportunity for the world to witness two of the biggest football clubs play each other and showcase their teams of superstars diving around a pitch and rolling on the floor at the slightest bit of contact, Le Classique remains one of the most heated games in Europe. On and off the pitch.

With Paris Saint-Germain being one of the youngest clubs in France, founded in 1970 (compared to Olympique de Marseille being established in 1899), the rivalry is relatively new. This didn’t stop it from quickly becoming one of the most important dates on the French football calendar. There are many reasons behind this, one of them being the rivalry for the league title during the late 80’s.
Canal+ are partially to blame (or to thank, depending on how you want to look at it) for this. Former owners of the Parisian team, the French television channel saw the potential in the rivalry and began to advertise it profusely in the early 1990’s, especially after the title deciding game (won by Marseille) in 1989. Politics come into it as well, but that would be going off topic.

From here on in, the hype surrounding the game grew, but so did the hatred between the two sets of fans. Since 1995, there have been a reported 337 arrests, 52 injuries and, unfortunately, 2 deaths from altercations between fans surrounding Le Classique, with the latest death coming as late as 2010.

On the pitch, some truly wonderful footballers have taken part and scored in these clashes: Jairzinho, Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin, Rudi Völler, Abedi Pelé, Ronaldinho, George Weah (played for both teams), Pauleta to name but a few.

Strangely enough, despite the fierceness of the rivalry, 47 players have played for both teams in their career, including Gabriel Heinze. In comparison, only a handful have played for Manchester United and Liverpool and (in a much older rivalry) only 33 have worn both Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts.

In terms of head-to-head, the statistics are incredibly close. Since 1971, 82 games have been played between the two sides (cups included). Marseille have won 32 (scoring 105 goals), Paris Saint-Germain 30 (scoring 102 goals) with the remaining 20 games being draws (obviously).

Before Sunday’s game (played in Marseille’s wonderful Stade Vélodrome), it’s worth noting that Paris Saint-Germain have not won away to their rivals since 2008 when the visitors dominated in a 4-2 win thanks to a brace from Guillaume Hoarau. PSG have also won the last 3 games against Marseille (all having been played in the Parc des Princes).

For the time being, Marseille have the upper hand in terms of trophies (they are still the only French side to have won the Champions League and have 6 more titles to their name). However, with the balance of power slowly tilting in Paris Saint-Germain’s favour thanks to their Qatari owners, the game on Sunday promises to already be a potential title decider. Currently on 17 points and in 3rd place, Marseille will want to do everything in order to try and beat their arch-rivals sitting just above them, tied in 1st place with Monaco with 18 points.

I for one will be in front of my screen at 8pm on Sunday for what should be a cracking game. A great history, a great atmosphere, goals (no 0-0 draw in the league between these two sides since 2006) and most probably a red card. What more could you ask for?