Milan vs Marseille Throwback: A Nemesis from the Nineties

Every football club has a nemesis. Be it Italy for Germany at the World Cup, or Barcelona for Real Madrid during Pep Guardiola’s days as a coach, every club has at least one specific boogeyman opponent against whom they seem to struggle for no logical reason – except for the fact that, sometimes, football is just illogical.

Between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan had basically no rivals in Europe. The Rossoneri had won back-to-back European Cup titles in 1988/89 and 1989/90 and were on their way to collect a third one. If it weren’t for a quasi-unknown team from the south of France.

That team was Olympique de Marseille, and over the next few seasons they would become the worst nightmare for a Milan side that seemed invincible and that suddenly found themselves vulnerable again.

It was a football saga that stretched over three years, featuring tales of underdogs, abandoned matches, players changing shirts, and even a match fixing attempt.

The Rise of the “French Berlusconi”

While Milan built their European domination powered by the Dutch trio Marco Van Basten – Ruud Gullit – Frank Rijkaard and guided by Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary yet convoluted schemes, Marseille were slowly starting to make their way to the European stage after decades of oblivion.

The French club was ambitious and led by President Bernard Tapie, who openly drew on Milan’s almighty chairman Silvio Berlusconi as an inspiration to run the club. Tapie was as visionary as he was ruthless and, a few months before facing Milan, he had sacked no less than coach Franz Beckenbauer, replacing him with the Belgian “Witcher” Raymond Goethals.

Marseille had reached the European Cup Semi Finals the previous season. They had lost to Benfica on away goals but that had been enough to show the world that they meant business. And when the pots draw delivered them Milan as their opponent in the Quarter Finals of the 1990/91 edition, the time seemed right to make history.

The French’s most known star was deadly striker Jean-Pierre Papin aka JPP, who had enchanted the footballdom at World Cup 1986 wearing Les Bleus jersey. The Rossoneri, on the other hand, were expected to face the test without Van Basten, who was serving a three-match ban for elbowing an opponent during the previous cup match against Club Brugge.

But despite the absence of the Swan of Utrecht and of the injured Franco Baresi, Milan had a crushing start in the first leg on March 6, 1991. After just six minutes, Gullit took advantage of a defensive mishap and pierced goalkeeper Pascal Olmeta. It looked like just another day in the office for Sacchi’s armada.

This time, though, things started to take a different trend. Englishman Chris Waddle gave quite a few problems to Paolo Maldini at left back while Ghanaian midfielder Abedì Ayew – who bore the low-profile nickname of Pelé – and moreover JPP were difficult to control on the front line.

On 26 minutes, the three constructed a lighting fast action that ended with Waddle servicing Papin on the right-hand side. Papin made no mistake to draw level, scoring an overly important goal at the San Siro.

Milan tried to put their heads ahead again, but it was Marseille to come closer to finding the back of the net a second time. The Rossoneri were saved by the crossbar, that pushed back a Pelé conclusion. It ended 1-1, with the French side now having the advantage of one goal scored away.

The Fall of the Milan Gods

Milan’s shaky performance with Marseille had an impact on their Serie A run. The Rossoneri lost two games in a row and bid farewell to their already dim hopes of battling for the Scudetto. Something seemed to have broken in Arrigo Sacchi’s perfect machine.

Marseille and Milan squared off again on March 20, this time at the Velodrome, featuring two almost identical lineups to those seen two weeks earlier. Sacchi managed to recover Baresi at the back and chose to partner Massimo Agostini with Gullit upfront.

But it didn’t work out. The Rossoneri appeared nervous and uncomfortable. Their chances were never too dangerous, and Marseille had an easy time controlling their offenses, knowing that a goalless draw was enough for them to dethrone the Invincibles.

Then, with 75 minutes on the clock, Waddle conjured a spectacular volley from outside the box and shocked the Milan fans: 1-0 Marseille.

Those watching the game understood that Milan’s winning cycle was coming to an end. The Rossoneri just didn’t have it anymore. But when the dismayed fans were just waiting for Swedish referee Bo Karlsson to blow the final whistle, something unexpected happen.

