“Marseille supporters act like unions”, explains Ludovic Lestrelin, sociologist specializing in supporters

Olympique de Marseille experienced a very turbulent week between explosive meetings between managers and supporters, resignation of the coach and withdrawal of management before a return to business by president Pablo Longoria. A situation that the Marseille club is accustomed to.

Olympique de Marseille is not in its first internal crisis, but the one that has affected it since September 18 has reached a stage rarely experienced. The stormy meeting between leaders and supporters, Monday September 18, where “the limits have been exceeded” according to President Pablo Longoria, caused major stir. In the process, the manager withdrew, coach Marcelino resigned. Friday September 22, Pablo Longoria made a firm speech announcing the continuation of his work and his desire that such a situation “will not happen again in the future”.

An explosive scenario in which supporter groups played the leading roles. Ludovic Lestrelin, lecturer in Staps at the University of Caen and author of the book Sociology of supportersanswered questions from franceinfo: sport on the influence of supporters on the Marseille club.

Franceinfo: sport: How have Marseille supporters groups, such as the South Winners which today have more than 5,000 members, developed?

Ludovic Lestrelin: There was a turning point in the 1980s when young Marseille supporters wanted to innovate the way they supported their team. They were inspired by what they saw abroad, particularly in Italy. Initially, their organization was very artisanal, there were not many of them, they did not have much equipment and they were not always declared to the prefecture as an association. Their evolution is not only due to the innovative and organizational qualities of supporters but also to the relationships established with different stakeholders.

In the 1990s, a dialogue was established between the club and the supporters. Moreover, it is more the employees than the managers whoThey played a major role in this rise, by offering a certain number of facilities. The fan groups had exclusive management of the ticketing of the parts of the stadium they occupied. This is a real specificity of Olympique de Marseille.

Did the presidency of Bernard Tapie, between 1986 and 1993, allow this evolution?

We often refer to it but it happened much later in the 1990s, during the reconstruction of the Vélodrome for the 1998 World Cup. That’s where it played out. Bernard Tapie was not present daily at the club, nor in Marseille for that matter. It is rather thanks to the employees, who had executive status and who could also decide on certain things within the club.

Did other actors play a role?

Local elected officials and political figures have also established links, more or less interested, with these collectives. The media also contributed to this development during OM’s great period in the 1990s. There was increased media coverage due to good sporting results.

“The media highlighted the passion of very committed supporters, authors of spectacular activities. They offered the leaders of these groups a certain visibility, a space to comment on the strategic decisions of managers and coaches.”

Ludovic Lestrelin, sociologist specializing in supporters

at franceinfo: sport

The rise in power of supporter groups is therefore the result of an evolution in relationships between fans, elected officials, the media and clubs.

What is the real weight of supporters in the OM ecosystem?

The senior leaders who have succeeded one another at the head of Olympique de Marseille have always been perfectly aware that they had to deal with these groups and quickly meet the leaders. Now that the club is less dominant at the sporting level, the public, especially those standing in the Depè turn and the South turn, is a real marketing asset. The supporters create a very specific atmosphere at the Vélodrome, with activities that provide beautiful images for television. OM cannot cut themselves off from them, this is what allows them to maintain a certain influence without having the best players, nor the best sporting results.

Today, in the midst of a crisis, could this power of supporters’ clubs prove to be a trap for OM?

These are balances of power which are more or less balanced depending on the period. In situations of discontent, they are more virulent and more imposing. They are a bit like unions inside the company, which is the club today, with whom we must maintain a constant dialogue. At certain times, the bond can become strained and conflicts arise. It is a form of control like there is between the Force Ouvrière union and the port in Marseille. But here, it is not the control of hiring but of entries, places, ticketing.

Can this operation evolve, or even be reformed?

This relational structure is not easily reformable, at least from the point of view of managers. Even if they believe that we should work differently, it is complicated to change something that has been in place for forty years.

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