Topic: From Marseille to Leeds United, football’s fallen giants

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Re: From Marseille to Leeds United, football’s fallen giants

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    “Give your blood!” demands a banner behind a goal. But on a chilly Mediterranean winter night, Olympique Marseille’s Stade Velodrome (capacity: 67,000) is scarcely half-full for the game against Troyes.

“OM”, as Marseille are popularly known, were European champions in 1993. (Their triumph was later tarnished when they were stripped of their French league title that year because of match-fixing, but few locals worry about that.) These days, though, OM have been left behind by their hated rivals, Qatari-funded Paris Saint-Germain. This month, while PSG meet Real Madrid in the Champions League, Marseille face little Braga of Portugal in the unglamorous Europa League.

Frank McCourt, Marseille’s American owner, has proclaimed a “Champions Project” to return OM to their former glory. Jacques-Henri Eyraud, the club’s president, says hopefully: “The beauty of sport is that there are often surprises.” Then he admits: “Well, perhaps fewer and fewer. Obviously, in the long term it seems an impossible task.”

This is the story of the second-tier clubs that reached the zenith of European football at some point between the 1970s and 1990s: Leeds United, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Rangers, Ajax Amsterdam and Lazio, to name a few.

Since then, they have been marginalised by the game’s traditional giants, such as Barcelona and Manchester United, and by billionaire-funded clubs like PSG. Yet the fallen clubs live on as relics. They still matter immensely to some people: a couple of thousand OM “ultras” spend the entire, uninspiring 3-1 victory over Troyes jumping and singing, making more noise than you hear at most bigger clubs. So what are fallen clubs for now? Do they still have a role in today’s game?

Bernard Tapie was Marseille’s president in the glory days. Even today, when he gets talking about them, the septuagenarian rises from his sofa in his Versailles-style mansion on a Parisian side street, and on his lush carpet re-enacts Chris Waddle’s 1991 goal against reigning European champions Milan. The pot-bellied Tapie jinks past imaginary Italian defenders, gently passes the ball into an imaginary net, then waves casually at an imaginary crowd.

Of winning the European Cup, he says: “There are some people who are still living it. All these things make you proud when you have little else to be proud of.” Tapie ended up paying for his success at Marseille: he spent several months in jail in 1997 for corruption and witness interference. Yet, looking back, he seems to feel it was worth it.


© Ilyes Griyeb
But Tapie’s team thrived in an economy that no longer exists. Until the early 1990s, before television discovered the game, there was very little money in football. In 1990, Newcastle tried to float on the stock market but gave up after raising only £300,000. A year later, Tottenham’s annual revenues of £19m were the highest in English football.

The dearth of money lent a glorious randomness to football success. A local businessman like Tapie who scraped together a few million could win a European Cup. And a provincial side that happened to collect some good players could keep them almost for ever. Leeds played the European Cup final of 1975 with six men who had featured in their first European match a decade earlier. There was barely an international transfer market then, and a club could block a player from moving even if his contract had expired.

In 1992, Leeds and Marseille won their respective league titles. But by then the football economy was already taking off as TV money flooded the game. In the mid-1990s, I was a young reporter covering small British companies for the FT. My old clippings book offers (with hindsight) a real-time chronicle of a financial bubble. I interviewed thrusting young club executives who told me that once pay-per-view TV arrived, fans in Malaysia dressed head-to-toe in official club replica gear would be watching their team every week. For historic giants like Leeds or Nottingham Forest, there would be no limits.


© Ilyes Griyeb
In 1996, the shares of the four English clubs quoted on the stock market rose by an average of 200 per cent. That year I covered the “first City-style bid battle over a football club”: three rival groups fought over Leeds, and the winners, media group Caspian, paid about £30m. In 1997, Newcastle’s flotation valued the club at close to £180m.

Many continental clubs were also targeting greatness. In the late 1990s, Sven-Goran Eriksson was managing Lazio. “The chairman I had was very good,” he recalled years later. “If I wanted a player, he would try to get that player. One day I phoned him up and I said, ‘Vieri.’” Eriksson and his chairman, Sergio Cragnotti, flew to Spain to bid for Atlético Madrid’s forward, Christian Vieri. Atlético wanted a fee of 50bn lira. Eriksson reminisced: “That was the biggest sum in the world. No player had been involved for that.”

