Action Replay: A wizard and a lizard help Marseille conquer Europe

This Sunday will mark the 20th anniversary of the first Champions League final – and one of the most interesting stories in European football. Sheridan Bird recalls a wily old goat, sacrificed lizard and monkey business when Marseille met Milan in Munich…

“The French always celebrate before they’ve won. It’s the way they are.” The best quote on the eve of the 1993 Champions League final between Olympique de Marseille and AC Milan didn't come from square-jawed Rossoneri coach Fabio Capello or gaffe-happy president Silvio Berlusconi, but Marseille manager Raymond Goethals. The Belgian’s intriguing, mischievous comment was in tune with the controversial, fractious and fascinating story of the first Champions League final.

Although groups had been added to the 1991/92 tournament, it was still the old European Champion Clubs’ Cup (European Cup to Brits). The 1992/93 edition was the first to be marketed as the UEFA Champions League – initially, just a two-group phase of the European Cup, between the 16-team Second Round and the final in Munich's Olympiastadion.

Europe’s governing body wanted a spicy, spectacular and engaging final to induct the new era. Not all of the ingredients were salubrious. There were tantrums, tetchy departures and a sacrificial lizard. On the pitch in Munich there were surprising star performers and unexpected high-profile humblings. It wasn’t dull.

Win or bustA flippant line like Goethals’ was the perfect tonic before such a big game. Marseille directors and fans, including those in the media, were terrified: the European Cup was their bête noir. In the 1990 semi-final second leg against Benfica, the French champions went out to a handballed goal from Angolan forward Vata; in the 1991 final, an exciting team featuring lethally languid winger Chris Waddle lost to Red Star Belgrade on penalties after a sterile, nervy 0-0.

Waddle and Goethals (r) at the 1991 final

Colourful club owner Bernard Tapie’s quest to mastermind the first French side to win the top cup seemed doomed. “CURSE” screamed the Onze Mondial editorial penned by Saint-Étienne legend turned journalist Jean-Michel Larque. "The curse continues in this competition. We still await the ‘switch’ to rid our players of this complex."

The 1991/92 campaign ended in an underwhelming second-round exit on away goals against Sparta Prague, but in the inaugural Champions League season Marseille marched onward. A battle-hardened, skilful squad reached the final unbeaten, scoring 24 goals and conceding just four in 10 continental games and squeezing out Walter Smith's Rangers in Group A.

No one admitted it in public, but this was their final chance. “It was last chance saloon for the project," says Philippe Auclair, biographer of Eric Cantona and Thierry Henry. "Not just some of the players, who were on the verge of quitting, but because people were starting to ask a lot of questions about the club’s methods. And Goethals was 72.”

L'OM owner Tapie was an uncompromising man on a mission. The smooth, photogenic businessman, who had taken over in 1986, had a simple philosophy towards dugout-dwellers: “They are coaches, not managers. I am the manager.”

Tapie burned through Gerard Gili, Franz Beckenbauer, Tomislav Ivic, Jean Fernandez and Goethals in his narcissistic drive to European dominion. When Beckenbauer, fresh from leading West Germany to Italia 90 glory, stood up to the opinionated president in front of the squad he was swiftly fired. “Tapie wanted to pick the players,” says Auclair, and "Beckenbauer wouldn’t accept that."

After the last-hurdle loss in 1991, reaching the 1993 final did nothing to lessen the pressure. “It was a massive event,” says Marc Beauge, chief editor of So Foot magazine and Marseille fan. "Tapie really needed the victory for his glory. France had never produced a European champion before."

Goethals knew how to deal with Tapie. It helped that the irascible president clearly needed the astute septuagenarian with the tactical brain unaffected by the industrial quantities of dye on his hair. The worldly, tranquil coach, who had guided Belgium to third place at Euro 72, was in his third stint as caretaker boss.

He replaced Beckenbauer in January 91 for four months, returned in October that year when Ivic was axed and finally in November 1992 for the ousted Fernandez. “How could I say no to Tapie? He seduces you, he’s all over you, doesn’t stop until you’re too tired to argue. Our relationship is exhausting but fun,” admitted the avuncular veteran, who died in 2004.

