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Friday, 18 March 2011

Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #10: Olympique de Marseille 1991

Diamond highlights

Unashamedly self-indulgent, here's friend of Magic Spongers James Longhurst on his love affair with Marseille and a Geordie winger

First a confession

I’m a Wimbledon fan. In fact nowadays I’m an AFC Wimbledon fan and Trust member, and when the Magic Spongers asked me to chip in on the team that made me fall in love with football, they naturally thought it would be the ’88 cup final team.

It would be pretty easy to write a piece extolling the virtues of that legendary (in almost every sense of the word) Crazy Gang team, but I was only seven at the time of final and while I remember it clearly, that’s probably as much from the amount of times I have rewatched my VHS, DVD and now Sky+ versions of the game as from any contemporary viewing.

And it’s also because I didn’t watch the ‘88 cup final live, my mum wouldn’t let me. THERE, I’VE SAID IT. It’s a horrible confession that I don’t think I’ve ever shared with anyone else.

She wouldn’t let me watch the game (we had friends staying over and we went out for the day) and we didn’t even go and watch the victory parade through the town centre the day after. To say I haven’t forgiven her for it would probably be harsh, but ultimately true.

So this piece isn’t about May 1988; that penalty save; Sanchez’s header or how hard it is to believe that I once looked up to (literally and metaphorically) Dennis Wise.

The World in Motion

For most football fans I know around the age of 30, Italia ’90 will probably always be the best World Cup, it was our first real experience of the tournament in all its glory and forgive the cliché, but it’s true you never forget your first.

For those who can’t remember, it must be hard to imagine how comparatively starved of football we were in the early ‘90s compared with the fest of overblown delights we get now. Those of us who were nine years old in the summer of 1990 were about to have our tiny minds blown by a veritable feast of football. The team that really made me fall in love with football wasn’t the England team of Italia ’90 either, though again it would be very easy to wax lyrical about fond memories of Lineker’s goals, Platt’s volley, Wright’s bravery and Steve Bull’s substitute appearances and they certainly helped the process of my ongoing infatuation with the sport along.

Italia ‘90 exposed this young boy to a world beyond English football (by then I’d actually been to Plough lane to see the Dons and even stood in the Shed End to watch Chelsea play Stoke in the second division, pink panther inflatables and all). Cameroon vs Argentina in the opener was a whirlwind of drama, exotic names and foreign football.

Cameroon shocked the world with a 1-0 win and I was hooked. The next four weeks of the tournament were a continuing education of football, geo-politics (It would be the last world cups for a united Czechoslovakia and the last for a divided Germany) and foreign players.

England’s ultimate demise on penalties did nothing to dim my passion. The pain and disappointment (there may well have been actual tears) was magnified by the fact that the England player that had emerged as my favourite during the tournament, Chris Waddle, missed the final pen (in a clearly subconscious homage to Waddle I stepped up to take the crucial penalty in the inter school cup that year and blazed it over the bar too, unfortunately the only footballing lesson I learnt from England’s number 8).

The Waddler, along with a few more exotic names, had caught my attention and in that pre-internet, pre-Sky age I now wanted to do everything I could to follow his fortunes.

Olympique de Marseille

In 1986, Bernard Tapie became President of L’OM, flushed with cash, political influence (the Major of Marseille helped him get the job) and the experience of leading teams to sporting success (his La Vie Clair cycling team won two Tours de France with Greg LeMonde and Bernard Hinault).

Tapie took the well-trodden path to success by buying in big name players and coaches. It is worth remembering in those days that the three foreign players limit was in force in European competitions – the rule which saw Inter recruit the German trio of Brehme, Matthaus and Klinsmann and AC Milan the Dutch legends Gullit, Rijkard and Van Basten – Tapie eschewed the idea of a one country core and brought in a more eclectic mix of foreign stars.

So in 1989, Chris Waddle joined L’OM for a British transfer record £4.5m (which made him the third most expensive player of all time) and joining Waddle in that team were Ghana’s Abedi Pele and Yugoslavia’s (and my all time favourite player to be almost named after a mythical beast) Dragan Stojkovic.

Two of my favourite players from Italia ‘90 were playing for the same team, alongside a player so good he was nicknamed Pele, so when the 1990-91 season started, a small boy in south-west London became an avid Marseille fan.

Trans World Sport

For your pre-teenage Londoner with an eye on the south of France there were few sources of euro football news. The occasional Shoot and Match feature on Anglo-exiles and even rarer profiles of foreign stars had to be supplemented with weekly teletext updates of foreign league tables.

The only source of actual coverage though was the weekly smorgasbord of global sport that was the early morning delight of Trans World Sport, covering everything from handball to pelota and of course, continental football highlights.

Every Saturday morning while eating my pre-football weetabix (nutrition being all important to Tolworth Tornadoes’ no.3 even at that young age), I’d sit down and watch every minute of footage from France that Trans World would bring me. In that season when all-conquering Marseille had a team of superstars with ‘Magic Chris’ Waddle at their head, there was quite a lot.

