A guest blog from my son Calum, fellow football fanatic and fellow football romantic.
Anyone who has ever driven into Marseille from the North side of town should have an inkling of what the city is all about. Its high rise estates, such as Le Castellane (the biggest council estate in Europe) dominate the Northern section of the city’s landscape. The political and gangland graffiti messages dominate the artistry as you get closer and closer to the city centre. The City’s football club dominates the city’s attire, with every street adorned by posters of the club’s heroes, virtually every cafe or bar displaying posters, pictures and scarves from Olympique De Marseille.
The football ground, the Stade Velodrome, recently re-developed, is one of the central hotbeds for community activism and integration. Every two weeks during the season, Marseille play here. The two stands behind each goal sum up the culture of this city, famous for its organised crime as much as its tourism. This is where the Ultras take their place. The Commandos Ultras of 1984 in the South Stand, the “Fanatics” in the North Stand. This is where the real people of Marseille can be found. And at no time was this more relevant or obvious than on Sunday night. Lyon the visitors. A big game every season, but today more than ever.
I came out of a meeting at 8.54pm. Looked at my phone. Checked the score (Marseille are my second club). Saw they were losing 1-0 and down to 10 men. I walked past a pub, saw they had the game on and walked straight in. The second half had started and I could see something incredible was happening. The camera kept panning to Matthieu Valbuena, the ex Marseille midfielder now playing for Lyon but planning to sue Marseille. And then the objects began to fall down, one by one. Every time he went towards the corner of the pitch, he was hit by an object. Every time he touched the ball, the roar of a region came out. Every time Marseille moved up the pitch, one man down, the stadium rocked with anticipation.
Then the incredibly ineffective and weak referee took the players off, citing the dangerous fans – the people who make any football club what it really is. That was when the magic really started. There was no game anymore. No overpaid, overhyped superstars taking up the TV screens. Just a stadium of 60,000 passionate Marseillais bouncing up and down whilst the BT Sport cameras had nothing to do but show them having fun and venting their anger. As the corporate TV channel waited, they got louder. The feeling of injustice (caused by Valbuena, the club’s owners, the referee, the first half Lyon penalty that should never have been one, the sending off that was not a red card) had inspired a show of defiance against what is wrong with the world, rather than in defence of what is right.
Many clubs would not have fans with the power to do such things. Marseille is a unique city and a unique club where the most hardcore, ardent fans part control club decisions in a way not seen anywhere else. But why shouldn’t they have that power? These are the people who care about the club more than anyone else. In Marseille, the place that lit the flames to the French Revolution, they do things differently. And that was shown again on Sunday more than ever.
Why have I written this? Because it reminded me of what football and life in general are really all about. It’s not about rich owners, rich players, who wins the game or who has the best looking wag. It’s about the people who go and pay their money through rain, storm and sleet, following their team until the end. And on Sunday, for the first time in my adult life, I saw fans re-assert some control. Take back their club. Tell the authorities, owners, players and officials, enough is enough. This is our club and we do things our way here. That’s what I believe in as the footballing model.
The old city has many faults, many deficiencies, many problems. But it’s a city I fell in love with young and will always love. Hardship can create something special, a true community spirit. And Marseille has that and much more. The most proud, loyal and complicated city in France, possibly the whole of Europe. I will support its football team through everything and I will support its people through much more.
Why? Because it all goes back to that most important moment in French history. Who caused the flame? This city of Marseille did help win the French revolution, which is why the war song of the hundreds who travelled north to fight, La Mareillaise, is now the country’s national anthem. I hope after Sunday night, they may start a footballing one too.