As he tells it, the talks went as follows.

Cragnotti: “That’s a lot of money.”

Eriksson: “I know.”

At this point, Atlético mentioned that it might accept some Lazio players in partial payment for Vieri.

Cragnotti: “Can we do that?”

Eriksson: “No, we can’t give away these players.”

Cragnotti: “What shall we do?”

Eriksson: “Buy him.”

Cragnotti: “OK.”

Eriksson marvelled: “He didn’t even try to pay 49. He just paid 50.”


Lazio’s president Sergio Cragnotti with the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999
Nine months after Vieri joined Lazio, Italian rivals Inter Milan wanted to buy him. Eriksson recounts the conversation.

Cragnotti: “What shall I ask for him?”

Eriksson: “Ask for double. Ask [for] 100.”

Cragnotti: “I can’t do that.”

Eriksson recalled: “So he asked for 90. And he got 90. That’s good business.” (Or a case-study of bubble behaviour.)

At Leeds, the businessman Peter Ridsdale had become club chairman in 1997 with instructions to “grow the brand”. He took out a £60m loan — the largest recorded for a club at that time — and invested in players, private jets and even a supply of tropical fish for his office. In 2001, Leeds reached the Champions League semi-final. But the pay-per-view bonanza didn’t materialise. It turned out that clubs like Leeds and Marseille had very localised fan bases. To use American sports jargon, they were “small-market clubs”.

In Marseille, “the city and club are in some ways one and the same”, McCourt told me. OM have a strong identity — they incarnate the city in a way that Arsenal or even Real Madrid don’t — but they couldn’t stay at the top without a global fan base. Nor did Marseille or Leeds have a large business sector queueing to buy VIP packages at the stadium. Clubs that did have global support — notably Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid — began running away from everyone else.

Crucially, the big clubs could now pick off the best players. In 1995, the European Court of Justice’s Bosman ruling had allowed footballers to move much more freely, including across borders. The terms of trade had turned against the likes of Marseille.

In 2001, Lazio’s Cragnotti realised he could no longer afford Pavel Nedved, his star player. The Czech international’s agent Mino Raiola warned: “Pavel, Lazio can’t cope. This project is going to go wrong.” Raiola advised Nedved to join Juventus. But, he says, Nedved loved Lazio, hated big bad “capitalist” Juve and didn’t want to move.

So Raiola brought in Cragnotti to tell Nedved the bad news himself. It didn’t quite work out. As Raiola would recall years later: “Cragnotti looks at Nedved, and he says, ‘Pavel, I can’t do it. I should sell you, but I can’t. I’ll offer you a contract. Are you willing to take a pay cut?” Nedved agreed, and they shook hands on a new deal.


© Ilyes Griyeb
The next day, says Raiola, Nedved came to Lazio’s offices to sign the deal with Cragnotti’s son. However, as Raiola tells it, the son — aghast that Nedved wasn’t being sold for a pot of gold — grabbed a cheap plastic pen, chucked it at the Czech and said, “Here, sign!” Nedved signed, shook hands and left the room. Outside, he turned to Raiola and said: “I made a mistake, didn’t I?” Raiola replied: “Yes.”

According to Raiola, crucially, Juve and Lazio had previously signed a transfer agreement concerning Nedved. Since Cragnotti hadn’t torn it up, the document kept its legal force and, days later, the player joined Juventus for €39m. In 2002, Cragnotti’s food company Cirio went belly-up, and later he was sentenced to jail, which even by the standards of scandal-hit Italian football was going a bit far. Eriksson, looking back, reflected: “If you see Lazio, it was not healthy. But we won the league. And we won the [European] Cup Winners’ Cup. We won everything.”

In 2003, Ridsdale departed Leeds amid reports that the club’s debt had topped £100m. By 2007, Leeds had dropped to the third tier of English football for the first time ever. Today they play in the second tier.

The big clubs have taken over football. The only way to win things nowadays is to have a global fan base (like Manchester United), a billionaire owner (like Manchester City and Chelsea, clubs of a similar historical status to Leeds) or to play in London, the city with the highest ticket prices on earth. (Three London clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs — are now among the 11 with the highest revenues in global football, according to Deloitte’s annual “Money League” report.)


