Drama reaches new heights (or lows) at Marseille

There are few clubs that produce intrigue quite like French club Olympique de Marseille, or OM for short.

The only French club to win Europe's biggest trophy, the European Cup, Marseille was plunged into crisis within weeks of its victory over AC Milan in the 1993 final when it was revealed its CEO, Jean-Pierre Bernes, and three players tried to bribe a player on French rival Valenciennes. L'Affaire VA-OM became a national scandal when investigators discovered 250,000 francs hidden in the garden of one of the player's parents.

It led to the imprisonment of its president, the flamboyant Bernard Tapie, and OM being stripped of its 1993 French league title and barred from defending its European title.

In terms of fan support, Marseille remains the most popular club in France, but it has won only one league title since the Tapie days, in 2010. French businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus  injected millions of dollars into OM, as has his widow Margarita Louis-Dreyfus.

Margarita Louis-Dreyfus finally threw in the towel last week when she announced that she was selling the club.

"I understand the frustration of not seeing OM being able to be competitive at this level and I inform you that I've taken the decision to yield the club to the best investor possible for the long term," she said in a statement. "The price is not my main concern but on the other hand the ability of the new shareholder to construct a team that wins at the highest level is essential. I've asked my team of advisers to look after it."

Whoever she finds to buy the club will inherit a mess. OM is winless in its last 10 games -- and its last 14 at home -- and finds itself in danger of facing a relegation battle. OM fired Spanish coach Michel on Tuesday, and replaced him with assistant Franck Passi. A day later, Marseille beat Sochaux to advance to the French Cup final.

This is Passi's second turn in charge of the team this season. He was interim coach in August after the sudden departure of Argentine Marcelo Bielsa.

"The situation is perilous," Passi said. "We need to be united."

That is unlikely.

A campaign to discredit club president Vincent Labrune has included revelations of insulting phone calls from French national team coach Didier Deschamps,  Bernes and Tapie to Labrune in the newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné. There's talk of Labrune being replaced by Marseille businessman Xavier Giocanti, the partner of Christine Lagarde, the chief of the International Monetary Fund.

The phone calls were taped in connection with an investigation into a scheme by an administrative judge to extort money out of Bernes, now France's biggest agent, after he was ordered to pay $14 million in damages and interest for misuse of transfer funds in the late 1990s.
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