Marseille has been a club approaching boiling point for weeks. On Saturday, it spilled over in the most explosive manner possible.
Mere hours before the players were due to take to the field for their vital Ligue 1 encounter against Rennes, 100 or so fans gathered outside their training ground of La Commanderie to protest against the ownership of the club, perceived attitudes in the squad and a dire run of form.
What happened next remains unclear, but the salient facts are that a significant number of supporters broke into the training ground and caused significant damage.
“An unjustifiable outbreak of violence endangers the lives of those present on site,” Marseille said in a statement.
“Thefts were committed and vehicles were damaged. Five trees were burned with the sole desire to destroy. The damage inside the buildings amounts to several hundred thousands of euros.”
Head coach Andre Villas-Boas had water bottles thrown at him and centre-back Alvaro Gonzalez – certainly not a player deserving of any criticism due to lack of effort or commitment – was hit by a projectile. Initial reports had suggested the player had been injured by fans, though now it is being downplayed as a “scratch”.
With Marseille unable to guarantee the safety of their players, their fixture against Rennes at the Velodrome was postponed.
“I’ve been a Marseille player for 13 years,” captain Steve Mandanda said in a statement. “I know everything about this club, I know the love and frustration it can generate, but today’s events sadden me and are unacceptable.”
Those thoughts were echoed across social media by a number of Marseille players.
How did it come to this? Marseille is a boom-or-bust club. Either everything is going perfectly or it is going disastrously. Rarely does there seem to be an in-between - and much of the 2020-21 campaign has been a bust.
Although OM were able to maintain the unexpectedly good Ligue 1 form they showed last season to qualify for the Champions League, once among Europe’s elite they produced lamentable display after lamentable display. Ending an unprecedented 13-match losing streak in the competition with a poor 2-1 win over Olympiacos in the final round was about as good as it got.
Then things started going wrong in the league. As Dimitri Payet, who carried Marseille offensively last term, lost his form, his lack of conditioning became an issue for the media and the squad.
There has reportedly been a fall out with Florian Thauvin, OM’s other star, while there are rumours that Payet urged members of the squad to agree to a pay cut before negotiating more favourable terms for his own deal.
This is Marseille. This is the type of story that habitually circulates when the team is losing.
Villas-Boas performed miracles to elevate the club to the level it attained. Just as Daedalus and Icarus fell after flying too close to the sun, so too have AVB and Marseille.
Expectations this season had been whipped up, particularly after OM beat fierce rivals Paris Saint-Germain in August – a fixture given something of a false look given that many of PSG’s stars were overcoming Covid-19 at that point.
With a small squad, hampered by a lack of investment from the board, Marseille could never hope to play three games a week successfully.
That board, meanwhile, have been painfully silent in recent weeks. Saturday’s protests, after all, were not the first. Marseille fans have angrily gathered against president Jacques-Henri Eyraud, seen as a Parisian interloper, regularly in recent weeks. He has been silent to their concerns.
Fuelling the fire further, meanwhile, has been a war between the media and the club. Internally, the players believe that there has grown a culture of ‘Marseille bashing’ in the local media. Villas-Boas was pointed when he criticised the local paper in a press conference.
“La Provence are always looking for negative statistics to kill some players,” he said after Dario Benedetto’s strike rate had been compared to that of flop forward Kostas Mitrogolou. “It’s tough. La Provence and OM should be next to each other to make OM stronger. We may as well call La Provence ‘Le Parisien’! A regional newspaper is normally closely associated with its biggest club.”
AVB, out of contract and apparently heading for the exit in the summer, does not necessarily expect such support from the national press, but that did not stop him having a swing at L’Equipe, too.
“There’s a lot of bulls**t that’s said outside, but that’s normal in times of crisis. It’s pathetic,” he exclaimed.
Eyraud seemed to be taking aim at the press, meanwhile, when he said in a statement: “Those who incite violence and hatred have been playing this malicious and vicious little game for a few months now, which has led to this situation today. There are responsibilities that go beyond those who were at La Commanderie."
If the stories are false, the anger that Marseille fans are feeling is very real. Perhaps if they were able to visit the Velodrome to vent their anger on a weekly basis, Saturday’s scenes may have been avoided, and yet the health crisis in Europe prevents that.
There will, of course, be lasting consequences.
“Alvaro and his team-mates are afraid, they are concerned about the situation. They asked to meet the president quickly to have guarantees as to their safety,” L’Equipe quotes an unnamed close associate of Gonzalez as saying.
If those already at the club do not want to be there, how do Marseille act in the final hours of the transfer window?
OM’s fans are known throughout Europe as being among the most passionate – but they will also now be regarded as among the most dangerous. That does little service to either the support or the club at this difficult time.