For the French public, the Tour de France is a matter of national pride, and to deliver the home nation success in the three-week event is almost a guarantee of acclaim, regardless of other misdemeanours. In 1983, Bernard Tapie provided the finance and teamed up with disgruntled French hero Bernard Hinault to form the La Vie Claire cycling team named after Tapie’s chain of health stores. ‘The Badger’ had suffered an acrimonious split from Renault-Elf-Gitane team and in in him Tapie saw a man smarting for revenge who could deliver the prestige he so desired. This would be no ‘easy ride’ however, Tapie demonstrated the character to not only contain Hinalut’s fury, but also added the maverick American rider Greg LeMond. In 1985 the team won the Tour with Hinault, and reprised the result the year after with LeMond. Tapie’s finance had created the team, but his dynamism, will to win and ability to hone disparate parts into a cohesive unit had made it triumphant. To his nation, Tapie was a hero.
Born in Paris in 1943, whilst the French capital was still under the jackboot occupation of Hitler’s Third Reich, he was a working-class boy made good through enterprise and entrepreneurship, rising from a quiet family background to accumulate a multimillion euro fortune by the time he was forty. A penchant for buying ailing businesses, turning around their fortunes, before selling them on at a profit, was the cornerstone of his fortune. Years later, he was to apply a similar approach to Ligue 1 club Olympique de Marseille (OM), turning a struggling club into the dominant force in French football, bringing four successive league titles and after finishing runners-up two years earlier, also delivered the Champions League title to the Stade Vélodrome in 1993. His success was not however limited to the sporting field and commercial arena. His energetic presence, Gallic good looks and magnetic personality also brought political success. Standing for election to the French National Assembly in 1992 as a left-wing hero of the youth, he swept to victory on a wave of savoir-faire. Bernard Tapie had it all.
Today however, Tapie has an entirely different image; a star in his own long-running legal saga. The French newspapers label it as L’Affaire Tapie, as the mega-high stakes melodrama drags on apparently interminably, with the judicial system seeking to resolve a morass of accusation and counter-accusation involving multimillion euro deals, deceit and deception. In the twenty-odd year journey between being lauded as a ‘Zorro of Business’ by the French media and adored by millions, to a position bordering on ridicule and disgrace, Tapie has tumbled through scandals, prison and bankruptcies. At one stage, he was even on the edge of a deal to acquire the Full Tilt Poker online gambling organisation, before his empire collapsed like a house of cards, and now he’s gone ‘all in’ to redeem his losses in a case against the French state that would once lauded him for his enterprise.
As with all great labyrinthine intrigues, finding a starting point can be as walking through a maze of smoke and mirrors, but the eight years that Tapie served as president of the OM neatly bookend his rise and fall as nadir chased zenith like some vengeful truth determined to have its day over false witness.
In 1992 Tapie was on the crest of a personal wave of popularity. His club had become dominant in French football. He had entered the French socialist government of François Mitterrand as the minister for city affairs, and had purchased the German sportswear business Adidas, supported by huge loans from the Crédit Lyonnais bank. His political career then however came into conflict with his commercial aspirations. Late in 1992, he was advised by then Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy that in order to maintain his political positon he would need to dispose of some of his assets, including Adidas.
The following year, he requested Crédit Lyonnais to arrange the disposal and the bank purchased Adidas back from him for a sum reported to be in the order of 315 million euros. One year later however, it sold the business on at a price in excess of 700 million euros. Some may call that good business by the bank, Tapie however called it fraud and sought to sue. And so began L’Affaire Tapie, that travelled through legal victories, losses, further victories and further losses, political intrigues and other such nefarious actions as the serpentine nature of the affair continued. But that was all for the future. At the time of the disposal however, Tapie’s interests in OM were about to offer him his greatest triumph – and his fall from grace.
