I wrote this a little while ago for an assignment on Marseille by In Bed With Maradona. They didn’t use – perhaps because instead of writing about Marseille, I wrote about myself. I felt it deserved to be seen.
Football is a game of love, and every face you see in every crowd is there because of love in one way or another. Children are introduced to it by family, and wear it with them as a badge of love for those who helped them on their way.
By adulthood, the love for the club may be the most powerful way of reconnecting with those relationships. It may fade over time but those seeds, once planted, are difficult to dislodge.
I have never been one of those faces at Marseille, though love of the club and the city – both mine and others – has lapped against the coastline of my life for as long as I can remember.
By the time I first set foot in the city of Marseille, it was bound that I should love it. I was passing through with a friend on the way to help a couple of French children learn English, and we felt to already know the city well.
To travel to Gare Charles de Gaulle by TGV from Paris is spectacular, the sweeping vistas of the first week of the Tour de France spread either side as far as the eye can see; rich greens, deep blues and bright whites. As such, Marseille, after a few hours in a picture book, is a bit of a rude awakening.
The first thing we saw was the Arc de Triomphe, a gloriously sand coloured structure just outside the station whetting the appetite and announcing your arrival at somewhere that matters. We had to go further on down the coast, so that was all we saw that day. We would return, and soon.
Marseille had been given to us by our French assistant at school. Although he grew up elsewhere, he and his friends were passionate OM fans, a team that sounded impossibly glamorous to us when we joined them for their Sunday kickabouts. They loved their club, and were effusive about the city.
We stopped for drinks in cafes and heard tales of their fandom. The joyous communal buses to Marseille, the singing, the camaraderie and the passion – so much passion. The love of Marseille was coupled with a bilious dislike of Paris Saint-Germain, something that gave us much opportunity to learn French insults.
I suppose it was inevitable. We were at an impressionable age and being offered a window into something that was so utterly different from the Huddersfield Town games I attended, or the Liverpool of my friend. Before long our Corinthian collections accepted the likes of Xavier Gravelaine to their previously humdrum domestic line-ups.
Not long after, we were offered the chance to spend a fortnight in a village an hour away from Marseille learning French as we taught English. We couldn’t say no.
St Cyr Sur Mer is a small town, but close enough to Marseille to host some big OM fans; we stopped every day in a cafe, one with Azure flags, posters and clippings all over the walls, drinking the atmosphere as much as the orangeade.
The owner loved OM (and I say OM as we were learning to – always), delighted in our burgeoning passion for the club and invited us to a pre-season friendly with him. Sadly, we left France the day before it took place. The seeds were growing.
Before we left, there was even time to visit Parc Franck Leboeuf; if ever a footballer deserved to have a local petanque venue named for him, the Marseille born defender would be right up there.
It helped at this stage that OM were regulars in Europe – most seasons they would feature on UK TV at least once, so we updated our heroes as time rolled on; Bakayoko, Cheyrou, Drogba…
In those days before Facebook, we had occasional emails from our former French assistant, but the relative obscurity of Marseille was a thing that bound us together – something that was ours and nobody else’s.
I must confess to a little jealousy when he went on to study French. It wasn’t the study that had me green, but the fact that he managed to travel on one of the fêted buses we’d heard about. I got a phone call and a postcard. I wanted in.
The first time I saw OM play was at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, a lightly populated away end didn’t sing or bounce quite as I expected, but they did smoke as much as I was warned. The game couldn’t have helped, it was a drab 0-0.
Not long after that, we finally got to see OM together – at Liverpool; we had changed with adulthood and while we stood on the Kop together, only one of us went away happy with the French side winning 1-0.
A little later, I became engaged to be married. My fiancée chose her ring the morning afterwards. Until recently, I thought she had chosen the colour of the stone to match her eyes; that bright Azure of the Mediterranean Sea as the sun beats down on it.
She explained otherwise one evening; it was chosen in acknowledgement of my love of Marseille – a sweet, unspoken gesture, recognising my love alongside hers.
Today I can look back over twenty years, twenty years of flowering friendships and twenty years of blossoming love. Out of keeping with their recent history, Marseille have always been a positive influence for me; remaining something aspirational and exciting despite their travails.