Marseille vs PSG: France's bitter and violent north-south divide laid bare

The relatively recent emergence of the OM-PSG fixture hasn't stopped it becoming the most violent clash of the year, as Graham Berger discovered for the June 2003 FourFourTwo magazine...

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Midway through Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere at the Cafe de l’OM is heating up. Again the chant goes up, reverberating around this small brasserie, situated on the banks of Marseille’s Old Port. “Luis, we’re going kill you,” the Marseille fans spit, “and your whore of a mother!”

Paris Saint-Germain coach Luis Fernandez is not, it is safe to say, the most popular man in these parts. A former PSG player, it was his response to his team’s winning goal in a recent cup match against Olympique Marseille – running on to the Parc des Princes pitch and performing an elaborate salsa dance – that really continued his position as a figure of hate for OM’s fanatical support.

“What Fernandez did was a disgrace,” explains a small bespectacled man with blue-and-white dyed hair. “He spent the entire game insulting our players, then danced like a deranged idiot in front of our dugout and our supporters.” The pot-bellied Marseillais looks me in the eye. “If he tries anything like that tonight,” he warns, “I swear he will be killed.”

Southern pride

It’s an hour before kick-off and the impressive Stade Velodrome is already packed close to its 60,000 capacity. Away in the corner, the travelling Parisians are making their presence felt, firing a volley of red flares over the protective netting and onto the raging Marseille fans. Hundreds of Marseillais in the Virage Noni respond by surging towards the metal fence that separates them from the boisterous PSG fans.

The home crowd’s mood becomes blacker when stewards insist on removing their enormous banner running the length of the Virage Sud and reading: Luis, ta place est à l’asile (Luis, you belong in a mental home).

Luis Fernandez PSG

PSG coach Fernandez wasn't a popular man down south

As a larger security presence is urgently radioed in, it seems only a matter of time before war breaks out. Or rather civil war. This weekend has been built up as the big one for the neglected French city of Marseille; the day when, for once, the nation’s attention will be fixed not on Paris but on the South.

Last night, local boxer Mehdi Sahnoune beat Bruno Girard to win the WBA light heavyweight title in Marseille’ s Palais des Sports before whipping the fans into a frenzy by declaring: “I’ve done my part, now let’s get behind OM tomorrow and show the rest of France what Marseille is all about!”

As a larger security presence is urgently radioed in, it seems only a matter of time before war breaks out

The city’s footballers go into France’s ‘match of the year’ as clear favourites. Joint top of the league, they have not lost at home for 15 months and boast an unbeaten record against arch-rivals PSG at the Stade Velodrome that stretches back 15 years.

PSG, in contrast, are a club in disarray. Booed by their own fans throughout the first half of their previous game against Troyes, they are experiencing another one of their seasons of underachievement. Few give Luis Fernandez and his team a hope of returning from the Velodrome with their pride intact.

Pivotal point

This is Marseille’s big chance and not just to put one over their haughty Parisian rivals. The previous night, co-leaders Monaco lost to Bordeaux. A win, or even a draw, and Marseille will be top.

It's Kylie Minogue's first ever football match. Two Marseille fans drop their trousers and moon up towards her

As the PSG players come out to warm up, the stadium explodes into a chorus of whistles, whistles that continue, albeit with a different tone, when Kylie Minogue is spotted lowering her coveted derriere onto a seat in the main stand.

This, it later emerges, is the Aussie singer’s first ever football match. And she must be wondering what she has let herself in for when two Marseille fans drop their trousers and moon up towards her, but, flanked by her actor boyfriend Olivier Martinez and former Marseille hard man Basile Boli, she probably feels safer than most in the stadium.

Marseille fans

Marseille fans are notoriously passionate

Just before kick-off, Fernandez emerges from the tunnel and makes for the dugout as the noise is cranked up another level. With three police bodyguards glued to his sides, each clutching a large umbrella, the coach makes his way along the touchline unharmed as objects rain down from the stands, bouncing off the makeshift shields.

The public address system bangs out that old footy favourite We Will Rock You, the two teams emerge and the four stands of the Velodrome turn into a sea of blue and white. The people of Marseille are ready; ready to enjoy their biggest party since OM won the European Cup in 1993.

Recent history

The rivalry between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille did not begin until the late 1980s. Before then PSG, who were only founded in 1970, rarely had a team capable of matching Marseille, traditionally a giant of the French game.

Formed in 1899, Marseille have been competing for trophies for most of their history and, for the first 87 years at least, were more concerned about games against Saint-Etienne or Bordeaux than trips to the capital.

Nevertheless, the potential for a North vs South rivalry was always there and when PSG claimed their first championship under Gerard Houllier in 1986, it finally emerged.

Gerard Houllier

Houllier brought PSG their first league title

Under the surface there had always been an antagonism between people from Provence and Parisians

- Laurent Perrin, Le Parisien newspaper

“Under the surface there had always been an antagonism between people from Provence and Parisians,” explains Laurent Perrin, football writer for Le Parisien newspaper.

“In France everything is centralised around the capital much more so than in other countries and the people of Marseille don’t like it. Football was the one thing that the Marseillais had over the Parisians, so when PSG started to win things, it didn’t go down well in the south.”

Shortly after PSG’s title success, two things happened that would shape the rivalry for years to come. First, Bernard Tapie, a socialist politician and adviser to the French president Francois Mitterand, was elected president of Olympique de Marseille. Second, Canal Plus, the biggest pay television station in France, bought PSG.

NEXT: Tapie vs Paris