Paris Saint-Germain made two pieces of history in recent weeks; the first of which being rather more welcome than their scarcely believable Champions League capitulation. PSG’s 5-1 victory on February 26th at the Stade Vélodrome, home of their bitter rivals Olympique de Marseille, was the biggest ever away victory in what is known as Le Classique. It also extended their unbeaten run against Marseille to 14 matches stretching back to November 2011; the longest run without defeat in the history of the fixture.
February as a whole served as a stark illustration of the respective states of the two clubs; two days before PSG served notice of their genuine arrival among the European elite with their 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the Champions League, Marseille lost 3-2 against mid-table Nantes. For PSG, historic collapse in the second leg against Barcelona notwithstanding, the future has rarely looked brighter; the huge influx of funds from Qatar Sports Investments has allowed them to buy world class players and provided a squad capable of challenging for the biggest honours in the game (PSG continue to chase Monaco as they seek a fifth league title in a row). In contrast, Marseille, looking likely to miss out on qualifying for European football for a second successive season, seemingly have only their history to look back on.
It’s certainly a rich history, however. Founded in 1899, Marseille have won 9 league titles, 10 Coupe de France, 3 Coupe de Ligue and are – now guaranteed for at least one more year – the only French side to have won the European Cup. Crucially, they had won 9 major honours before PSG even existed. Le Classique is something of a modern classic, given that PSG were not founded until 1970 when a group of businessmen merged Paris FC and Stade Saint-Germain in an attempt to finally provide France’s capital city with a major football team.
The sides first met in December 1971. Marseille won 4-2 and remained unbeaten in the fixture until a 2-0 PSG win in May 1975. During these early years, Marseille enjoyed a period of renewed success, winning two league titles and two Coupe de France during the first six years of PSG’s existence. PSG were from Paris, they were a modern construct, and most crucially they were not very good; as such, they were initially derided more than hated.
Given the diametrically opposed cities (France’s two largest) from which the two clubs hail, it was only ever going to need PSG to actually start winning for the animosity to grow. The country’s two most popular clubs; north vs south; rich capital city vs port city with over a quarter of the population estimated to live below the poverty line; new vs old – PSG and Marseille may have been manufactured foes on the pitch, but off it all the historical precedents and ingredients were in place for a genuine rivalry.
Back-to-back French cup wins in 1982 and 1983 served notice that PSG were beginning to become a threat. In 1986, Gérard Houllier’s PSG side won their first ever Ligue 1 title. The next 8 years saw the true birth of Le Classique and, unusually for such a celebrated fixture, the only period to date in which both clubs were consistently fighting each other for silverware.
The two sides battling for major honours naturally led to many of Le Classique’s most memorable matches, both all the while resplendent in those lovely, peculiarly shiny kits that French football seemed to favour during the early 1990s (and who am I, as a lowly Englishman, to criticise French style?). On May 5th, 1989, Marseille and PSG squared off in what was billed as a title decider. PSG – ahead in the table going into the game – looked to be heading towards a second title with the scores at 0-0 going into the final seconds, before a quick Marseille counter attack ended with Franck Sauzée scoring what surely must be the very definition of an absolute thunderbolt. Marseille eventually won the title (their first since 1972) by three points, undoubtedly made all the sweeter by virtue of them effectively sealing it against their bitter rivals.
By this point, Bernard Tapie had been president of Marseille for three years, and the club had begun the process of assembling a team of international superstars including the likes of Waddle and Francescoli. They won four titles in a row between 1989 and 1992, with the incomparable Jean-Pierre Papin finishing as the league’s top scorer in each season. No doubt jealous both of Marseille’s success and their entirely uncontroversial owner, in 1991 PSG were taken over by the French broadcaster Canal Plus, who at the time were the exclusive broadcasters of the French top flight and therefore clearly had no conceivable conflict of interest whatsoever. Nonetheless, PSG’s renewed ambition saw them add world-class players of their own such as George Weah and David Ginola.
In 1993, the Marseille of Barthez, Desailly, Deschamps and Völler achieved Tapie’s primary ambition as they beat AC Milan in the European Cup final. Just three days later they faced another Classique which looked certain to decide the title. Marseille won 3-1, and it is worth tracking down footage of the game if only for Basile Boli’s frankly ludicrous curling header into the top corner from the edge of the penalty area.
Just a year later, Marseille imploded. They kept their European Cup following the match-fixing scandal that engulfed them but were relegated from the top flight in 1994 (with PSG winning the title).
By now the rivalry was established enough that it remained fierce in spite of the lower stakes, and during the next decade Le Classique was often marred by violent clashes between PSG’s Boulogne Boys and Marseille’s ‘Marseille Trop Puissant’ (Marseille; all powerful). In 1995, 146 supporters were arrested and 9 police hospitalised following fighting during the Coupe de France semi-final, while in 2000 a Marseille supporter was left paralysed by a seat thrown from the PSG section.
Both PSG and Marseille enjoyed limited success during the 2000s as Lyon embarked on their own period of unprecedented and sustained dominance. Nonetheless, in 2006, a Classique milestone was reached as PSG beat Marseille 2-1 in the Coupe de France final; the first ever cup final meeting between the sides.
On face value, the arrival of Qatar Sports Investments appears to have changed the landscape of Le Classique forever. In spite of having been in existence for just 47 years, PSG are now the most successful side in French football in terms of overall trophies won (taking over, naturally, from Marseille). They clearly have a hold on the fixture itself; their current unbeaten run including an emphatic Coupe de France final win over Marseille in 2016 (featuring a brace from a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic which cemented his place as the fixture’s highest scorer).
But Monaco are showing this season that it is still possible to challenge them. And although Marseille appear to be at a low ebb, there are nonetheless positives to be found. New owner Frank McCourt has promised that significant funds will be made available to strengthen the side in the coming years, so perhaps Marseille can rise again and make Le Classique as competitive on the field as off it.
The match occupies a unique space in European football. PSG and Marseille have neither the geographical proximity of Liverpool and Everton nor the history of the sustained battle for supremacy of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Given the several occasions on which PSG have changed their home colours over their 47 years, the fixture even lacks a consistent visual identity (might I suggest going back to the shiny?). Yet the antipathy between the two clubs remains, and Le Classique is now established as French football’s most celebrated rivalry.