'The Wizard' knew the squad, wasn’t flustered by Tapie’s tomfoolery, and significantly, wasn’t scared of the mighty Milan. During his first spell the Italians were European Cup holders but OM knocked them out in the quarter-finals. “We deservedly beat them last time. I’ll beat them again then retire. This Milan aren’t mysterious: not much changes, whoever plays. Donadoni or Gullit, it’s all the same. We move the ball quicker than them and have a bit more in midfield,” said Goethals. He didn’t share everyone else’s anxieties, adding “this Munich match feels like it’ll be one to remember. I hope it’s a beautiful game.”

Goethals in 1993, surveying his dominion

Despite domestic supremacy and 10 consecutive wins (with only one goal conceded) on their march to the 1993 final, the Rossoneri were not in optimum condition. Capello’s unbending, zero-compromise style made the Terminator look capricious. The Diavoli had won the 91/92 Scudetto unbeaten, and to onlookers Milan were a finely-tuned, turbo-charged Bentley on an unstoppable pan-European journey, but there were problems under the bonnet.

“The players were beginning to feel tired from their European commitments,” noted journalist Arianna Forni in her authorised book Leggenda Milan. Marco van Basten was playing through acute ankle pain. The influence and stamina of Frank Rijkaard, once a graceful cocktail of strength, skill, know-how and big-match temperament, were waning.

Capello had fallen out with several players and was heading for a flashpoint of biblical proportions with Ruud Gullit. The No.10 was not the rampaging, indomitable force of yesteryear. At 30, the Black Tulip, as Italians called him, was picking up an increasing amount of injuries. The club didn’t think there was much mileage left in him. Difficult salary negotiations generated ill-feeling between directors and the 1987 Ballon d’Or winner.

Never short of self-confidence, Gullit declared himself fit enough to play some part in Germany. “It would be a nice compliment if they included me in the squad. It would show they believe I can make a difference in the game, even if I am not 100% fit. If I hadn’t shown I know how to fight, the club would have got rid of me a thousand times before. It would be ridiculous if my contract depended on this game."

Final destinationUnbeknown to outside observers, Milan’s preparation on the day of the final was rotten. “Over 35,000 Milan fans were livening up the city with their flags, songs and passion. But within the Rossoneri dressing room things were starting to go wrong,” said Forni.

“The first bad vibe came from Capello’s decision to exclude Gullit from the squad and send him to watch the game from the stand with barely a word of explanation. The Dutchman had been the perfect ‘Mr. Milan’ during Arrigo Sacchi’s era, but was forced to play no part in such an important final.”

Capello claimed he only wanted players who were “100% fit”, but contradicted himself by starting Van Basten with his wretched ankle. While Gullit simmered in the posh posh seats, Jean-Pierre Papin, signed from OM in the summer of 1992, was condemned to the bench despite a solid 16-goal season: another big name peeved before a ball was kicked on the lush Olympic Stadium turf.

At kick-off cameras showed a tense Tapie in the dignitaries’ box clutching a US cop show-style walkie-talkie. Who the head honcho was speaking to was a mystery, but in his mind he was probably crucial to the game.

Milan started well, and after six minutes the bustling Daniele Massaro plopped a header from Van Basten’s inviting right-sided cross just past Fabien Barthez’s far post. Ten minutes later, the same striker blasted a shot from a tight angle straight at Barthez. Barrel-chested Massaro was a hard-working team player, but Capello’s decision to pick him over unforgiving marksman Papin was looking dubious.

Massaro and Van Basten: Milan's misfiring hit squad

Alarmed by his team’s sleepy start, Goethals wandered along the touchline towards his defence to politely ask what was going on. A moustachioed Milan official in a smart blazer and tie followed the quirky Belgian, grabbed his arm and guided him back to his technical area and an unimpressed UEFA delegate. The comical tableau briefly punctured the tension.

An agitated Capello whistled at his men and gave instructions with irritated hand signals. He knew Marseille had weathered the storm. Ghanaian winger Abedi Pele – the “real artist of the team,” according to Beauge – was giving left-back Paolo Maldini problems with his pace and dribbling.

Three minutes before half-time the supersonic Pele, on the touchline 20 yards from goal, zoomed past Maldini. The Italian thoroughbred caught up and tackled his opponent. The ball went out off Pele but the linesman gave a corner, to the disgust of Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta. That oversight changed history.

Pele, panting from his race with a dazed Maldini, whipped a left-footed corner to the front of the six-yard box. Sandwiched between teammate Rudi Völler and Rijkaard, mountainous centre-back Basile Boli leapt to head across Milan keeper Sebastiano Rossi into the far corner. Behind the goal the fearsome, fanatical OM ultras erupted and waved their incongruously camp white pom-poms.