Bernard Tapie had taken over control at the Stade Vélodrome in April 1986, with the assistance of the then mayor of the city, Gaston Defferre. In moves that would later be echoed by the likes of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Sheikh Mansoor at Manchester City and members Qatari ruling family under the Qatar Sports Investments banner in his native Paris with PSG, Tapie sought to use his fortune and prestige to build a club that would not only bring footballing glory to an impoverished city where nearly one in five were unemployed at the time, but also doubtless to build an edifice within whose reflected glory he wished to bask. He had succeeded with La Vie Claire and could do it again with OM. The list of player acquisitions to wear the famous white shirt reads like a Who’s Who of the top footballing talent of the time. Giresse, Pappin, Deschamps, Dessailly and a young Eric Cantona were among the domestic stars at OM, whilst Germany internationals such as Forster, Voller and Alloffs joined the throng and England’s Chris Waddle also pitched up there. All were doubtlessly more attracted by the largesse of Tapie’s francs, than city’s famous bouillabaisse soup. With such an array of talent, there was little surprise that OM began to deliver on the investment. The league title was secured by 1989, and began a monopoly of Ligue 1 that would last across the following four domestic campaigns.
As with the owners of Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG however, the big one, the Champions League, was really the aim of the whole investment. Being crowned Champions of Europe had evaded French clubs since the competition’s inception in 1956. Stade de Reims had been beaten finalists as Real Madrid began their hegemony of the competition in the first ever final, and lost again in the final, three years later to the same opponents. France had then had to wait until 1976 when Les Verts of Saint-Etienne also came up short in the final, this time against Bayern Munich.
In 1991 however, Tapie’s team of expensively assembled stars won through to the final played in Bari, Italy. OM had such luminaries as Waddle, Amoros, Papin and Mozer in their side, whilst opponents Red Star Belgrade were packed with the top East European talents on Prosinecki, Mihajlovic and star striker Darko Pancev. Both teams had progressed through the tournament with displays full of flair and skill. It was an eagerly anticipated final. Ironically, for a game that promised so much with the talent on the pitch, it petered out into a sterile 0-0 draw which Yugoslav efficiency from the penalty spot decided as France international Amoros failed to convert from 12 yards.
Tapie was distraught to have come so close to the glittering prize, and then fallen short. It did not however dim his desire and further investment saw OM back in the final two years later as they squared up to the Rosaneri of AC Milan at the Olympiastadion in Munich. In another game that failed to catch light completely, this time the French side were triumphant as muscular centre back Basile Boli headed the winner two minutes before the break. Fabian Barthez became the youngest goalkeeper and Dider Deschamps, the youngest captain to lift European club football’s elite trophy as OM became the first, and so far only, Ligue 1 team ever to ascent to the summit of the continental game.
From that high summit however, there was to be a horrific fall. Whilst Tapie shed tears of joy after the game, probably shared by triumphant midfielder John-Jacques Eydelie, the pair would later be sharing tears of a different knid, as events that had taken place weeks before the final in Munich, found their way into the open. It was something that would leave a dark stain on the white shirts of OM.
On 20th May, OM had triumphed 1-0 against lowly provincial club Valenciennes. It was a result that almost guaranteed Tapie’s club their fifth consecutive domestic title, and one that surprised very few, although perhaps a greater margin of victory could have been expected. At the time, it was a low key result, to a low-key match. Later however, it would later serve to unlock the door, behind which was sheltering a web of corruption. When the story first broke that the game was the subject of allegations of match-fixing, and that trails seemed to lead through a clandestine web of intrigue back to OM’s president, reactions were mixed. Supporters of the club understandably saw nothing but a plot by the Paris hierarchy, whose jealousy had been inflamed by the resurgence of pride and the thrusting ambition of the city of Marsaille engendered by the success of its football club and Tapie’s ambition. That the popular Tapie was being being corralled into the dock of the accused – in this city of so many docks – was clearly an unjust character assassination. The reaction at the time of OM supporters’ spokesman Michel Baillou was typical of the sentiment around the city. “Marseille are innocent,” he declared. Questioning, “What interest would we have in bribing a small team like Valenciennes?” The answer to that would become clear later. For others however, it was the reality of a suspicion long-held that Tapie’s flamboyant lifestyle and apparent run of success hid dark secrets.
