At any other stadium in the world, is there a stand named after a fan? Take a seat in the virage Nord of Stade Vélodrome in Marseille and you’ll find yourself in the Tribune Patrice de Péretti. There you’ll be surrounded by the 3,000 members of Marseille’s most raucous, intimidating Ultras: MTP, for Marseille Trop Puissant (“Marseille, all powerful”). De Péretti, or Depé, was their founder, their talisman, their bare-chested hero. Olympique de Marseille’s club scarf loosely knotted around his neck, megaphone in hand, exploding flares punctuating his exhortations to the crowd, he stood as a reminder of his club’s uniqueness in the usually placid landscape of French football – mad, bad, and sometimes dangerous.
The same could be said of the city itself, as the first-time visitor senses as soon as he exits the monumental Saint Charles station, built in 1848 on a promontory that oversees a vast carapace of plum-and-custard roofs. Life here bubbles and sizzles like in no other city in France. It is a bewitching mess, both ancient (the Greek Massalia was founded in the 6th century BC) and thrillingly young. Marseille – the age-old door to the Mediterranean populated by migrants, refugees, hoods, and fishermen – speaks and sings with a voice not everyone finds pleasant. It is strident and speaks out of turn; cacophonous, not fugal.
The city is home to France’s craziest club, and it couldn’t be otherwise. TheMarseillais wouldn’t have it any other way. “Proud to be Marseillais” is a popular slogan here. Eric Cantona, who grew up in one of the town’s inner villages, was happy to display it on a T-shirt despite his falling out with the OM fans when his rebelliousness set him on a collision course with the club’s hierarchy in the late 1980s. A Marseillais is a Frenchman, true. But France will always come a distant second in the loyalty stakes.