France's bribery scandal: The story of Marseille’s tainted Champions League victory

Marseille Champions League 1993Getty Images

When Marseille tackle Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final in Lyon on Wednesday, they will aim to replicate the success of their predecessors, who won the inaugural Champions League a quarter of a century ago.

Just like Raymond Goethals' OM side, who beat the legendary AC Milan of Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta and Tassotti, they face a defensive behemoth. And though Diego Simeone’s Atleti are not in the same class as that Milan team for the ages, there is little doubt that the Ligue 1 side are significant underdogs.

But what Rudi Garcia’s side will certainly avoid is the infamy that haunts the 1993 vintage.

The scene of Marseille’s greatest triumph was played out in Munich that year, as they recorded a stunning 1-0 success over perhaps the greatest defence the game has ever known.

There were 42 minutes on the clock when Marseille were awarded a corner following a surging run by Abedi Pele. The Ghanaian, considered by many to be Africa’s best-ever footballer, then delivered a ferocious in-swinging corner that was glanced goalwards by Basile Boli from the near post. Goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi stood motionless as the ball flew into the corner of the net.

“It was a header for eternity,” centre-back Boli would later describe the goal.

Boli's header won France its first, and so far only, European Cup title, yet it was barely the beginning of a story that was to have dramatic repercussions for a Stade Velodrome side who would find themselves thrown into French football’s second tier in disgrace.

The drama had actually started a week before the events in Germany as infamous Marseille president Bernard Tapie oversaw the preparations for a match he was desperate to win following a number of European Cup near-misses in previous years.

Tapie was a driven, out-spoken character, eager to see his side succeed at any cost...literally.

He had been particularly piqued by his side’s shock defeat a year earlier to Sparta Prague in the early stages of the competition. In response, he signed a raft of big names, including Fabien Barthez, Marcel Desailly, Alen Boksic and World Cup-winning striker Rudi Voller.

These players propelled Marseille to the verge of a double, negotiating one of two Champions League groups and powering to the top of the league. Division 1, however, was still in the balance in the days prior to the European Cup final. 

Basile Boli Marseille AC Milan

A trip to Valenciennes the weekend before was thus a must-win match. Marseille came out on top 1-0 against surprisingly lacklustre opponents, allowing them to go on and win the title, but it soon emerged that all had not been as it had seemed.

At half-time during the game, Valenciennes player Jacques Glassmann told coach Boro Primorac that he had been offered money to “lift his foot” by both Marseille player Jean-Jacques Eydelie, a former team-mate at Nantes, and Marseille director Jean-Pierre Bernes. 

It transpired that Valenciennes players Jorge Burruchaga and Christophe Robert had also been offered money and that Robert’s wife had quite literally picked up a bag of notes from the parking lot of the Marseille team’s hotel. It was later found buried in the garden of the mother-in-law of the player.

A criminal investigation was opened on June 8, 1993, and so followed months of claims and counterclaims.

On the field, the following season, Marseille were denied the right to defend the Champions League by UEFA – though they were never stripped of their title – while domestically they were condemned to relegation by the French FA in April, despite sitting second in the league, where they would finish the campaign behind Paris Saint-Germain.

Within months, the club was forced to file for bankruptcy and it was only when adidas owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus took over in 1996 that they were able to return to the top flight. The perilous state of their finances in previous years had seen the league’s strict financial watchdog, the DNGC, refuse to grant them a top-flight licence previously. 

The key actors in the drama, meanwhile, were handed prison sentences. Tapie was sentenced to two years in jail, including eight months non-suspended, for complicity of corruption and subornation of witnesses while Bernes, who has since become an agent, was handed a similar punishment, albeit with just three weeks non-suspended.

Eydelie, meanwhile, suffered perhaps greatest of all. Aged 27, the versatile defender’s career was interrupted just as it was approaching its peak. He was given a one-year suspended prison sentence and served 17 days behind bars, but was banned from footballing activities for 18 months. 

Though he was later able to join Benfica, he never made an impression for the Portuguese giants; his career was consigned to that of a journeyman, playing for the likes of Sion and Walsall.

Indeed, he has arguably made more of a name for himself since retiring in 2001 due to his accusations towards Tapie and the Marseille Champions League-winning side.

His 2006 autobiography caught the attention as he claimed that prior to the meeting with Milan, he and several other players were given suspicious injections. 

More than a decade after the event, there was little that UEFA could do other than check the anti-doping tests that had been conducted after the match.

“Those tests proved negative,” FFF president Jean-Pierre Escalettes and LFP president Frederic Thiriez said in a joint statement as the controversy resurfaced with a bang. 

Marseille Champions League 1993Getty Images

Tapie tried to sue his former player over the comments, but was unsuccessful.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was head coach of Monaco during the Tapie era and has talked of that time as the “most difficult period” of his life, often hinting that something untoward was going on.

Speaking in 2013, he said: “There were little incidents added one to the other, in the end there is no coincidence. But it’s very difficult to prove.”

So frustrated was Wenger with the situation, he once had to be restrained in the tunnel from confronting OM’s larger-than-life president.

Indeed, Marseille might have been European champions, but Wenger told L’Equipe in 2006: “We are talking about the worst period French football has been through. It was gangrenous from the inside because of the influence and the methods of Tapie at Marseille.”

Boli’s header might have granted both him and Marseille immortality, but their success will forever be remembered as a tarnished one.

Speaking to L’Equipe on Tuesday, Boli, now a director of the club, has backed Dimitri Payet to follow in his footsteps: “I see him 20 metres out, with his magic foot… And if it’s in the 87th minute, it would be even more beautiful.”

If Boli’s prediction is correct, this Marseille side, which has so enchanted its fans, will give a new generation a success to remember – and one untarnished by the events of 25 years ago.