A mere three weeks after the triumph in Munich, detectives arrived at the home of Valenciennes player Christophe Robert’s aunt, and proceeded to dig up the garden at the rear of her house. They were seeking a very special type of buried treasure, and found it hidden in an envelope precisely where they had been told it would be. A short while earlier, Robert had reported to his club coach that Jean-Jacques Eydelie the Marsaille midfielder, along with the club’s general manager, Jean-Pierre Bernes had offered him and team-mates Jacques Glassmann and Jorge Burruchaga money, not only to ensure that OM won the game, but also that the Valenciennes players would hold back in any tackles to ensure none of Tapie’s stars were injured ahead of the Munich final. The bribe reportedly amounted to some 250,000 francs – equivalent to approximately £30,000 at the time.
Some may question why Eydelie would allow himself to become embroiled in such a risky enterprise. For Bernes, there may have been little choice as he owed his patronage to Tapie, but for a footballer to risk his career seemed foolhardy. It was later reported however that Eydelie’s wife told detectives that he had done so in order to ensure he was selected for the final in Munch. Whether that story was true is unclear, but if so, it adds a further sadly depressing twist to the episode.
After discovering the money, and particularly the evidence that the envelope itself presented, detectives then raided the offices of OM, paying particular attention to Bernes’s office. They apparently found further quantities of the same brand of envelope in the office. As it was a relatively unusual type, it added further weight to the case. Whilst this was going on, the players and coaching staff were away on a pre-season training camp. Arriving back, they were met by the waiting police and a number were placed under arrest.
Eydelie and Bernes were charged, but for a while the investigation stalled as although the evidence was compelling, it was purely circumstantial, and nothing definitively led to Tapie himself. After a couple of weeks of maintaining strenuous denials however, Eydelie cracked and wrote to the investigating judge Bernard Beffy, magistrate requesting a meeting. Beffy duly attended, and after a meeting lasting most of the day, Eydelie confessed that he had paid the bribe. The public prosecutor in the case Eric de Montgolfier knew the dam was broken and it was now likely that a torrent of truth would sweep through the breach. “It’s a decisive step,” he declared at the time.
And so it proved. The web of corruption was exposed and as each man sought to mimimise his punishment, the trail led higher and higher until there was only one place for it to end. Tapie was compromised and was to join his former employees as guests of the French legal system in his first, but not only period in prison. As time went on further allegations of match-fixing – or attempts to do so – were reported. Although the accusation was later withdrawn, the coach of CSKA Moscow claimed that OM officials had attempted to bribe a number of his players ahead of a Champions League game the previous season. Despite the withdrawal, it seems a strange scenario to have concocted such a story with absolutely nothing to gain.
OM were relegated to the second division as punishment, where they would remain for two years before regaining promotion to Ligue 1. Perhaps strangely however, they were allowed to retain the Champions League title. Was the Russian coach leaned on to withdraw his accusation so that Uefa could keep their hands clean and their competition above the morass of dirt washing around the gutters of Marsaille and domestic French football? There’s no evidence that I can find to suggest that was the case, but there may well have been suspicions.
One of the people close to the implications of the affair, who clearly believed that the Valenciennes affair was not an isolated incident, was Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. At the time, the Frenchman was manager of Monaco, and he clearly identifies himself and his club as victims of deceit. During the early years of the nineties, Monaco twice finished as runners-up to Tapie’s Marsaille in Ligue 1. It seems that Wenger’s understandable anger stems from a belief that any institutionalised corruption by Tapie during that period clearly denied Monaco titles that should – and would – have been theirs without such underhand dealings.
