The regenerated, cosmopolitan port of Marseille is home to the only French club to truly hold a city in its grip: Olympique Marseille, known by all as l’OM.
Whereas much of southern France is in thrall to rugby, Marseille is firmly foot. It is personified by its flagship club and their supporters, looking for a repeat of the glory days 25 years ago. Back then, l’OM dominated the league and became the only French club to win the European Cup. Loyal through the hard times thereafter, their fans deserve another taste of glory.
No arena in France can provide the kind of atmosphere generated at the fiery Stade Vélodrome. Backdropped by the beautiful hills of Provence, this 67,000-capacity venue has the fireworks you’d only experience in the passionate stadia of Spain, Italy or Greece.
Recently, it has been riding a new wave of title challenges. The double of 2010 under Didier Deschamps was l’OM’s finest moment since the triumphs of the Tapie era. The disgraced former owner was brought down after the previous title win, of 1993, was annulled in a bribery scandal. Tapie was sent to jail and was forced to sell his boat.
From 2011, the Vélodrome underwent a three-year overhaul that saw its capacity rise to 67,000 for Euro 2016.
Revamped to host the 1998 World Cup, the Vélodrome was built for the World Cup of 1938.
As an amateur cup-winning side of the 1920s, OM played at the tiny Stade de l’Huveaune, near the stream of the same name. Also used by their former city rivals, Stade helvétique de Marseille, USFSA champions of France three times before folding in 1930, l’Huveaune could not cope with the burgeoning status of the club that usurped them.
Originally a stadium for both football and cycling, with a sloping track around the pitch, the Vélodrome had been commissioned as a source of local pride by mayor Alexandre Ribot in 1934. Marseille had just seen the slaying of Yugoslav King Alexander I, an event of Kennedy-like proportions. The city needed something great and good.
The two main stands, the Jean Bouin and the Ganay, were named after heroic local sportsmen. Athlete Bouin, an early victim of World War I, lost the 1912 Olympic 5,000 metres in the world’s first photo finish. Gustave Ganay was a Marseille-born cyclist who died when crashing at full pelt at the Parc des Princes in 1926.
Controversially, the hero of the 1938 World Cup, the Brazilian Leónidas, was left out of the semi-final here. Pozzo’s Italy triumphed, then won their second consecutive trophy.
As an increasingly successful l’OM developed a modern fan culture in the 1960s, so the cycle track was built over and supporters brought closer to the action.
Ironically, the most memorable match here didn’t involve l’OM but Platini’s France, the dramatic 3-2 semi-final win over Portugal at Euro 84. BBC commentator John Motson, for once, lost his voice.
L’OM have no city rival. Their animosity lies with Paris Saint-Germain, a fixture given the somewhat manufactured title of ‘Le Classique’.
Though no threat, little Endoume at least provided a dramatically filmic view when based at the Stade de Giovanni. Now their sixth-flight games at prosaic Stade Le Cesne (94 rue Jules Isaac) carry less appeal. Endoume’s role as second-class citizens have even by usurped, by Marseille Consolat. Founded in 1964, and now with former Marseille (and Manchester United) full back William Prunier as coach, GS (‘Groupe Sportif’) Consolat made the third flight National for the first time in 2014. For the time being, Consolat still play at the modest. remote Stade la Martine, just off the A7 autoroute du Soleil north of the city. It’s either a long bus ride, on line B2 from Métro Bougainville to Martine or, slightly quicker, take the hourly, 15min train from St-Charles to Saint-Antoine, then pick up the B2 from there.
Aéroport Marseille-Provence is 27 km (17 miles) north-west from town, linked by a shuttle bus (every 15-20min, journey time 25 minutes, €8/€8.50 including 1 onward journey, €12.80/€13.60 return) that runs to Gare St-Charles station. A taxi (+33 4 91 02 20 20) would cost €50, €60 night-time.
The station, a 10-15 walk downhill to town, is the crossing point of the two-line metro system, complemented by buses and two tramlines. A single ticket is €1.50, a 24hr pass €5.
Convenient for the Vélodrome, the Adagio Access Marseille Prado Périer offers affordable apartment-style units with hotel accoutrements, such as a reception area. The same group has other properties by the Vieux Port and station.
The Vieux Port is the place to be, particularly the stretch of quai de Rive Neuve around the timeless Bar de la Marine (No.15), backdrop for the Colin Firth proposal scene in ‘Love Actually’. Shamrock next door goes big on sport, while O’Malley’s (No.9) basks in a huge, harbourfront terrace.
Round the corner, the Little Temple Bar (7 rue de la Paix) is more about drinking than posing by the waterfront. The other sport-centric expat bar of note is Le Kilt (169 avenue du Prado), one metro stop towards town from the stadium, with a large terrace.
Once the finest football bar in town, the Bar des Allées on allées Léon-Gambetta is now a souvenir and ticket outlet for the Club Central des Supporters. Instead, at the junction with boulevard d’Athènes, the more prosaic Brasserie des Allées is a corner bar filled with football souvenirs and talk.