Marseille and Sampaoli: A match made in heaven or hell?

Daniel McCabe

Marseille is one of France’s biggest and best supported clubs. It has a rich history embedded in the heart of the working-class city. However, Les Olympiens are more associated with turmoil and scandal than trophies and success.

From a match-fixing scandal that put the club’s 1993 Champions League & Ligue 1 double season into disrepute to their notoriously fanatical supporters storming the first teams training ground earlier this year, chaos is only ever around the corner at Marseille.

The storming of La Commanderie by over 300 fans resulted in ‘several hundred thousands of euros’ worth of damage along with prison time for four influential supporter group leaders. Fans were calling for the resignation of the maligned president Jacques-Henri Eyraud, a Parisian accused of having minimal knowledge of the game. However, just days later, it was manager Andre Villas-Boas who had left his post. Villas-Boas offered his resignation after feeling the club hierarchy had undermined him by bringing Celtic midfielder Olivier Ntcham to Marseille on-loan without his approval.

After a nasty divorce with Villas-Boas, and Eyraud demoted, Marseille head-hunted Jorge Sampaoli. A disciple of former Marseille coach and current Leeds boss, Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa, Sampaoli’s style is as full throttle as Bielsa’s but as sensible and controlling as Pep Guardiola’s.

Sampaoli’s unreserved passion for the game will endear him to Marseille’s ardent fanbase.

Whilst managing an amateur team in Santa Fe, Sampaoli was ejected from the ground for accosting the referee. Tenaciously, Sampaoli climbed a tree that overlooked the pitch and continued to clamour commands to his players.

However, his passion can sometimes get the better of him. In his final game with Athlético Mineiro before joining Marseilles, Sampaoli was sent off for, again, abusing a match official.

Sampaoli is a man that wears his heart on his sleeve and is no stranger to scandal himself, much like his current employers. The aforementioned tendency to speak his mind to match officials and media, as well as false accusations of sexual misconduct before he led his home country to the 2018 World Cup, means that Marseille may have found their match when it comes to chaos.

Sampaoli’s ability to invigorate on and off the pitch means he may be a perfect fit for Marseille at the moment. Last season under Villas-Boas, Marseille were on an upward trajectory until the season was cut short due to the pandemic. When football returned with no fans, performances became flat and uninspired, with Marseille potentially feeling the effects of an empty stadium more than others in the league.

Although Sampaoli and Marseille’s fans won’t meet at the Stade Vélodrome until next season, he has already shown fans his understanding of the club. In his first press conference, the Argentine said: “Marseille is a people’s club, and I feel myself in this heat. We’re not here to hide we’re going to play hard.”

Results took an initial bounce under Sampaoli, with back-to-back wins in his first two games; however, a 3-0 away loss to 15th place Nice just before this international break has put Sampaoli’s feet firmly back on the ground.

With that considered, and with the Argentine man and the Côte d’Azur club sharing a penchant for pandemonium, this marriage has the potential to be a combustible one. Although the club has had a shakeup in its hierarchy, there remains instability at the boardroom level.

Couple this with Sampaoli’s infamous stubbornness with his tactics and playing squad, volatility may creep into his dressing room too. It is not outlandish to predict a repeat of the incident at the 2018 World Cup, where senior Argentina players demanded Sampaoli to be sacked before the final group game as he would not change his tactics to get the best out of superstar Lionel Messi. In a Marseille squad with personalities such as Dmitri Payet & Florian Thauvin, a rerun of Russia 2018 is not outside the realms of possibilities.

Sampaoli has shown in his first three games that he can rejuvenate a flat Marseille team and may salvage something from this season by securing a spot in the inaugural Europa Conference League by finishing fifth, although the table is tight above and below them.

With the volatility of Marseille as a club and Sampaoli as a person, it is hard to see this alliance ending in anything but tears; however, only time will tell.


Daniel McCabe

Image Credit: AP Photo