In articles from The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, back in 2013, Wenger portrays how the situation affected him, and relates that, “It was the most difficult period of my life.” Going on to add that, “When you’re in a job like mine, you worry about every detail. But then to go to work and know that it is all useless is a disaster.”
Although it’s difficult to envisage someone like Wenger falling it a pit of ennui, there’s an undeniable logic at work here if, as seems the case, there was a strong belief that no matter how good a job he, his club and his players did, they were always going to be cheated out of their prize by corrupt practices. Such an attitude illustrates a conviction that Tapie’s wealth was not only being used to accumulate the best talent available, but not sated by that, he sought further assurances for success, by also buying-off the opposition. It seems that Wenger’s concerns were clearly not restricted to a single game between OM and Valenciennnes.
In the Guardian and Telegraph articles, Wenger explains how there were too many results that didn’t seem right and some games seemed to lack any competitive edge where, given the circumstances of the clubs involved, that simply shouldn’t have been the case. It also seems clear that he was not the only person involved in French football that had similar concerns. “There were little incidents added one to the other, in the end there is no coincidence,” Wenger recalled. “[But] it’s very difficult to prove. You hear rumours, but after that you cannot come out in the press and say this game was not regular. You must prove what you say and to come out is different from knowing something. Feeling that it is true and then afterwards coming out publicly and saying, ‘Look, I can prove it’ can be very difficult.” The tone of the Arsenal manager’s words betray both bitterness and the feeling of apparent helplessness at having to compete on a playing that wasn’t level at all. It was crooked, in more ways than one.
For all Arsenal fans may complain of Wenger’s intransigence on certain matters, there is no doubting his principles. The Valenciennes coach at the time of the scandal was the Bosnian Croat, and former Yugoslavia international, Boro Primorac. It was Primorac who compelled his players to go to the authorities about the bribe. It was the event that kicked open the door to the investigation. Later Primorac was to give evidence as a prominent witness as the legal proceedings progressed.
As is often the case in such matters however, instead of being lauded for his honesty, Primorac was ostracised by the French football establishment, as it sought to wash itself clean of the whole affair. Wenger however, perhaps grateful to the Bosnian for at last exposing the affair, took the honourable Primorac with him, first to Grampas Eight in Japan, and then on to Arsenal. “He did very well,” explained Wenger, perhaps a little rueful of his country’s attitude to the man who blew the whistle. ”Because it’s not always the fact that you stand up against it, it’s the consequences of it after.” He then added a hint that perhaps, even now, only part of the full story is known. “I can tell you that story one day and you will be surprised. But I always felt in the end it would come clean again. At least I can look back and think I behaved properly.”
It often seems that it is a dominant player that succumbs to the temptation of giving themselves an even sharper edge of advantage. The players that Tapie had assembled at the Stade Vélodrome almost certainly constituted the most complete squad in French domestic football at the time. Arsene Wenger was an outstanding manager, and his Monaco team were certainly talented. In any ‘straight’ game between the two however, most pundits would surely have expected OM to come out on top more often than not, and across a season not only the talent of its stars, but also the depth of the squad would probably have held sway. The question then arises as to why risk everything by ‘buying’ an edge.
The answer is difficult to establish with any certainty. The feeling at the time, at least outside of the port city of Marsaille however, seems to have been that it was just the way Tapie did business. He had to win. Success in the Tour de France had built his prestige and reputation. Failure simply was not an option to be contemplated. There’s little indication to say how long it will be before L’Affaire Tapie is finally concluded, but should the flamboyant former millionaire, politician, entrepreneur, Tour de France team owner, football club owner, financier, prisoner and tumbled personality ever take to the witness box, his testimony will certainly be considered by some as simply offering false witness. Plus la change.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ magazine. It also being featured in the ‘Marsaille’ theme on the ‘In Bed with Maradona’ website).