A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
For the people of Marseille, Wednesday night was arguably the longest in 18 years.
It started at exactly 7:50pm just over 330km to the north where Champions League chasing Lyon were playing host to second-placed Auxerre at the Stade Gerland.
Auxerre had taken the lead 20 minutes earlier thanks to a strike from the opportunistic former contraband-running Pole, Ireneusz Jelen, and the game was as good as won.
Or so the French Connection thought, as Auxerre hadn’t lost any of the other nine games this season in which Jelen had found the net.
However, Lyon were reading from an entirely different script altogether, perhaps a French-dubbed Diehard, as just before half-time, their full-back Aly Cissokho won a penalty, which Lisandro López comfortably dispatched to level the score at 1-1.
Back down south, Marseille fans were filtering into the Stade Vélodrome ahead of their team’s match against Rennes at 9:00pm with pocket radios clutched to their ears like mobile phones from the 1980s.
The conversation was one-way. If Auxerre lost, which they surely wouldn’t now that Jelen had scored, Marseille could win the title for the first time since 1992 when Didier Deschamps, their current coach, was captain.
A cry of ‘Allez l’OM’ came over the loudspeaker and the fans started their work early, running through a number of Andrew Lloyd-Webber inspired voice exercises that just might have included gargling copious bottles of Evian to loosen up their vocal chords.
Sébastien, a Marseille supporter, told L’Équipe: “It was bizarre, but we had to support Lyonnais.”
No doubt inspired by the 12th man residing in the Vélodrome and not the Gerland, the Lyonnais didn’t disappoint. Miralem Pjanic scored their second, a penalty, at 8:40pm to make it 2-1, and the Bosnian’s timing was perfect.
Auxerre were beaten and with 20 minutes still to go until kick-off Deschamps knew he couldn’t keep it from his players. There was no need for a motivational speech. Marseille’s players would each receive a €330,000 bonus if they won the title. Deschamps apparently just said: “Go play.”
And that’s just what they did, winning 3-1 with goals from Mamadou Niang and two of their key summer signings Lucho González and Gabi Heinze.
The wait was finally over. The word ‘deliverance’ was on everyone’s lips. Even the rain and blustery conditions couldn’t dampen what this meant to Marseille.
Flares were lit, fireworks let off and clothes shed as fans headed for the sea in search of a celebratory dip to wash off anything that remained of those 18 title-less years.
Souleymane Diawara danced with his ‘cousin’ Mamade; Didier Drogba sent several texts from London entitled: ‘We are the Champions’; and Mathieu Valbuena, Marseille’s pint-sized winger armed with a bottle of champagne, took a leaf out of Tottenham’s book, only he chose not to soak his manager, but the journalists feverishly typing up their copy in the post-match press conference.
Deschamps kept his restraint but allowed himself a modest little fist pump. “I didn’t want to dance on the table,” he said. “I am a bad dancer.”
His players then left for a local nightclub called Mistral where Heinze demanded that the DJ play the Gypsy Kings on repeat. But ultimately the party took its cue from America’s finest hip-hop artists as Marseille didn’t stop `till six in the morning. Snoop would have been proud.
“I got up at 7:00am for the kids, but I didn’t feel like driving them to school,” recalled a groggy-looking Édouard Cissé. “I left the car to my wife…” His team-mates Steve Mandanda and Niang even trained in sunglasses to hide the bags under their eyes.
So when the hangovers subsided, how was Marseille’s title received elsewhere in France? Speaking after Wednesday’s 3-1 defeat, Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti said: “Marseille are not the same champions as Bordeaux were, Blanc’s side played better football. Marseille are a more Italian-style champion.”
Thursday’s edition of France Football also felt inclined to ask: Are Marseille great champions? Deschamps’ leadership qualities were hailed and rightly so, but it was Jean Fernandez, the Auxerre manager, who was named Ligue 1 Coach of the Year on Sunday.
Marseille weren’t even the best-represented club when the Team of the Year was unveiled; that recognition went to Bordeaux whose spectacular fall from grace – they were once 12 points ahead of Marseille - is credited with being a major contributor to OM’s ninth League title.
L’Équipe vowed to reserve judgment until next season’s Champions League, picking up on the fact that Marseille couldn’t get out of the group stages this year and only grabbed Ligue 1 by the horns when they were knocked out of the Europa League in March, proving that they don’t have a good enough squad at the moment to compete on the continent.
OM look as if they will be joined in the Champions League next season by Lille, who were also their opponents on Saturday. Deschamps’ side looked weary, but still went in at half-time 2-1 up despite having Mandanda sent off.
They held out until the final 10 minutes when Tulio De Melo equalised for Lille and Mathieu Debuchy headed in an injury time winner.
Rudi Garcia’s side are now second going into the final weekend of the season, two points ahead of Auxerre who drew at home to Lens. They can still be caught by Lyon, who were lucky to get a point away to Valenciennes on Saturday.
OL were trailing 2-1 when Dianbobo Baldé who had come on to shore things up for les Athéniens ironically scored an equalising own goal for the visitors.
Lyon are now four points back from Lille, but they have a game in hand at home to Monaco on Wednesday, before Ligue 2-bound Le Mans travel to the Gerland three days later.
Elsewhere on L’Hexagone, sixth-placed Bordeaux saw their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League disappear despite recording a 2-0 win over Sochaux at the Chaban Delmas. Laurent Blanc’s side can still make the Europa League if they defeat Lens next weekend and Paris-Saint German do them the favour of beating Montpellier.
Marouane Chamakh was in tears as he played his last home game before before moving to Arsenal later this month.
The Emirates-bound Morocco international said: “There have been ups and downs for the club, but I’ve always had complete support here. All my family and friends were here and whatever happens, Bordeaux will stay close to my heart.” The French Connection salutes him.
RESULTS Sat May 8 Lille 3-2 Marseille, Auxerre 0-0 Lens, Valenciennes 2-2 Lyon, Montpellier 2-1 Lorient, Bordeaux 2-0 Sochaux, Rennes 2-2 Nice, Monaco 2-1 Nancy, Le Mans 1-0 PSG, Saint-Étienne 0-1 Toulouse, Grenoble 2-0 Boulogne.
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