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'Le Classique', French football's fallen icon

Boris Horvat, AFP | Supporters cheer during the French L1 football match between Olympique de Marseille (OM) and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at the Velodrome stadium, in Marseille, on October 28, 2018.

Le Classique, the match between PSG and Marseille, was once a clash of two strong forces, akin to Spain’s Clasico pitting Real Madrid against Barcelona. But in light of PSG’s hegemony over Ligue 1, Sunday’s game is expected to be one-sided.

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The Paris Saint-Germain v. Olympique de Marseille fixture transcends football. Many in France see it as a battle between the north and the south, the country’s first city against its second city, the seat of the French establishment against the often restive port city on the Mediterranean coast.

However, only a brave pundit would predict anything other than a PSG victory in Sunday’s clash at the Parc des Princes.

Since Marseille’s most recent Classique triumph in November 2011 – just before PSG started reaping the rewards of the gargantuan quantities of petrodollars pumped in by their new owner, Oryx Qatar Sports Investments – the Parisian club have won a whopping 15 of the 18 Classiques. The other three were draws.

Since 2013, PSG have won Ligue 1 every season except 2016-17, when Monaco claimed the title. Marseille, by contrast, have failed to finish in the top three since 2012-2013 (when they came second to PSG). This season, the Parisian club are perched firmly at the top of Ligue 1, 17 points ahead of Lille in second place, and 27 points in front of fourth-placed Marseille.

Despite their March 6 Champions League defeat at the hands of a resurgent Manchester United – which sent them crashing out of Europe’s top competition – PSG’s squad contains more than enough quality for them to dominate the French league, with superstars Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Edinson Cavani up front and the world-class playmaker Marco Verratti in midfield.

That’s while Marseille currently have little in the way of renowned talent – their only player to command major international name-recognition is the erratic but gifted striker Mario Balotelli, who has scored five goals in seven games since joining the club in January.

Fierce clashes of the ’80s and ’90s

Today’s state of affairs is a far cry from the epic PSG-Marseille encounters of the late '80s and '90s, from which their burning rivalry emerged. Set up in 1899, Marseille were a significant force in the French game throughout most of the twentieth century. PSG were only founded in 1970 – before innovative manager Gérard Houllier steered them to their first Ligue 1 title in 1986.

But unfortunately for the Parisian side, this was while Les Phocéens – as their southern adversaries are nicknamed – were just entering their golden age.

French businessman and politician Bernard Tapie bought Marseille in 1986. He poured forth money to recruit top talent such as Ghanaian attacking midfielder Abedi Pelé, French defender Basile Boli and English winger Chris Waddle. Outstanding young players were also cultivated – most notably Eric Cantona, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly, who all went on to become French footballing icons.

In the Tapie era, Les Phocéens won three successive Ligue 1 titles from 1989 to 1992, came second in the 1991 European Cup, then won that tournament in its first incarnation as the Champions League, in 1993. The Marseille of that era were arguably the greatest team in the history of French football.

Yet their Parisian adversaries were still good enough to provide tough competition. Most notably, towards the end of the 1989-90 season, when Marseille were swaggering along to their inevitable capture of the Ligue 1 title, PSG managed to rain on their parade with a 2-1 victory, gifted by a late, great header from Croatian striker Zlatko Vujovic.

Then, in 1991, PSG got their own sugar daddy – or, rather, sugar corporation. Canal +, France’s biggest pay TV network, bought the Parisian club and injected the necessary funds to buy gifted players such as Liberian striker George Weah – widely regarded as the greatest African footballer of all time – and iconic French midfielder David Ginola.

It became clear just how much PSG had upped their game in a famous match in May 1993, which would decide that season’s Ligue 1 title. At the apex of their glory days, Marseille had just returned to France after winning the Champions League. Flagging after their European victory and celebrations, Les Phocéens initially proffered little opposition against a fiercely determined PSG side that went 1-0 up in the 8th minute and were unlucky not to have made it into a rout. Nevertheless, Marseille soon burst into life, turning the game around with three goals, including an astonishing ensemble effort consummated by a Basile Boli header.

Dwindling fortunes but lively matches in the 2000s

Both clubs’ fortunes dwindled in the ’90s. Tapie was jailed in a 1994 match-fixing scandal, in which Marseille were punished with relegation to Ligue 2. Although Les Phocéens soon bounced back into the top flight, their new owner was not so keen to splurge in the transfer market. Likewise, Canal +’s money taps dried up for PSG in the mid-'90s.

But, for a long while, Le Classique remained just as lively. For example, in 1999, Marseille were locked in a title battle with Bordeaux, only to be overcome in a 2-1 victory for otherwise floundering PSG side. Les Phocéens ended up second in the league, one point behind Bordeaux – deprived of the title by their Parisian arch-rivals.

Similarly, PSG and Marseille squared off against each other as relative equals in the 2000s. The presence of such luminaries as Brazilians Ronaldinho and Pauleta belied the Parisians’ often disappointing Ligue 1 results; their southern rivals were much more frequent, if erratic, title contenders. Nevertheless, PSG tended to come good against their bitterest rivals. Most memorably, despite coming six places behind Marseilles in the 2005-06 Ligue 1, they eked out a 2-1 victory over Les Phocéens in that year’s French Cup final.

However, the most recent Marseille victory – their 3-0 victory at home in November 2011 – constituted the final act of a 25-year rivalry of relative equals.

The subsequent asymmetry between the two clubs is a direct product of the asymmetry between their two balance sheets. In 2016, Les Phocéens’ new owner, American businessman Frank McCourt, pledged to spend €200 million over four years to bolster the team’s chances. The following summer, PSG’s owners forked out €222 million just to sign Neymar.

That said, recent Champions League results show that money isn’t everything in football. PSG’s financial largesse did little to help them in the face of Manchester United’s lacerating counter-attacks on March 6. The previous night, Real Madrid’s status as the richest club in the world was no defence against a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Ajax.

Meanwhile, the Parisians are somewhat weakened due to injuries to Neymar, Cavani and winger Julian Draxler.

In this context – and with an in-form Balotelli likely to pose a fierce threat up front – Marseille fans could be forgiven for hoping that Sunday will be their night.

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