Ahead of becoming the first side from the top-flight Ligue 1 in France to appear at the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens, Olympique Marseille have reinvigorated their commitment to youth development, with their trip to Hong Kong Football Club a key part of that progress.
It is arguably the most surreal match ever played in France’s top flight, certainly in its recent history.
On the 5th of March 2006, Olympique Marseille travelled to the capital to take on Paris Saint-Germain, their fiercest rivals, at the Parc des Princes. It was a vital game to both sides’ prospects of European qualification. Marseille were hoping to do the double over PSG for the first time in six seasons having won the reverse fixture at the Stade Velodrome the previous October thanks to a solitary Lorik Cana goal against his old club.
But a row over the number of tickets given to travelling fans led Marseille president Pape Diouf to make the decision to send a reserve team to play in the game in protest. The likes of Fabien Barthez, Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Mamadou Niang were left behind. Eight of those who turned out for the visitors that day in the hostile environment of the Parc des Princes were making their debuts for the first team, five of them teenagers and two aged just 20. Another, captain for the day Alain Cantareil, made his first start at the age of 22.
Remarkably they escaped with a draw, and Les Minots, or ‘little boys’ in Provence, were even applauded by some sections of the PSG supporters.
“Our train started to rock as we pulled into Saint-Charles station, there were so many supporters waiting for us, singing, brandishing flares. The atmosphere was amazing,” recalled Alexis Pradie, who made his debut aged 19. “It was as if we had won the league. It is an extraordinary memory.”
It could have been the start of a promising professional career for these youngsters, but six of them never played for the first team again. Mohamed Dennoun, who was 19 at the time, appeared just once more in a Marseille shirt. Only Garry Bocaly, who made four appearances during the 2009-10 Ligue 1 title-winning campaign and was a regular in the Montpellier side that was crowned champions against all odds in 2012, went on to enjoy real success at the top level. He retired last year aged 28, injuries and health problems having taken their toll.
Marseille are France’s most successful club, and the only French side to have won the UEFA Champions League, thanks to their victory over AC Milan in the 1993 final. They have a huge support all across the country and a stunning stadium with a capacity of more than 65,000, the largest in Ligue 1.
But the issue of youth development has long been something of an elephant in the room at Marseille. So many great players have come from Marseille – Eric Cantona hails from there while Zinedine Zidane is from the Castellane estate in the volatile north of the city – but they have more often than not gone elsewhere to start their careers.
After Nasri – like Zidane, born and raised in Marseille in a family of Algerian origin – was sold to Arsenal in 2008, Marseille spent almost a decade waiting for another local boy to emerge from their youth academy and make it in the first team. Then, in August 2016 coach Franck Passi sent on little Maxime Lopez, aged 18 and weighing in at just 58kg, for the final half hour of a league defeat at Guingamp. When Rudi Garcia was appointed as coach last October, Lopez was quickly installed as a regular in the midfield and Marseille finally had another local lad starring at top team level.
“He is a child from the area, and we don’t have many of them. It sends out a message to all the kids in the area, that it is possible,” said club president Jacques-Henri Eyraud of Lopez, whose physique and way of playing have led to comparisons with Xavi Hernandez and who has gone on to sign a lucrative new deal through to 2021.
Before Lopez only a handful of youngsters had graduated from the academy to the first team in recent years, but all had only managed a few appearances before dropping down a level to get regular football.
Another who departed was Bilal Boutobba. Handed his first-team debut by Marcelo Bielsa in December 2014 not long after his 16th birthday, he soon opted to leave for Sevilla in Spain insisting that was “the right choice” for his career.
France is a country renowned for producing talented players, and the biggest clubs in England, Spain, Germany and Italy shop there for the best value youngsters. But Marseille have frequently scored poorly in the French Football Federation’s ranking of the country’s top academies, coming in 22nd last year behind the likes of Valenciennes, Le Havre, Troyes and Chateauroux.
Nevertheless, there are signs that things are improving under the new regime. Last October American tycoon Frank McCourt, the former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, bought Marseille from Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, who had inherited the club from her late husband Robert after his death in 2009.
