A visit to Olympique de Marseille will stimulate all the senses

At the bottom of the steps in front of the Stade Vélodrome, the ultras of the Virage Nord set off flares, and among hundreds of fans, rockets are fired. A few metres away, a boy wheelies between the honking traffic on the busy Boulevard Michelet. Every few minutes, a cobra is set off under the flat opposite, which can be heard all the way downtown. Welcome to the organised chaos that is Marseille.

A visit to Olympique de Marseille will stimulate all the senses

Marseille, A world in itself

If you drive all the way down the Autoroute du Soleil, you will arrive in Marseille. The sand-coloured banlieue flats stand out against the clear blue sky. No matter how many times you've been to France, Marseille always feels a bit like a free state. A world in itself, with its own customs and unwritten rules. A pearl of a multicultural city, but also a city full of problems, large and small crime and even real no-go zones. Marseille is beautiful, but sometimes you have to watch where you are walking. A city with two faces: the Vieux Port is the most beautiful old port in Europe, the city is bursting with good restaurants and the climate is great. On the other hand, there is poverty, crime and the hopeless 'quartiers nord', where you have no business as an outsider and it is downright dangerous as a foreigner.

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The port city of Marseille has always been a melting pot of cultures. Several waves of immigration came to the city: the Italians, the Corsicans, and later the North and West Africans. Each and every culture is known for being hot-tempered people, who have had an impact on the national character. Marseillais are proud and temperamental people. They feel like Marseillais first, then French – or something else. Or is it a coincidence that the two most famous short circuits on a football field – Zidane's headbutt and Cantona's karate kick – originated in Marseille? Probably not.

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OM: The religion

If you see the football club, you see the city. Olympique de Marseille is an outgrowth of the city of Marseille: a club with a stadium and a shirt to get through, and a huge multicultural following. But also a club where it is never quiet, where the incidents surrounding the fans are countless, where presidents often have to run for their lives and players are attacked at the training complex. L'OM is religion, the pride that binds Marseillais with backgrounds from all over the world. It is therefore not surprising that Bernard Tapie, the downright controversial businessman who propelled L'OM to great heights, is still idolised in Marseille. Yes, a bribery scandal almost brought the club to the brink and there are stories of intimidation of referees and even poisoning of opponents, but he also brought the Champions League to L'OM. The end justifies all means in Marseille.

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When we climb the stairs of the Rond-Point-du-Prado metro station two hours before OM – AS Monaco, a cacophony of sounds is already approaching us. Rock-hard bangs, interspersed with honking and accelerating scooters. We are in the Naples of France. Once on the street, we see that the ultras have gathered at the bottom of the grand staircase in front of the Stade Vélodrome. Flares go up in the air, there are torches, and there is singing. All songs that relate to the club in general, but for one man an exception is made: Bernard Tapie, who passed away last year and had a grand send-off. About an hour before the game it had been fantastic and they went to their place on the Virage Nord and Sud.

The Brasserie du Stade, opposite the metro station, still bulges. In the brasserie, which is decorated with beautiful photos of the old Vélodrome, you can normally relax and eat well, but today it is mainly drinking. Beer, but also entire trays full of pastis de Marseille, the strong anise drink for which the city is so famous. Given the crowds, we stick to a merguez sandwich in front of the main entrance. A kind of hot dog, but with the North African merguez sausage. It's a bit spicier and you can get it around most French stadiums.

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When we cross the street we come to the fan shop of the supporters of L'OM. Special: there are two PSG shirts on the doormat in the doorway. Anyone entering is required to wipe their feet on it. But the hatred for PSG goes much further than that. When PSG played their semi-final in the Champions League in 2020, the OM ultras went off all the cafes in Old Port during the match, asking 'kindly' to turn off all TVs. When the Parisiens eventually lost the final, a popular party broke out in the streets, including after the painful elimination of PSG by Real Madrid last season. Even the mayor and the local press rejoiced. In Marseille, people like to emphasise that they are 'à jamais les premiers', forever the first to win the Champions League. Every year when PSG fails.

An old temple with a modern look

Once inside the Vélodrome, you imagine yourself in a completely new stadium, while football has really been going on since 1937. We can all remember the completely orange, uncovered stands in Marseille, where thousands of Dutch people saw Dennis Bergkamp score a dream goal. However, the Stade Vélodrome was completely renovated for the 2016 European Championship, equipping it with a gigantic steel roof. On the one hand, a shame, because it deprived the fans of the view over the city and the Provencal mountains but at the same time a blessing for the already noisy hardcore: their produced sound now sticks even better within the walls.

And indeed, in the stadium, it just hurts your ears by now. A hurricane of noise rages through the stadium from the Virage Nord and Virage Sud. The famous 'Aux Armes' is impressive, in which people sing from one hardcore to the other. The atmosphere is good in the Vélodrome, as usual, but the players of L'OM cannot replicate it. The club motto 'Droit au But' (straight to the goal) has not done much justice, the home team barely managed to set up a full attack. AS Monaco won 0-1.

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Things don't get any quieter in the Vélodrome. The home team are not only whistled but also sworn at with middle fingers accompanied. There is no credit to be gained from the mandatory lap by the players. They also don't do it so much to thank the fans, but rather to humbly say sorry. The man with the megaphone on the Virage Sud talks about 'ces enculés', motherfuckers.

What is a disappointing evening for the Marseillais is certainly not for the neutral spectators. Even if the match was a little dull, the ambience at the Vélodrome is an experience that grabs you: a hostile, but fantastic atmosphere that has no equal in Western Europe. A L'OM home game is like an exciting roller coaster: you get out overwhelmed afterwards, but then can't wait to go again.

Images: BSR Agency, SANTOS