Rudi Völler and Basile Boli celebrate Marseille’s European Cup win in 1993
Marseille weren’t well placed to lure a sugar daddy, partly because the city’s powerful mafias have always tried to interfere with the club. Tapie says that when he bought OM for a symbolic single franc in 1986, mafiosi ran the club’s snack bars and merchandise stands. He claims to have solved the security problem by bringing in martial-arts athletes as guards. But as recently as 2013, Adrien Anigo, a jewel thief and the son of OM’s then sporting director José Anigo, was gunned down in Marseille in a gangland killing.

Instead of an oil sheikh, OM got McCourt. Like most American investors in sports, the former owner of the LA Dodgers baseball team is a canny businessman rather than a sugar daddy. Eyraud, Marseille’s president, admits: “We said we will spend €200m over four years to reinforce the team. What’s that in modern football? It’s the price of one Neymar” — the Brazilian bought by PSG from Barcelona last summer for €222m. McCourt insisted to me that OM “can regain that former glory”. But he added: “That said, we’re not going to be able to win every match. That’s part of being the underdog.”

He’s putting it mildly. Marseille’s budget this season is about €120m, compared with €540m for Paris, according to the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. McCourt says: “I’m not going to be naive. You have much less margin for error when you don’t have high revenues. High revenues help hide bad decisions. It matters. But Goliath had more resources too.” 


Marseille fans have remained loyal despite the club falling behind hated rivals Paris Saint-Germain © Ilyes Griyeb
Certainly, over any one season, a club with small revenues can — if everything goes right — beat the big boys. Leicester City kicked off the 2015/16 season with £104m in revenues for the previous year; Manchester United had £395m, yet Leicester won the English title. In the Champions League, the knockout rounds are a randomising device that favour chance. But measured over 10 seasons, the correlation between a club’s revenues and its average league position is about 90 per cent, as the sports economist Stefan Szymanski and I show in our book Soccernomics (2009). To quote the American writer Damon Runyon’s famous riff on Ecclesiastes: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.”

The problem for clubs like Marseille and Leeds is that fans don’t easily adjust their expectations to the new reality. Anthony Clavane, author of the book Promised Land about his beloved Leeds, says: “I’m part of the problem. I’m swept away, as soon as Leeds start to do well, by this delusion — not just of grandeur, but by a sense of entitlement.”

Fans of fallen clubs inevitably live in the past, says Clavane. Sometimes they even teeter into ancestor-worship. In front of Leeds’ Elland Road stadium is a statue of the terrifying 1970s midfielder Billy Bremner. The club now plans to rename the land around it Bremner Square, and to fill the space with another 10 statues of “Leeds United legends”. Fans still feel so strongly about Leeds’ tradition that last month the club had to withdraw its proposed new crest within hours, after thousands signed a protest petition. “I think we’re a religious cult,” says Clavane.

He suspects things are similar at other fallen clubs. Indeed, Phil Soar, who as a Nottingham Forest fan in the 1970s watched this “almost absurdly irrelevant little provincial club” win two European Cups, says that even in the late 1990s, when he ran Forest, shareholders would still stand up at the annual meeting and angrily demand: “When will we finally reclaim our rightful place at the top of Europe?” Instead, Forest — and their fellow European champions, Aston Villa — now play in the same division as Leeds.


© Ilyes Griyeb
At fallen clubs, even after decades of failure, more failure still meets with incomprehension. Fans of Ajax Amsterdam (four times European champions between 1971 and 1995) will sometimes chant during bad games, “We want to see Ajax!”, as if the real Ajax are being imprisoned somewhere under the stands while a bunch of imposters take their place.

Marseille fans, who have celebrated just one French title in the past 25 years, know about disappointment. Take a typical 40-year-old Frenchman who, like many in his generation, became a Marseille fan in the early 1990s. In a documentary about Emmanuel Macron’s campaign aired just after he became French president, he is shown checking his smartphone and then swearing: “Merde! Second time, putain!” His wife Brigitte rushes up concerned: “What is it?” Macron explains: “Monaco have beaten OM again.” She takes away his phone and ticks him off: “Oh no, we don’t care about that.” When a journalist later suggested that the sequence was staged for PR reasons, she replied: “No, he’ll be loyal to the end.”

