The Greatest French Club Sides Of All Time – Part 5
Today is the penultimate article in Juliet Jacques fantastic countdown of the greatest French club sides of all time. Here are teams ranked #2 and #3.
3. Olympique de Marseille, 1989-1994
Unlike Spain, Italy, Germany or England, Le Championnat has not created clubs that have been dominant for long periods, or even consistently successful throughout its history. This lack of powerhouses had its roots in a 1901 law requiring sports teams to be non-profit organisations, with officers elected by club members. Only in 1974 were they allowed to become companies, and even then with private investment limited. After Serie A and La Liga permitted clubs to sign foreign players, French managers protested that state intervention made it impossible to retain domestic talent, and François Mitterand’s government, elected in 1981, finally allowed full privatisation.
Sponsorship and television provided new money, and the doctors, civil servants and local industrialists who had run French clubs were replaced by bankers, computing tycoons and media moguls. Bordeaux, bought by Claude Bez, won three titles in the mid-Eighties (above), but their dominance was broken by Arsène Wenger’s Monaco, and then Olympique de Marseille, acquired by entrepreneur and politician Bernard Tapie in 1986.
Intermittently successful before the war, OM were champions in 1948 before a mediocre decade ended in relegation. They spent half of the Sixties in Division 2 but won titles in 1971 and 1972, threatening to end Saint-Étienne’s âge d’or (below). In 1979, they were relegated again, and took four years to return, finishing in mid-table for two years before Tapie arrived.
Immediately spending a fortune, notably on World Cup semi-finalists Alain Giresse and Jean-Pierre Papin and German defender Karl-Heinz Förster, Tapie made OM runners up in Ligue and Coupe in 1987. His club entered the Cup Winners Cup, reaching the semi-finals, but their failure to qualify for Europe again prompted further expenditure, wildly distorting France’s transfer system.
Clubs elsewhere invested heavily in youth, but Tapie was not so patient. Barely anyone at OM grew up at their Stade Vélodrome, instead being bought from a productive academy, particularly Nantes or Auxerre’s. Having bought Éric Cantona, German forward Klaus Allofs, midfielder Franck Sauzée and playmaker Philippe Vercruysse, OM secured Tapie’s first title in 1989. The formation was tailored around Tapie’s signings: usually 5-2-1-2, with Papin and Abédi Pelé up front, Vercruysse, Enzo Francescoli or later Chris Waddle roaming behind them, Sauzée acting as quarterback alongside a holding midfielder, usually Didier Deschamps, who protected the defence.
UEFA’s restrictions on foreign players, with clubs in continental tournaments limited to three non-nationals per starting eleven, made it easier for OM to keep French stars in France, which they did by offering unprecedented wages. Their gathering of young talent (many with roots in the former colonies but French nationality) made them major players in Europe. Despite rifling through coaches, OM improved on their European Cup semi-final loss in 1991 by reaching the final the following season, after a thrilling quarter-final victory over AC Milan (1989 and 1990 winners), but were stifled by Red Star Belgrade, losing on penalties after a 0-0 draw.
Bitten, OM became more cautious – and more corrupt. In 1993, they took their fifth straight Championnat, and finally broke France’s duck in European competitions, Raymond Goethals’ more defensive outfit beating Milan 1-0 in Munich to win the coveted Champions League. But it soon emerged that Tapie had tried to fix their last Ligue match before the final, and after being found guilty, OM were stripped of their domestic (but not European) crown, relegated and bankrupted. Further allegations were made of doping, not least by OM fall guy Jean-Jacques Eydelie, after Tapie’s imprisonment and release.
A different side won Division 1 every year between 1995 and 2002, when French football’s last great dynasty – Olympique Lyonnais began its ascent. OM, UEFA Cup finalists in 1999 and 2004, did not regain the title until 2010.
Best XI: Fabien Barthez; Manuel Amoros, Éric di Meco, Basile Boli, Marcel Desailly, Mozer; Didier Deschamps, Franck Sauzée; Chris Waddle; Jean-Pierre Papin, Abédi Pelé.
Honours: French champions: 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 (1993 title revoked). European Cup winners: 1993. European Cup runners-up: 1991. Coupe de France: 1989.
2. AS Saint-Étienne, 1967-1981
With their stylish play, irresistibly cool green strip and above all their run to the European Cup final in 1976 – the first Gallic team to reach that stage since the tournament began being televised – Saint-Étienne put French football on the international map, lifting it out of its Sixties doldrums.
ASSE reached the top flight the season before the war, winning their first title in 1957. They were debilitated by losing star forward Rachid Mekhloufi, who quit (alongside Monaco’s Abdelaziz Ben Tifour and Mustapha Zitouni and L’OM goalkeeper Abderrahahman Ibrir) to represent the Front Libération Nationale team, comprised of ethnic Algerians who left their clubs during the Franco-Algerian War.
ASSE were relegated in 1962 but with colonial hostilities ceased, Mekhloufi returned, and not only did they come straight back up, but they won their second title the following season. Coach Jean Snella won another title in 1968, before handing over to Albert Batteux, who ensured continuity between France’s first great team and the flowering of new talent in the Seventies – and beyond.
Batteux’s team included Aimé Jacquet, who later managed Bordeaux and then France’s World Cup winners, and Robert Herbin, who would succeed Batteux as coach and take ASSE to even greater heights. It also featured gifted attacker Salif Keïta, signed from Real Bamoko in Mali, who scored 125 goals in 149 games as ASSE won four consecutive championships.
ASSE then went three years without a title, but in 1972, Batteux stood aside for Herbin, and Les Verts became France’s top side and a European force, with an untypically daunting home crowd. Champions in 1974 with genial playmaker Jean-Michel Larqué and the Révelli brothers dazzling their competitors, they lost the European Cup semi-final to Bayern Munich in 1975, but beat Dynamo Kiev and PSV Eindhoven to make the final the following season – again facing Munich.
Despite their bold performance, ASSE could not prevent the Germans winning their third straight European Cup, losing 1-0 after hitting the bar twice. However, their skilful attacking displays – particularly their 3-0 win over Kiev to overturn a two-goal deficit, won the hearts of French fans and impressed continental television audiences.
Although talents such as Christian López and Dominique Rocheteau rose through their youth system, ASSE did not qualify for Europe in 1977 or 1978. Shaken president Roger Rocher changed policy, spending huge sums on Patrick Battiston, Michel Platini, Johnny Rep and others – and adopted ever more corrupt financial practices to cover the debts. ASSE won their final title in 1981 and finished second the next year, when the exposure of the club’s slush fund led to Rocher being ousted and eventually imprisoned. Two seasons later, ASSE were relegated, and have not won a trophy or qualified for Europe since.
Best XI: Georges Carnus; Vladimír Durković, Gérard Janvion, Christian López, Oswaldo Piazza; Jean-Michel Larqué, Michel Platini; Hervé Revelli, Salif Keïta, Dominique Rocheteau, Johnny Rep.
Honours: French champions: 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1981. European Cup runners-up: 1976. Coupe de France: 1968, 1970, 1974, 1977.