Milan CEO Adriano Galliani talks to referee Bo Karlsson in the dying minutes of the Rossoneri’s clash with Marseille. Something shocking was about to happen…

Light Off at the Velodrome

A call from the referee was somehow mistaken for the full-time whistle. As the white-and-blue fans on the stands of the Velodrome rejoiced, people invaded the pitch and the players even started to exchange their shirts. Then somebody realized that, oops, there were still three minutes left to play.

Karlsson ordered the play to restart but one of the spotlights of the Velodrome seemingly refused to do so, as it shut down and left most of the stadium in the dark. It was chaos.

The players were sent to the locker rooms as all hell broke loose on the darkened pitch. Photographers, team managers, match officials, all swarmed to the playing field trying to make sense out of an absurd situation.

What was going on? Moreover, what was going to happen if it was not possible to complete the game? The Rossoneri had a precedent in their favor, as just two seasons earlier their game in Belgrade against Crvena Zvezda was cancelled due to mist on 60 minutes and restarted from scratch the following day.

After 20 minutes of darkness, however, the mischievous spotlight of the Velodrome turned on again, setting the conditions for the final three minutes to be played.

But now Milan had a problem with it.

Perhaps still foreseeing the possibility to have the game cancelled, Milan CEO Adriano Galliani had descended from the stands into the pitch and was scheming a shocking move. He ordered Milan to abandon the game, like a bunch of children who didn’t want to play anymore because they couldn’t stand to lose.

Vain were the attempts made by the Rossoneri’s lawyer as well as by captain Baresi to have the team complete the game. The decision was taken. Milan walked away.

And so, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan epoch ended in a cold night in Marseille, with the red-and-blacks shamefully walking away from the European stage, bowing their heads without completing the game that marked their dethroning.

The Aftermath, and Preparing the Revenge

Milan’s shocking decision, seen live on TV, could not but spark consequences. Still, the UEFA ruling was even heavier than expected. Not only were the Rossoneri inflicted a 0-3 loss against Marseille, but they were also sanctioned with a one-year ban from all European competitions.

Ray Goethals’ side was now the up-and-coming force of European football and, with Milan out of the way for the foreseeable future, the time for a French side to win the top European competition for the first time seemed to have finally come.

Marseille wouldn’t manage to take advantage of the situation, though. In the European Cup Final, they faced an equally-sparkling football team – Crvena Zvezda of Beograd – and succumbed on penalties at the end of what had been billed as a potentially thrilling match but rather ended in a goalless boredom.

The following season, the Frenchmen paid heavily for a loss of focus. In the first leg of the European Cup second round, they conceded two penalties in the last 30 minutes to Sparta Praha – which they were easily dominating with a three-goal lead. The no-nonsense Czechoslovakian side converted both and, in the second leg, earned a hard-fought 2-1 win to surprisingly eliminate Marseille on away goals.

Meanwhile, Milan had to switch their attention to the domestic competitions. Arrigo Sacchi’s cycle was over as the “Prophet of Fusignano” had been called to train Italy’s national selection. Sitting on the Rossoneri bench was now the up-and-coming Fabio Capello.

Exiled from Europe, Milan could focus on the Serie A. The Diavolo, led by Van Basten’s goals – the Dutchman would win the capocannoniere title for the second time in three seasons – easily broke Juventus’ resistance to grab the Scudetto and gain once again access to the top European competition, which was about to be renamed Champions League.

Chances were that, if Milan wanted to regain the European throne, they would have to face Marseille again at some point as Bernard Tapie’s club was en route to collect their fourth French title in a row and had a perpetual table reserved in the European Cup. Wouldn’t have that made for a great revenge story?

The Swan’s Last Song

But, before facing the enemy again, Milan had to look at their roster. President Berlusconi and CEO Galliani had been very active on the transfer market in the past few seasons, turning the Rossoneri into an absolute Dream Team. Loyal to his credo stating, “if you can’t beat them, buy them”, Milan’s presidentissimo had deprived Marseille of their most representative man.  

