Franz Beckenbauer is one of football’s truly intercontinental legends, whose reputation and very name demands respect. "Der Kaiser" won the World Cup both as the German captain in 1974 and as manager in 1990, as well as enjoying successful periods both as a player and manager for Bayern Munich, winning the European Cup in 1974, 1975 and 1976.
What is a little less known about Beckenbauer however, is that the German spent a season with French outfit Olympique Marseille just after having won the World Cup in 1990. It was probably the French club’s greatest season, as they won Ligue 1 and almost clinched an historic treble, losing to AS Monaco and Red Star Belgrade respectively in the French and European Cup finals.
Yet for Beckenbauer, the campaign was a mere footnote in his glorious career. So how did a player and manager so rampantly successful throughout his time in the game arrive at a club in the South of France in the aftermath of Germany’s last World Cup triumph, only to disappear again so rapidly?
The story, like many at Les Phocéens, starts with the notorious Bernard Tapie, who became president of the club in 1986, and under whom the Marseille won a series of trophies.
Tapie was ambitious and wanted to build the greatest team in Europe; the European Cup was high on the new president's agenda too as he sought to make Marseille a force to be reckoned with. On arrival in 1986 Tapie commented that: “I give myself five years to make Marseille a great European team.” He would succeed, winning five Ligue 1 titles, the European Cup and a French Cup. But the European title and one of the championship successes were stripped from the club under controversial circumstances amid a match fixing scandal involving Valenciennes; Tapie was implicated and Marseille were relegated to Ligue 2.
In retrospect then, it was the 1990/91 season which was the club’s most glorious campaign within football's rule book, when the club almost conquered Europe and France. At the start of the season, with ten signings in total and nine players offloaded, the squad had been radically overhauled. And despite the drastic changes, all started well for Marseille with three wins firing them to the top of Ligue 1; the South Coast side did not lose until the tenth round of games, with a 1-0 defeat at home to Cannes. By then Beckenbauer was in charge.
The side Beckenbauer discovered had been based upon the talents of Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin, Abedi Pélé and England’s Chris Waddle under the management of Gérard Gili, who had won Ligue 1 for the Stade Velodrome faithful in 1988 and 1989. But when, on 6th September, with Marseille seven games into the season and top of the league, Tapie convinced Beckenbauer to join his incipient revolution as the club’s technical director, Gili believed his authority was undermined, and promptly quit, handing the German full control of the club whilst he joined rivals Bordeaux.
The former Germany coach guided the club to successive victories over Paris Saint-Germain and Toulouse, but the defeat to Cannes was so much the worse because of the man it angered, Tapie. Wins against Monaco and Saint-Etienne were then followed by another defeat, 2-1 to Sochaux. Victory over Brest preceded another defeat, this time at Nancy, and with three losses after such a convincing start to the season, Beckenbauer’s role as manager was imperilled. A 4-0 drubbing at Auxerre at the start of December saw Tapie decide to send the German upstairs to resume his role as sporting director and hand over the managerial reins to Belgian Raymond Goethals.
Despite guiding the club to four of their five league defeats, Beckenbauer left Marseille on top of the league and it was remarkable that the club managed to change coach three times during the season whilst remaining at the Ligue 1 summit almost from start to finish.
In his role as sporting director, the Bayern Munich legend oversaw the rest of the campaign as the team from the south chased an historic treble. The club celebrated a remarkable 7-0 success against Lyon in January with four goals from the legendary Jean-Pierre Papin. And in the European Cup, Beckenbauer had guided the club to the quarter-finals of the Champions League with an 8-4 victory over Polish outfit Lech Poznan. Under Goethals, the club won a famous quarter-final against Italian powerhouses AC Milan, clinching the second leg 3-0 after a 1-1 draw in the San Siro. Their semi-final meeting with Russians Spartak Moscow seemed to be comfortable enough and Marseille duly raced into a 2-0 lead; but an away goal set up a tense second leg. The game in Moscow saw the French claim a superb 3-1 win as Tapie's side booked a spot in the final against Yugoslavians Red Star Belgrade.
It was there where the dream ended as Red Star won a dreary final on penalties, whilst Monaco defeated Goethals’ men in the French cup final. Their Ligue 1 triumph meant that Marseille's season was not without reward, and Beckenbauer’s brief flirtation with the French side during that campaign is one of football’s little known yet curious stories.