PARIS, May 6 – Marseille's title success on Wednesday restored the Mediterranean giants to the pinnacle of French football and drew a line under almost two decades of scandal, heartbreak and underachievement.
Since becoming the first French side to win the Champions League in 1993, the south coast side have lurched from one disaster to the next.
Stripped of the French title they won that year amid bribery claims that also saw them relegated to the second tier, the road to redemption has been a long and arduous one for their legions of fans.
Traditionally the most well-supported club in France, Marseille had only a handful of league titles and French Cups to their name when businessman Bernard Tapie took over the club in 1986.
The charismatic Parisian pledged to turn OM into the greatest team in French history and he set about his task by attracting a glut of international talent including Alain Giresse and Jean-Pierre Papin to the club.
Success was almost instantaneous. Marseille secured the league and French Cup double in 1988-89 and held onto the French crown for the next four seasons.
Homegrown prospects included goalkeeper Fabien Barthez while defender Marcel Desailly and midfielder Didier Deschamps were lured away from Nantes and in 1993 Marseille scaled the summit of European football.
Having seen off Rangers, Club Brugge and CSKA Moscow, a 44th-minute header from centre-back Basile Boli brought them a historic 1-0 victory over AC Milan in the inaugural Champions League final at Munich’s Olympic Stadium.
France rejoiced in Marseille’s status as European champions but the elation was short-lived.
OM were found guilty of attempting to bribe opponents Valenciennes ahead of a crucial league game in 1993 and were subsequently stripped of that year’s league title, as well as being denied the right to defend their Champions League crown.
The scandal saw the club demoted to the Second Division in 1994 and with Tapie departing under a cloud, Adidas owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus swept into the Stade Velodrome hotseat in 1996.
Louis-Dreyfus adopted a similar recruitment strategy to his predecessor, but despite the arrival of stars including France centre-back Laurent Blanc and Italy striker Fabrizio Ravanelli, the trophy cabinet remained bare.
After returning to the top flight in 1996, Marseille finished runners-up to Bordeaux by a single point in the 1998-99 season and were beaten 3-0 by Parma in the UEFA Cup final.
Near-misses were to become a recurrent theme in the years that followed.
The club lost to Valencia in the 2004 UEFA Cup final, were beaten by fierce rivals Paris Saint-Germain in the 2006 French Cup final and, having returned to the Stade de France the year after, suffered a heart-breaking defeat on penalties to Sochaux.
Modern stars including Didier Drogba, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri all passed through Marseille without winning a single title.
The hex looked destined to end under Eric Gerets last season as Marseille led the table with three games to play but a 3-1 defeat at home to Lyon allowed Bordeaux to sneak up on the rails and overhaul them.
Deschamps returned to the club as manager last summer and, having injected a new steeliness into the team, he saw OM’s 17-year wait for silverware end in March when Bordeaux were beaten in the League Cup final.
Now French champions once again, the fans who pack out the 60,000-seater Velodrome on a regular basis will pray they don’t have to wait as long for the next trophy.
The Argentine international playmaker arrived from FC Porto last summer in a club-record deal that could eventually cost Marseille 24 million euros but missed the first six weeks of the campaign after breaking his collarbone in a pre-season friendly. A series of short-term injuries hampered his integration into the first team but since the winter break he has been the driving force behind Marseille’s title push. Having rediscovered his superb passing range, Lucho leads the French league assists chart and his set-piece delivery has proved a potent weapon in recent weeks but he will be chiefly remembered now by Marseille fans as the player who got the third and title clinching goal in Wednesday’s victory.
Club captain Niang has produced arguably his most consistent season at the Stade Velodrome since he arrived from Strasbourg in 2005. Operating as either a central striker or a wide forward on the left-hand side, the Senegal international is Marseille’s top scorer with 16 and notched his first hat-trick in OM colours in the 3-1 defeat of Nancy in February and the icing on the cake came when he scored Marseille’s second on Wednesday to restore their one goal lead.
Frozen out of the team in the first half of the season, creative midfielder Valbuena gave vent to his frustrations during the winter break and looked to be on the verge of leaving the club. Coach Didier Deschamps refused to lose patience with him though and when Valbuena got back into the side he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, scoring and making a goal in the 3-1 League Cup final win over Bordeaux and notching crucial strikes in league victories against Boulogne-sur-Mer and Saint-Etienne.
Signed from Rennes to add steel to Marseille’s midfield, the Cameroon star found himself re-aligned in the centre of defence as Deschamps sought to address his team’s defensive failings over the first half of the season. Mbia has publicly expressed displeasure at being made to play in defence but his athletic performances alongside fellow pre-season signing Souleymane Diawara have turned Marseille into one of the league’s most defensively imposing sides.
The 32-year-old former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder arrived to little fanfare from Turkish side Besiktas last July, but became one of the most vital cogs in the Marseille title machine. Cisse has profited from Mbia’s positional shift to establish himself as a strong, authoritative presence in front of the defence.