Berlusconi had fallen in love with Jean-Pierre Papin’s footballing skills since the days of their unlucky first confrontation with OM and, after one year of courting, he had finally managed to bring JPP to Milanello ahead of the 1992/93 season.

The inaugural edition of the Champions League was a story already written upfront. Milan and Marseille were just meant to face each other again in the Final, and they easily made their way to the last act steamrollering past all opponents.

On May 26, 1993, at the Olympiastadion in Munich, the red-and-black fans were bracing to have their revenge.

This time, Marco Van Basten was part of the lineup. The legendary Swan of Utrecht, though, had been struggling with a recurring ankle injury since months and was far from his best shape. Capello still decided to rely on him, and Van Basten did what he could, but the battle at the Olympiastadion would turn out to be his last official game. It was the Swan’s last song and what a sad one it was.

Milan had their share of problems in the locker room ahead of the game: Ruud Gullit was furious as Capello reportedly communicated his exclusion from the lineup only minutes before kick-off. Papin was also benched and did not like it one bit.

And so, what was meant to be the final showdown between the two archenemies turned once again into a nervous, tense affair. On 43 minutes, Abedì Ayew whipped a corner into the box and center back Basile Boli jumped higher than his marker Frank Rijkaard to head the ball home.

The second half was a rerun of the movie seen two years earlier as Milan scrambled to put together a decent offensive chance and the French didn’t have to break too much of a sweat to defend their slim lead. Not even Papin’s late entrance changed the situation as the once Marseille star put together a poor showing against his former club.

They had done it. Olympique Marseille were the first club from France to lift the most important European competition’s trophy.

Milan came home scorned for the second time, unable to break the Marseille curse and turning Les Olympiens into their worst nemesis for decades – until such nightmarish Champions League performances as those with Deportivo La Coruna or Liverpool overtook the Marseille saga in the Rossoneri’s gallery of European horrors.

Milan tried everything but the Marseille curse could not be broken…

The Downfall of Bernard Tapie and the End of the Fairytale

Olympique Marseille had European football at their feet. Unassailable at home, where they literally dominated the Ligue 1, they were bracing for new milestones like the European Supercup and the Intercontinental Cup.

And yet, their downfall came out of the blue and was faster than their rise. Like a modern Icarus, president Tapie unnecessarily went too far and ended up pushing the self-destruct button of his beautiful football creation.

In the aftermath of Marseille’s double triumph (Ligue 1 + Champions League), an investigation uncovered a match fixing scandal involving Tapie and OM. In what became known as the Affaire VA-OM, Tapie was recognized as the mastermind behind an attempt to bribe some Valenciennes players into losing their Ligue 1 game against Les Olympiens a few days ahead of the Champions League Final. That would have given Marseille the chance to rest some starters in view of the showdown with Milan.

Marseille lost their Ligue 1 title and were forcibly relegated to the French second division, basically disappearing from the European football radar for many decades. They were also stripped of their rights to participate to the Supercup and the Intercontinental Cup by UEFA.

What they did retain, though, was that Champions League title won against Milan and the unofficial moniker of the Rossoneri fans’ worst nightmare, a never-forgotten nemesis from the early 1990s.



May 26, 1993 – Champions League 1992-93 Final

SCORER: 43’ Boli

OL. MARSEILLE (3-4-3): Barthez; Angloma (62′ Durand), Boli, Desailly; Eydelie, Sauzée, Deschamps, Di Meco; Pelé, Boksic, Voller (79′ Thomas) (Olmeta, Casoni, Ferreri) Coach: Goethals
MILAN (4-4-2): S. Rossi; Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Lentini, Rijkaard, Albertini, Donadoni (58′ Papin); Massaro, Van Basten (86′ Eranio) (Cudicini, Nava, Evani) Coach: Capello

REFEREE: Mr. Rothlisberger (Switzerland)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Barthez, Di Meco, Boli (OM), Lentini (M)