Boli celebrates his goal

The favourites were losing at the interval after dominating the first half but conceding from an erroneously-awarded corner. Dry-mouthed, anxious Milan fans in the crowd sensed their heroes were ill at ease and suffering the consequences of a long, arduous season.

The psychological cost of Capello’s weekly clashes with enigmatic trequartista Dejan Savicevic (axed from the final squad) and his ruthless treatment of Papin and Gullit were catching up with the team at the worst possible time. The fact OM were their bogey team increased the apprehension and apocalyptic gloom.

Their discomfort was well-placed. Early in the second half Capello withdrew Donadoni and threw on Papin. The cherub-faced muscle-man went straight up front and the profligate Massaro was shunted right to fill Donadoni’s space. But the efficiency wouldn't come: Papin slid a shot just past the post, then right-back Mauro Tassotti missed another chance.

The intensity took its toll on both coaches, who lost their cool in separate incidents, while the teams tired rapidly: Rijkaard and left-winger Gigi Lentini looked like they’d been playing for a thousand years. Milan took to launching the ball into the area – rarely a sign of a team with ideas – where Boli and Marcel Desailly easily repelled each desperate assault.

The coruscating Pele continued to torment Maldini and a spent Van Basten was substituted on 86 minutes, never to play football again. He was replaced by midfielder Stefano Eranio, Capello having already brought on Papin, the only striker among his five substitutes.

When Swiss referee Kurt Rothlisberger blew the final whistle, the entire contents of the Marseille bench stormed on to the field with Goethals trailing behind as fast as his 72-year-old legs could carry him. Boli’s first Champions League goal of the season was enough and France had its first European champion.

The beginning of the endFrance’s second city celebrated as if the world were about to end. The trophy was presented to fans at a frenzied Stade Velodrome. Man of the moment Boli dyed a patch in the shape of the European Cup in the back of his head and danced around, pumping his fists with the biggest grin on the Cote d’Azur.

Goethals and his merry men told the world how they’d slain the invincible Milan. “We always adopt the same tactic against them: zonal marking, pressing and above all the offside trap,” revealed the maestro, retiring in triumph.

"Without the offside trap Milan will kill you, because the secret of surviving the Milan cyclone is not allowing them near your goal. Van Basten, Lentini, Papin, Maldini, Massaro will destroy you if you let them overcome you in your area. We took a risk, defending 50 metres from our goalkeeper and counterattacking."

Capello was unforgiving. “We gifted them the final in the first half. We missed too many good chances: that’s the reality, ugly and sad. We had most of the play."

Pele said: “I won the Champions League because I was the best player on that day. To be the best among Van Basten and Rijkaard, you need to do something special. It was the greatest moment of my life.” The night before the final Boli’s wife sacrificed a lizard. “I did as I would have done in Senegal, it was to bring Basile luck,” said Genevieve Boli.

The salamander-slaughtering winger defied injury to seal victory. “My knee was killing me, I wanted to go off. I felt I wasnw’t giving my best, but the physio told me Tapie didn’t want me to go off,” said the hulking hero.

Goethals and pals lift the cup

One of the most unfamiliar, surreal sights was a distraught, traumatised Paolo Maldini. Years later the left-back admitted: “We met every type of team in those years. But Marseille weren’t a team that we dealt well with, as a team, or me personally. They gave me extreme difficulties.” In 2011 captain Baresi told Arianna Forni “we could have, should have and deserved to win but couldn’t do it. That is still one of my greatest regrets today.”

Gazzetta dello Sport's respected director Candido Cannavo blamed tiredness: “They were unrecognisable. The Milan of last winter would have crushed the French.” Others felt Lentini lacked the spark and agility of previous seasons due to his newly-gained muscle bulk. In Corriere della Sera, Cesare Fuimi savaged the declining Rijkaard.

“Milan’s play, so fresh and buzzing for the first quarter of an hour, became hindered by Rijkaard’s physical difficulties,” snapped Fiumi. "He was involved all the defensive errors of the first half, including Boli’s goal, when he mistimed his jump." But a different Dutchman dominated headlines over the following months.

Discarded and disgruntled, Gullit made up his mind to leave the four-time European champions, to jump before he was pushed. When Capello was quizzed after the match he responded with ferocious incredulity: “Gullit could have played? In the last month he’s only trained one and a half times.”