McCourt’s ambitions are clear. He appointed Eyraud, a 49-year-old Harvard-educated businessman, as his new president. Former Barcelona and Spain goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta was named sporting director, a role he occupied at Barcelona, and ex-Roma boss Garcia came in as coach.
With Eyraud fronting the so-called ‘Champions Project’, Marseille quickly got to work trying to close the gap to their main rivals: the mighty Qatar-owned PSG, Russian-owned Monaco and Lyon, the former seven-time champions flourishing in a new stadium.
Big money was spent in the January transfer window to repatriate France star Dimitri Payet from West Ham United, a sign that Marseille were very serious about delivering immediate on-field success. But Eyraud has been very clear about the importance of investing time and money in the youth academy.
“The first time I met Frank McCourt and Jacques-Henri Ayraud, they said to me that it wasn’t possible for a club like OM to not have a successful academy. For them it is important that changes,” Zubizarreta told the sports daily L’Equipe.
Jean-Luc Cassini, who was appointed as head of Marseille’s youth academy last August, before the arrival of the new regime, emphasises that point.
“The president saw that the youth set-up was very important. In the past the first team had always been seen as important, but there had been less emphasis placed on bringing through young players,” he says.
Cassini admits that much work needed to be done following his arrival but is optimistic about the future given the work being done by Eyraud and Zubizarreta, who has a wealth of past experience working at Athletic Bilbao as well as Barcelona.
“We needed to reorganise certain sectors and fix structural problems and organisational issues,” says Cassini of what he saw when he started out. “But Zubizarreta’s appointment sent out a strong signal. He has been at clubs with great traditions of bringing through young players. Now the club wants to give resources to the academy, help develop the youth side and we have also signed partnership deals with local clubs in a bid to improve relationships with them.”
One such deal saw Marseille forge links with Burel FC, the amateur side where Lopez started out and who now receive financial support from Marseille as part of the deal put in place.
Such a move is a big step in the right direction, but the road to making Marseille one of the top producers of young talent in France and Europe will be a long one.
“Youth development at Marseille is maybe not the best given the standing of the club. Some players have come through like Nasri in the past and Lopez now, but it is not really a club that is known for bringing through young players,” says Olivier Jannuzzi, the coach of the Marseille side that is competing at this year’s HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens.
Like Cassini, Jannuzzi arrived last year, not long prior to the regime change.
“When we arrived we saw that there was a lot of work to be done. If those in charge of the club want to improve things and put in place a policy, if there is willing on their part and investment, then it can happen. But we are still in a period of transition. We can’t achieve miracles just like that. It is a long-term job.”
Jannuzzi played for the likes of Nice, Nimes, Lens and Martigues and now has lengthy experience of working in youth development, notably at Nice but also at Evian and in Africa, where he spent nine months in Guinea. That makes him well placed to comment on the work that needs to be done at Marseille, even if he acknowledges that the pressure to succeed there can be greater than at other clubs where he was worked.
“A lot of lads from the area leave to go and play at clubs like Montpellier and Bastia, so the new board want to make sure young boys from the region come and play at Marseille,” he says.
“It is maybe true that the quality needs to be greater here, that the players need to have enormous amounts of ability to break through at this club. But the board are aware of how important it is to bring these players through.”
Jannuzzi insists it is enormously beneficial to a young player’s development for them to remain close to their families while at an academy, and he admits most of his squad are from the region. Among those under his charge this season has been Boubacar Kamara, the very highly rated 17-year-old defender who has already been handed his top-team bow. Kamara has been involved in matches in the Coupe Gambardella, France’s prestigious national youth competition that Marseille had not win since 1979 before this season.
Kamara is destined for a big future, and Jannuzzi reckons all of his players can take inspiration from seeing what Lopez has achieved in such a short period of time.
“Seeing him can provide extra motivation to players in my team. It is a good example. Garcia playing Lopez is a sign for the players of what they can achieve if they really stand out,” he says, while Cassini also talks of how positive it is to see Garcia and his staff taking such a close interest in goings on at the academy.
All of which bodes well for the future, and in the meantime Marseille have their sights set on a triumph at the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens.
“There is two sides to this competition as it will provide my players with great experience of playing abroad, but also, every time we go into a competition, it is with the aim of doing as well as possible. That should be in the DNA of any sportsman,” Jannuzzi says.