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  • Writer's pictureRichard Tester

Marseille | Football City Guide

Located on the Mediterrean Sea in the South of France, lies a city bursting with colour and passion. Marseille isn't the first name on everyone's lips when it comes to their next vacation in France but once visited, you'll realise that the name has been unfairly tainted in folklore and deserves a chance.

With a population of just over 860,000 (metropolitan area of 1,831,000), Marseille is France's third biggest city behind Paris and Lyon, renowned for its research industry and commercial port (over 45,000 jobs are linked to it), good weather and of course, Olympique de Marseille.

Over 4.1 million people visit this hub annually and I become another statistic in 2017 as I embarked on my first trip to the 'Phocean City'. Having watched the political crime drama Marseille on Netflix the previous year, I was inspired to visit the sprawling city, combining a weekend city tour with a visit to Marseille's legendary Stade Velodrome for a match against Toulouse.

This is a city obsessed with football, being a one-club city proud of its working-class origins and European success to boast over their rivals (the only French team to have won the Champions League). Marseille citizens consider themselves Marseillaise first, French second.

As their media journalist Paul Basse puts it,, Marseille is a city of outsiders. It's all about street art, hip hop and underground culture. That feeling is captured and magnified in the club and its supporters. There's very much an 'us against the system' mentality in the city and it's a unique dynamic that works.

The Old Port and the Basilque Notre-Dame de la Garde in the distance

When arriving at St Charlies station, you're draw down the slope to the Old Port of Marseille, which you can walk the whole way around, passing expensive yachts, street merchants and fancy restaurants. It felt a far cry from gritty, poor and dangerous labels associated with this historic city.

As I did a u-shaped walk around the port, I noticed the Basilque Notre-Dame de la Garde, probably the most photographed shot of Marseille on anyone's postcard or Instagram feed. A steep walk up the hill was well worth it as we had breath-taking views of not only the city from a 360 angle but that of the Marseille's stadium in the distance. Beyond the ground's roof, you could make out the less than desirable parts of this port city where its unfortunate reputation comes from.

Towards the east of the city, on the way to the ground, you're met with a splendid coastline featuring a sandy beach (a far cry from the stone 'beach' of Portsmouth I was so accustomed to at uni). Should you find yourself with hours to spare before kickoff on matchday, take a short Uber ride to the Plage du Prado (weather permitting) and you won't be disappointed.

Views from the top of the Basilque Notre-Dame de la Garde. Notice the 11-a-side pitch below, a match was taking place at the time.

Olympique de Marseille

Les Phoceens, OM, Marseille, however you call them they're a club beloved by its people.

One of France and Europe's biggest clubs, Marseille have amassed 10 league titles, 10 domestic cups and a solitary Champions League title when they beat Milan 1-0 in 1993. High profile names such as Frank Ribery, Didier Drogba, Cantona and Samir Nasri have donned their light blue colours.

Throw in a passionate fan base and a controversial past including a humiliating match fixing scandal in 1992 (title stripped and relegated), and you've found yourself a club that doesn't stray too far from the limelight.

In recent years the club has found itself around the fringes of the league's top spots and frequently competes in the Europa League, an adequate level for the club's current level.

What with being a one club city, they've had to look afar for a healthy rivalry, and they don't come bigger than that with PSG. The 'French Classico' is intense rivalry based on historical, cultural and social importance, with the capital pitching against the province, wealth against industrial traditions. These fixtures in the past had a tendency to spill over into violence but more recently measures to ban away fans have all but quashed that from happening again.

Similar to when you first set eyes on the San Siro, I was blown away by it's sheer size.

Stade Vélodrome

A ground steeped in history, this temple of worship opened its doors to the public in 1937 in a friendly match against the mighty Torino. The capacity at the time was about 60,000.

It has gone through several iterations, including one for Euro 1984, the World Cup in 1998 (probably the one most fans recognise even today) and then again For Euro 2016. The two pitch-side stands were extended, with new tiers added on top of the originals The most obvious change was the new unique roof. Visible from across the city, it sticks out across the skyline and blows you away with it's swirling white exterior and sheer size.

Look hard enough and you'll see a pocket of Toulouse fans in the corner

Both Curvas (Virage Nord and Virage Sud) remained relatively intact bar the new seating arrangement. This is where the bulk of noise derives from come matchday. What's interesting to note is that no one stand dominates, which is very rare in modern European football. Normally you'll find one end given the unofficial title of chief atmosphere instigator, such as Roma's Curva Sud and PSG's Virage Boulogne. Both virages bounce off each other, cracking up the volume as kick off approaches. It's a rare and beautiful find.

The capacity once again rose, reaching the dizzy heights of 67,000 just in time for Euro 2016 where England and Russia played out a 1-1 draw (various skirmishes were reported between the two sets of fans inside the ground and out).

Match day

My first Ligue 1 game was a resounding success. The boys in white and blue beat league minnows Toulouse 2-0 with goals either side of the break from ex-Newcastle and SC Bastia winger Thauvin and Ocampos. From our seats, we faced the vast but majorly empty Tribune Jean Bouin stand, which is the home of the corporate seating, VIPs and away-end tucked into the corner. By my reckoning, about 30 Toulouse fans made the trip. A far cry from the numbers you'd normally expect in the UK but there would certainly be many factors behind that (intimidation for a start)

Both curve made their presence known and despite what was a relatively low-key fixture, the atmosphere was fantastic. Smoke bombs and fire crackers were let off on both sides of the goal, filling the air was smoke.

The Virage Sud putting on a fantastic display as we approached kick off


Through a combination of glorious sunshine, solid french cuisine, gorgeous coastline and the match itself, I came away pleasantly surprised by this city.

Sure, I kept myself relatively within the safe and touristy centre, shunning me from the true realities of city life for the majority of its citizens but when on a city excursion would you find yourself on the city edge? Do tourists in London find themselves teetering out to Dagenham or Harrow? Unlikely.

The stadium's unique shape along with the passionate home crowd make it an experience you'll remember and crave for more. Like the city of Turin, this is an underrated gem and should be on all football fan's bucket list.

Written by Richard Tester

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Extra Marseille Content

Netflix's Marseille crime drama

Tifo - Marseille's match fixing scandal

Copa90's 'This is Marseille'


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