Finally an actual bit about that team

By that season, the team that Tapie built was managed by the experienced Belgian Raymond Goethals and together they had brought together was packed with talent. Players like the prolific Jean-Pierre Papin (his scoring stats are Steve Bull-esque, between the seasons of ‘89-‘92 he scored 38, 36 and 38 goals respectively and in ‘91 joint top scored with seven goals in the European Cup), Basile Boli, Jean Tigana, as well as a young upstart with an attitude problem by the name of Eric Cantona.

But it was Waddle that set the team, and my passion for them alight as, like a laid-back Lionel Messi, the Geordie former sausage factory worker tore French and European defences apart, scoring eight goals that season and setting up many more for Papin and Pele.

Waddle’s initial welcome by the fans at the Stade Velodrome had been lukewarm until, in a game against Paris Saint Germain, he took a high ball into the area down onto his chest, flicked it over the hapless keeper on the half volley and, like a school boy in the playground, back-heeled the ball into the empty net.

From then on the fans loved him (Waddle came second to Papin in a poll of the most popular Marseille players of the 20th century).

As the Youtube footage bears out, Waddle’s role was clear: to entertain. In his own words: “I was never expected to defend at Marseille; my role was to make goals for Papin and entertain.” (that back heel is a few seconds in).

Although Waddle may have take that role a little too far releasing this, so bad it’s really very bad, single with teammate Basil Boli: (the only youtube clip that will make you think Diamond Lights wasn’t that ill-conceived).

Watching those occasional clips on early weekend mornings, with the sights and sounds of the French stadiums (even the name Stade Velodrome was exciting and different) was captivating in a way that watching Match of the Day would never be. Even the oddly remote voiceover (one bloke, one woman, both very posh) that was a Trans World trademark added to the mystique.

The 1991 European Cup Final

Waddle scored the crucial goal in the European Cup semi-final second leg against the Netherlands-led Milan team who had supposedly set out to beat the sense out of him. Rumour has it that when asked after the game how he managed to hit the ball so sweetly on the volley, Waddle couldn’t remember it. He’d been hit round the head that often by the feisty Milan side he was suffering from memory loss (the goal is well worth a rewatch, Papin’s flick on and Waddle’s first time hit nestling in the side netting).

As a foretaste of some of the controversy that was to surround the Marseille team later in the decade, the semi against Milan was odd. Not long after Waddle’s crucial goal, Marseille fans stormed the pitch thinking the ref had blown the final whistle and as the fans were cleared, the floodlights went out. Milan refused to play on. Uefa handed the home leg 3-0 to Marseille, who won the tie 4-1 on aggregate.

Marseille were in the final for the first time and for me the best news was that it was being shown live on terrestrial TV, finally an opportunity to see a whole 90 minutes of Waddle, Dragan and Jean-Pierre.

Facing them in the final were Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, from whom they had recently signed Stojkovic. The Red Star team was packed with talented players who would become familiar names from across the former Yugoslavia like Mihajlovic, Darko Pancev, Robert Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic.

This final couldn’t possibly disappoint and I made sure that I let all my friends, who weren’t as avid Trans World watchers and Marseille devotee as me, know that this was going to be the best football game they had ever seen.

I’d promised them football’s juiciest Golden Delicious apples, but unfortunately Red Star had other ideas. What happened was 120 minutes of Eastern European onions.

Red Star, as I fondly remember the commentator saying, set out there stall playing for penalties almost from kick-off. The game was terrible and ended once again with my team – and Chris Waddle’s – losing on penalties.

In the second half of extra time, Marseille brought on Stojkovic, a penalty expert, but as the teams lined up to take the spot kicks he refused to take one against his beloved Red Star. As I was quickly learning is the way of these things, the Eastern European side slotted their five pens home with ease, while right-back Manuel Amoros missed the first spot kick for Marseille and they never recovered, losing 5-3. The only consolation was that I hadn’t had to see Waddle miss a penalty again.

By the time L’OM returned two years later to win the inaugural Champions League final, Waddle had returned to England (the Marseille team that year had a 20-year-old Barthez in goal, no less annoying as a youngster, and was led by the ultimate domestique Didier Dechamps), the Premier League had launched and I had a Wimbledon season ticket, my attention firmly turned to footballing matters domestic.

I’d fallen out of love with the Marseille team by then, but when the match-fixing scandal broke and Tapie’s full ref-bribing skullduggery was revealed, it couldn’t tarnish the memories. The team and players that made me fall in love with all that is exciting and other about football were Chris Waddle’s 1991 Olympique Marseille.

And how Graham Taylor didn’t pick Waddle for the ’92 Euros will always be beyond me.


  1. Great article - remember watching Transworld sport too and seeing glimpses of Waddle and his hair...

  2. Good article.

  3. Nice article. I am Red Star fan and I was 12 when final was played. Disappointing game, but it was one-in-life game for most players. We shouldn't forget paths to the final of these two teams and their exceptional individuals: Prosinecki-Savicevic-Pancev and Waddle-Pele-Papin. Now, in the Internet and Youtube era I am watching games of these two teams and bringing back memories....