I had never been to Marseilles, but the first time I got lost in the city's maddeningly illogical streets, I was overcome by a powerful dèjà vu. Rather than being disoriented or worried, I found the place oddly comforting and familiar. Then it hit me—here was the closest thing to the Brooklyn of my youth I had ever seen.
While the feel of this port city, France's second largest urban center, is unequivocally Mediterranean, Marseilles's spirit and personality are a loud bouillabaisse. Its volatile inhabitants are viewed by some of their fellow Frenchmen as excessively pushy, passionate and unpleasant. In addition, a native of Marseilles has an unmistakable regional accent that is every bit as distinctive as Brooklynese. Unlike other Frenchmen, Marseillais often add an un-Gallic final e sound to words. Thus foot, the French slang word for soccer, is pronounced foot-eh on the streets of Marseilles. While some think this twist is charming, others find the accent more irritating than fingernails on slate.
However foot is pronounced, nowhere in France does it mean as much as it does in Marseilles, where the fans live and die with the fortunes of their team more intensely than any other fans in the country. This, too, seemed very much like the Brooklyn of my youth.
The city's professional soccer team, Olympique, has been in a state of decline for more than a decade. In the early 1970s, Olympique of Marseilles was always prominent in the French National League standings. It' was the scourge of visiting teams. Then came the demise, which gave Marseilles-haters great joy. Around Marseilles, Olympique's malaise became a symbol of the things that had gone wrong in this once cocky town—from an ever-burgeoning criminal influence to one of the highest unemployment rates in France.
As the 1986 season ended last spring, Olympique was so inept that it was almost dropped from the league's first division. Citizens considered the situation intolerable and called for a sweeping change in the team's management. The first step was the introduction of a dynamic new club president, who is known as—ta da!—Zorro. Yes, Zorro is what the French media, with a peculiar mixture of admiration and mockery, have taken to calling Bernard Tapie, an engaging entrepreneur who in the last several years has dramatically reversed the decline of some of the country's most highly visible businesses. Tapie doesn't slash a Z in the dastard's flesh; he simply stanches red ink with black.
His daring rescues include the second-largest French-owned battery producer, France's biggest bathroom scale manufacturer and an haute couture clothing company. Tapie's management also saved Look, a maker of ski bindings and bicycle parts, and a chain of health food stores. The latter, La Vie Claire, also sponsors Tapie's cycling team, which has featured the last two Tour de France champions, Bernard Hinault and American Greg LeMond.
Tapie, 42, is no shrinking violet. His autobiography, Gagner (Winning), was a best-seller in France last year. A record, Rèussir sa Vie (Success in Life), he recorded last year—oh yes, he's a singer, too—sold 80,000 copies. His TV variety show, Ambition, which is broadcast five times a year, launches some young person with a marketable idea right into business. Tapie also plays the violin superbly and flies his own Falcon 20 jet. He is handsome, charming, talented, glib, rich, resourceful and, most important, daring. Still, no one thought that even he could turn around hapless Olympique of Marseilles—no one, that is, except Tapie himself.
"This is a perfectly fine city with good people," says the native of a Paris suburb. "Its problems are always exaggerated in France. In fact Marseilles has less of a drug problem than Paris. I didn't become president of this team to make money. I have no financial interest in the club. I came to prove a point, which is, if something has a chance to succeed and is worthwhile for the people, you try it. Making a successful team is not so different from doing the same with other businesses. And Marseilles," he adds with a sly smile, "was the only team that wanted what I could bring to it."
What precisely did Tapie have to offer if not his hard cash? He brought more national media attention than Olympique had ever had. He brought better management and inventive marketing. When Olympique plays at home now, a star pop singer or rock group performs after the game. Tapie has also brought a sponsor, a nationwide builder of private residences, with a walletful of francs to buy top players capable of making the team competitive right away. Finally, Zorro hired Michel Hidalgo, one of the finest strategists and evaluators of talent in the sport. Since taking over as general manager last year, Hidalgo has made wholesale changes. He cut loose most of last season's ne'er-do-well starters and replaced them with a combination of proven stars and promising youngsters.
Like his boss, Hidalgo seems to have the Midas touch. In 1980 he was appointed coach of a French national team that hadn't been considered a serious threat in international competition for years. His credentials as a miracle worker were established when the team came within a hairbreadth of making it to the World Cup finals in '82 and won the European Championship in '84.
Hidalgo and Tapie have brought to Marseilles three key players with international experience—defenseman Kaarl Foerster from West Germany, and midfielders Blaze Sliskovvik (Yugoslavia) and Alain Giresse (France). The stars' acquisition immediately aroused expectations in town. "Marseilles is Marseilles," Hidalgo says. "So what can be done? Here there are hopes for victory that are greater than anywhere else, and very unreasonable. You simply cannot fashion a championship team in a single year. I will be very content if we finish in sixth place." (Division I has 20 teams.)
Tapie believes the club's fortunes can be reversed more quickly. "In this city the market is basically sound, and soccer is a product they want," he says. "We have to do only two things: give the fans excellent soccer and the promise of an exciting evening at the stadium whether we win or lose. Of course, on the field bad judgment by the referee or a lapse from a player can lose a game or two. But to me the future is certain: In three years Marseilles will win the championship once again, and this year we will finish no worse than third." Indeed, as the season was drawing to a close, Olympique was locked in a battle for first place.
The ambiance at Marseilles's Velodrome Stadium has also improved, so much, in fact, that the league's players no longer equate games there with a trip to Devil's Island. These days, Olympique occasionally throws a postgame champagne and canapè party for both home and visiting players as well as their families and the press.
About the only thing that hasn't changed is the local enthusiasm. Seeing an Olympique home game this year before a full house of 50,000 made Ebbets Field of the old days pale by comparison. Hundreds of oversized blue-and-white flags were waved in a manner that can only be called ominous. At the same time, spontaneous, vaguely organized chants built to a frenzy. The Wave in Marseilles is called la Ola (a term picked up during last year's Mexico World Cup) and is more vigorous and lasts longer than any American crowd ever intended.
Zorro certainly understands what is at stake. During the two-month midseason winter break, with his team tied for first, he said, "It is certainly possible that we can start to lose. That is the whole point of sport: There is no guarantee. That is its appeal and why it is so much like life. It is easy to be a gracious winner. What really counts is how you respond when you lose. That is a lesson I wish more of my countrymen understood. If you fall and crack on the floor like an egg, then you have lost absolutely. Our success here will be measured in the end by what happens if we lose three games in a row. If 10,000 show up for the next game, we have failed. If they all still come, we've been victorious."
Spoken like a true never-say-die entrepreneur. And spoken perhaps like a future Prèsident de la Rèpublique. There has been a great deal of speculation that Tapie ventured to Marseilles to test his lofty political aspirations. The logic is: If you can make it in Marseilles, the Élysèe Palace will be a piece of cake. Naturally, he will not confirm the rumors, but it's no secret that he would love to apply his unique combination of energy and entrepreneurial expertise to France's troubled economy. Thus far, at least, neither Tapie nor Olympique has "cracked on the floor like an egg."
If they ever did, chances are that he would start marketing the mess as a fancy omelet.
In the front row, ex-mayor Gaston Deferre, Tapie and Hidalgo root for the home team.
Tapie's cycling team featured the last two Tour de France champions, Hinault (left) and LeMond.
Sam Toperoff is a free-lance writer who divides his time between New York and France.