Ribéry returns to Marseille with a point to prove to France

Franck Ribéry is coming home. Not to Boulogne-sur-Mer, the place where he grew up and is about to open a shisha bar called O’Shahiz with his brother and two brothers-in-law, but to Marseille.

As he walks out on the field at the Stade Vélodrome for the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday night, memories of the two intense years he spent there will flash before the Bayern Munich winger’s eyes. “Playing Marseille again will be special,” said Ribéry. “My relationship with the fans was magnificent. I was an idol.”

Ribéry hails from the same area in northern France as another club legend, Jean-Pierre Papin, and it wasn’t long after he signed for Marseille in 2005 that Ribéry was adopted by a group of supporters notorious for being hard to please.

A cheeky urchin, he could have been one of their own from down on the docks, shouting and swearing with the best of them. The scar on his face, a sad memento of a childhood car crash, may once have made him a figure of fun but now added a certain street appeal. 

Reunited with his former Metz mentor Jean Fernández, he had just walked out on Galatasaray after a payment dispute. Their loss, which was made all the more painful following Ribéryh’s performance in the Türkiye Kupasi final when he had scored one and set up another in a 5-1 thrashing of bitter rivals Fenerbahçe, was undoubtedly Marseille’s gain.

Pile-on! Ribéry in his Marseille pomp 

Ribéry had shown glimpses of his talent before in France with lower-league clubs Boulogne, Alès and Stade Brestois before Fernandéz game his a chance at Metz – but never on a stage like Marseille, where the hype and media attention is quite unlike any other club. It can distort the reality, but it was clear from the outset that Ribéry was the legitimate article.

Nicknamed FerraRibéry at Galatasaray, he got off to a flying start in Marseille. His first season there remains one of his finest ever, all blistering acceleration and Brazilian dribbles.

All of France sat up and took notice after the goal of the season against Nantes, a quickfire turn-and-shoot screamer from nearly 40 yards that swerved as it rose out of the goalkeeper’s reach, smacking a kiss on the bottom of the bar before bouncing down and crossing the line.  At that moment Ribéry became Le Phénomène.

He was the star of an underachieving Marseille team. They looked to him to give them a sense of direction. Club captain Fabien Barthez wore the armband, but it was Ribéry who shouldered the fans’ expectations. Only he, it seemed, could make the difference. The matchwinner became the unofficial leader.

Come the end of the season, Ribéry had inspired Marseille to a fifth-place finish. Regrettably they lost the Coupe de France final to rivals Paris Saint-Germain, but on a personal level he couldn’t consider his first campaign as anything other than a success.

Named Young Player of the Year, he received a call-up from Raymond Domenech to represent France at the 2006 World Cup. He proved one of the tournament’s revelations and although les Bleus lost the final to Italy on penalties, Ribéry was anointed as the retiring Zinedine Zidane’s successor and with that title came the interest of Europe’s biggest clubs.

His head was turned. Arsenal were mentioned, as were Real Madrid. Ribéry said: “My wish is to leave Marseille. I’d like to leave because I want to win other things. I’d like to play in the Champions League. I want to keep evolving. I want to have great players around me. It’s important for me.”

He flirted openly with Lyon, the Ligue 1 champions, an affair that ended with their owner Jean-Michel Aulas defending himself from allegations of tapping up.

In the end, Ribéry decided to stay; all was forgiven because he offered the prospect of leading Marseille to their first league championship since 1992. But it wasn’t to be: a groin injury, then a fractured metatarsal, meant that he was missing from the action all too often. He lacked consistency and couldn’t get into a rhythm.

Marseille, bolstered by Djibril Cissé and the emergence of Ribéry’s ‘little brother’ Samir Nasri, finished the season as runners-up, 17 points behind Lyon. For a second year running they came up just short in the Coupe de France final too, Ronald Zubar’s miss in a penalty shoot-out against Sochaux prolonging a trophy drought dating back to the 1993 Champions League win.

Front-runners: Ribéry with Djibril Cissé

Unconvinced that Marseille could match his ambition any time soon, Ribéry left in summer 2007. He was careful not to betray his supporters, choosing to leave not for Lyon but for Bayern Munich in a transfer worth £22m that would be reinvested to strengthen the team. They couldn’t begrudge him for it.

“Franck is a player that we helped bring to light and it’s with a heavy heart that we see him go today,” said Marseille president Pape Diouf. “When a player of his stature departs, it leaves a void.”

As was the case with Didier Drogba, the time Ribéry spent with Marseille was short but sweet: it stayed with them. Before an emotional return to the Vélodrome with Chelsea for a Champions League group stage match last season, Drogba recalled how difficult it was to wrest himself away from Marseille.

“I was really down,” said the Ivorian. "I went to the dressing room on my own for the last time and then I broke down. I cried and cried. I went out on the pitch for the last time and, again, I broke down in tears. All my emotion flowed out of me.”

While sentimental, Ribéry perhaps doesn’t share as strong a bond with Marseille as Drogba. To him, the club was a stepping-stone to bigger and better things, not a rock on which he’d have quite happily built a castle and lived forever.

Yet his popularity in France has arguably never been as high as it was than in the summer of 2006. Since then, injuries, an unsavoury scandal, plus the perception that he bullied the teacher’s pet Yoann Gourcuff and was one of the ringleaders of the strike at the 2010 World Cup have taken a lot of the shine off his reputation back home.

Ribéry is the best-paid French player, with an annual salary worth £9.7m. Few Bayern fans question whether he’s worth it, not on the back of this season’s virtuoso performances. But in France, it’s a different story. He has repeatedly let his country down, failing to fulfil the promise he showed in his first handful of caps and to replicate his club form.

In the 57 appearances he has made for France since the 2006 World Cup, Ribéry has scored only seven goals and laid on nine assists for his teammates – hardly anonymous, but a disappointing return when one considers that many hoped he’d effortlessly pick up the baton from Zidane.

Signing for Bayern: is club eclipsing country?

Against Germany last month, a friendly that many thought was designed for him to shine in, he flopped even though France unexpectedly won 2-1 in Bremen. “You all know his career and the difficulties he has been through in the last two years,” Laurent Blanc told reporters.

“He is capable of finding his level again in the national team," insists the national manager. "It’s for that reason that we persist with him because he is one of those rare players who is able to unlock defences. For the moment, he has not given what he is capable of.”

With that in mind, Wednesday’s match at the Vélodrome takes on a greater significance. It’s another opportunity for Ribéry to redeem himself in front of his compatriots. He is playing some of the best football of his life and has 14 goals and 15 assists for Bayern this season.

Confidence is high and there are several good reasons to believe in victory. Bayern have won five on the bounce, including a 20-goal spree over three games in a week. Meanwhile, Marseille are on a run of seven straight defeats and will be without first choice goalkeeper Steve Mandanda as well as centre-back Souleymane Diawara. The timing and the setting couldn't be any better.

THE FUNDESLIGA, Wed 21 Mar: Resurgent Bayern face biggest test yet at glorious Gladbach

Will Ribéry rise to the occasion? He missed Bayern’s last visit to France, when they knocked out Lyon to reach the 2010 Champions League final, after receiving a red card in the first leg. Whether he keeps his head or not remains to be seen. The mind games might have already begun. 

“It’ll be special,” insisted Marseille coach Didier Deschamps. “On a psychological level, it won’t be easy [for Ribéry]. I know about it [as I played against my old team] with Chelsea. I was terrible. My coach took me off after about an hour…”

If an ex-player formerly known as the ‘water carrier’ once bottled it, then Ribéry might need a stiff drink to settle himself before kick-off. France is watching.

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