At the end of the 2009-2010 Ligue 1 season, Olympique de Marseille (OM) was sitting pretty. They had won the Ligue 1 title as well as captured the Coupe de la Ligue. And with the coming season, new players entering the fold made it look like OM could be successful for the long haul.
But soon the face of Ligue 1 would change. Gone was the tradition of the league being French-centric, and in came the international face that we all know today. With the international aspect, high-profile transfer rumors are more of “the talk of the town” than predictions on who will win the Ligue 1 title. International coverage has shifted from focusing on the entire league to covering only specific teams, such as AS Monaco and Paris St.-Germain. Overall, the face of Ligue 1 has changed. Whether this new move is better for Ligue 1 can be debated, but it is happening nonetheless.
With this new change, will Olympique de Marseille be able to keep up with the changing face of Ligue 1? Before the internationalization of Ligue 1, OM was arguably the best club as far as bringing in new players. The reason for their success is that they were able to pluck top players from other Ligue 1 teams and put them into their system. For example, Didier Drogba, Mathieu Valbuena and Loic Remy were from smaller clubs, but were easily capable of playing for the top teams in Ligue 1, which made the transition to OM quite easy. Other players, like Hatem Ben Arfa, were rarely being used by their club’s senior-level squad, but were able to make immediate impacts on arrival to Marseille. And, occasionally, Marseille would bring in players from other leagues, like Gabriel Heinze, Lucho Gonzalez and César Azpilicueta.
While this method of team-building worked well in Ligue 1 a couple of years ago, it might not work today. Marseille isn’t competing with the new “big boys” when it comes offering top dollar for players that they desire. Because of this, not only will they not be able to field the best team in Ligue 1, but they also might have to start selling more players, especially if they command a good transfer fee. Recently, talks have been swirling around regarding the possible departure of Valbuena, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Morgan Amalfitano to clubs in other leagues. Marseille must now struggle with the decision of either keeping those players so that they can field a competitive team, or run an Aulas-Lacombe-style system like Lyon, where every player has a price.
But even with a Lyon-style system, there is a problem. In the past, Lyon was able to sell many of their top-notch players because they had an impressive youth system. This is something that has been going downhill for Marseille recently. Yes, some great players have come out of their youth system, most notably Samir Nasri in recent years, but these are more the exception at Marseille than the rule. Because Marseille relied on building a club through transfers, the youth program has suffered. On the other hand, Lyon and Paris St. Germain have had very strong youth programs, with lower-level teams such as Ligue 2’s Lens providing future superstars as well. Therefore, with more competition in the transfer market and the lack of good youth prospects, Marseille might be heading down a long and gloomy road.
So, how can Marseille possibly compete against the up-and-coming “big boys”? It all depends on what Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, OM’s owner, wishes to do with the team. There is no doubt that she wants to see the team succeed, but at what price? As one of the richest women in the world, she has the opportunity to make Marseille a force in the transfer market. But so far, the actions do not show that to be the case with Marseille being somewhat inactive in the off-season. True, OM has brought in Dimitri Payet, who will help improve Marseille. But will Payet be OM’s biggest name coming into the system because the transfer market is so competitive? So far it looks like that is the case.
Another option that Louis-Dreyfus has is to sell the team. Marseille, much like PSG, would fetch top dollar as well as a lot of foreign investment interest. But the likelihood of Margarita selling the team isn’t high. The team succeeding seems to be more of a labor of love, as well as a tribute to her late husband Robert. Her actions do not seem to be driven by money, which means that OM will more than likely stay in the hands of the Louis-Dreyfus family.
A third, and more realistic way to help build Olympique de Marseille is by promoting the tradition of the club. Since Marseille is France’s most popular club with the strongest fan base, OM has been the childhood team for many French players. Therefore, the prospect of playing on the same team as their childhood heroes might lure many quality French players to Marseille. Andre-Pierre Gignac considered it a dream to play for OM when he was transferred there in 2010. Maybe this route could convince more players to come to Marseille.
Overall, Marseille has a lot on their plate. With Monaco and PSG pushing the transfer-record envelope, OM has to decide if they want to spend the same money as the new powerhouse teams, build their youth system, or come up with other unique ways to build their club. If the internationalization of Ligue 1 continues, then Marseille either have to go with the flow, or they will be left behind.