A doctor in Marseille once told Eyraud that there was a statistical correlation between OM’s defeats and visits to his hospital’s emergency department. “It shows the exceptional expectation,” says Eyraud. It’s also enough to make the people running these clubs despair. When the PSG fan Nicolas Sarkozy was French president, he told Marseille’s then president Vincent Labrune: “Your job is the most difficult in France, after mine.” Club bosses get tempted into making extravagant promises they can’t fulfil. Now McCourt is being mocked for having proclaimed his “Champions Project”.

The fallen clubs have to manage their fans’ anger and delusions. You’d think it would be a losing battle. But here’s the surprising fact: despite all the frustration and the defeats, in emotional terms these clubs are thriving. In fact, some are attracting bigger crowds than they did in the glory days.


Leeds take on Bayern Munich in the 1975 European Cup final
Leeds, Forest and Villa combined draw about the same attendances in the Championship today as they did at their European zeniths. Rangers — 54 times champions of Scotland — averaged 45,750 even in their season in the Scottish fourth tier in 2012/13. Ajax and Marseille have approximately doubled their crowds en route to mediocrity. And, unlike in the glory days, all these clubs’ games are now also consumed live on TV every week, often around the world.

Eyraud says: “I never cease to be fascinated by the depth of our support, which you find all over France. I think OM are French people’s favourite club. We have surpassed PSG in spectator averages.” Even when a Marseille delegation visited Senegal, he says, the team were greeted at the airport by locals in OM shirts singing: “If you don’t jump, you’re not Marseillais!” The half-full Velodrome for that recent winter’s win over Troyes still contained 37,949 spectators — about 10,000 more than Tapie’s team averaged the season they won the Champions League.

This shows, firstly, that most football fans aren’t hunting glory. They don’t go to the stadium because they expect trophies. They go because they like football, and because it’s a way to spend time with parents, children or friends, to be together, to remember their own childhood in the same stadium. If going to the stadium is a safe and comfortable experience, they will go even if the team aren’t good any more. For most people, being a supporter is about nostalgia, localism, togetherness and leisure entertainment, not about glory.


Marseille club president Jacques-Henri Eyraud: ‘I never cease to be fascinated by the depth of our support. I think OM are French people’s favourite club’ © Ilyes Griyeb
In fact, many fans, especially those who support fallen clubs, disdain glory. They find identity partly in opposing today’s big-spending winners, who can seem more like corporations than like clubs. Losing against a big club can feel like proof of moral superiority. McCourt likes to portray Marseille as a David fighting Goliath. “OM — this is part of the brand — are the underdog, the fighter, the underachiever.” In other words, it’s an essential character in football’s soap opera. 

The fall itself gives fallen clubs their identity. Managed correctly, the fall can be an unending source of wonderment and self-obsession. Clavane remembers an away game at little Yeovil Town, when a vast contingent of Leeds fans spent much of the second half singing: “We’re not famous any more.” Similarly, Manchester City fans, during their own sojourn in the lower divisions around the millennium, would sing: “We’re not really here.”

Clavane says: “I’m happy in my misery. I’m happy in my moaning — that’s one extreme. And when we do win, we’re the greatest team in football.” I know the feeling. Last May I sat in the Amsterdam Arena watching open-mouthed as Ajax — the team I tepidly support — thumped Lyon 4-1 in the Europa League semi-final. At each goal, I rose cheering from my seat in the press box. Around me I saw fat middle-aged men like me looking as delirious as I felt. We’d been transported back 20 years. We’d never expected it to happen again. In truth, we’d have been fine if it never had happened. We’d have happily continued to trudge to the stadium into old age and whine, like the two old puppets who used to sing before every Muppets Show: “Why do we always come here? / I guess we’ll never know / It’s like a kind of torture / To have to watch the show.”

Marseille (and Aston Villa and Ajax and so on) will probably never be champions of Europe again. Their fans, although they will never admit it, hardly mind.


Simon Kuper is an FT columnist

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'Welcome @49ers to our family ...together to make the history of our glorious Club'   Kim J. U.

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