A few months before the final Milan had offered Gullit an annual salary of 3 billion lira (around £2.1m), which he had refused: “I’m not happy about it. I want the same money as Van Basten.” Berlusconi and his directors didn’t appreciate such behaviour, and pundits speculated whether Capello had been ‘encouraged’ to drop the Dutchman in Munich. After the final, Gullit incinerated his bridges. “I’m leaving. They want to force me to find another club. They made me an offensive offer.”

A loan to Sampdoria for a reported 1billion lira (about £700,000), with option to buy the player outright after a year, solved everyone’s problems. Capello was free to give more opportunities to the mercurial Savicevic and incisive, emerging Zvonimir Boban.

“I wanted a less stressful football environment,” said Gullit. "The atmosphere here at Samp is ideal, cheerful and quick to defuse dramas. At Milan you must win. Here you try to win, but it isn’t obligatory."

Top table to second tierMilan's spat with Gullit was dwarfed by Marseille’s unfolding problems. “Within French football OM’s dealings had been discussed for a long time,” says Auclair. Some of this was due to envy, but the Tapie era multiplied the whispers of nefarious methods. “Throughout the late 1980s there was talk of irregularities in club accounts,” continues Auclair. "There were also rumblings about European Cup games. There was lots of suspicion."

Six days before the final, Valenciennes player Christophe Robert claimed he and team-mates Jacques Glassman and Jorge Burruchaga had been offered money by Marseille midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie and managing director Jean-Pierre Bernes to play badly in their vital league meeting with OM.

Captain Glassman was the most perturbed by the scam. On the day of the match the skipper told his coach Boro Primorac. Valenciennes lost 1-0 and OM later won a fifth consecutive league title. But the first step towards bringing the champs to book had been taken: at half-time, Primorac informed the authorities of the approach.

Tapie at Valenciennes

In late June the story became public. Police dug up an envelope containing £25,000 in the garden of Robert’s aunt. The three Valenciennes men were formally placed under investigation for corruption. On Thursday July 1st, five weeks after the lifting the Champions League, 12 Marseille players, including Boli, were ordered in for police questioning. Tapie attempted to extricate himself from any involvement, blaming other club officials, journalists and conspiracies.

By September UEFA had seen enough. OM were banned from defending their European title and competing in the UEFA Super Cup. In April 1994 the French FA relegated the disgraced kings of Europe to the second division. Tapie and Bernes were banned from football for two years.

At the criminal trial in spring 1995, Bernes said “There was a bribery attempt on my part on Bernard Tapie’s orders with Jean-Jacques Eydelie as intermediary.” Tapie, the tanned, well-groomed showman who had delivered France its first European champion, was found guilty of bribery. He eventually went to jail.

“No one was surprised, but they were shocked,” says Auclair. The grubby machinations were far worse than anyone feared and Eydelie's 2006 autobiography brought fresh shame with allegations of doping: “Before the final we stood in a line to take an injection. Rudi Völler was the only one who made a fuss.” Various Marseille figures dispute Eydelie's version of events – Tapie sued unsuccessfully for libel, while Didier Deschamps threatened legal action – but the Tapie era is irrevocably tainted.

On the pitch, the post-Munich fall-out began straight after the victory. “No one felt this was the beginning of a new era,” says Auclair. Sharp-shooting box-to-box midfielder Franck Sauzee escaped the toxic mess via his pre-planned transfer to Atalanta in Italy. In 1994, Boli took his potent wares to Rangers.

The departure which had the biggest impact on European football was Marcel Desailly. In October 1993 the unbreakable, mobile centre-back joined Capello's Milan; deployed as a defensive midfielder, the footballing combination of Robocop and a marathon runner shone in the 1994 Champions League final, curling a splendid goal in a 4-0 demolition of Barcelona.

Rejuvenated by Desailly, inspired by the devilment and panache of Savicevic and the tactical acumen of a hungry Boban, Milan were unrecognisable from the previous year’s final. Their merciless execution of Cruyff’s Catalans illuminated Athens’ Olympic Stadium.

Meanwhile, Marseille faced relegation and a long road back, the ecstasy of Munich a distant memory. Perhaps Goethals was correct – the French had celebrated prematurely.

Sheridan Bird is a football writer whose work has appeared in various publications. You can follow him on Twitter @SheridanBird

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