McCourt's moving swiftly to make Marseille a contender again
PARIS – Marseille's new American owner, Frank McCourt, is moving quickly to make the ailing club competitive again.
Three days after officially taking over, he hired highly-rated coach Rudi Garcia in time for Sunday's match against bitter rival Paris Saint-Germain.
When he completed his takeover on Monday, McCourt pledged to act swiftly and proved true to his word — bringing in the French coach who led Lille to a League and French Cup double five years ago. It was at Lille that Garcia helped develop the talent of a young Eden Hazard, now a star for Chelsea and Belgium.
As Roma's coach, Garcia set an Italian top-flight record by opening the 2013-14 season with 10 straight wins.
"Rudi has a lot of character and a lot of energy," McCourt said. "We share the same vision for Marseille and an identical determination to put it into place."
Hiring someone who was voted French coach of the year three times was a powerful statement, and a good way for McCourt to show fans he means business.
Such is PSG's outright dominance that French football struggles to maintain a high interest level.
"Franck McCourt's arrival is a good thing," PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said. "We need investors like him to raise the level of competition in the league."
McCourt has pledged to invest 200 million euros ($220 million) over four years. He is looking for an experienced sporting director and Marseille is linked with Andoni Zubizarreta, who previously held the role at Barcelona.
McCourt will be in the stands at Parc des Princes to watch Sunday night's game.
Games between PSG and Marseille used to be the most passionate in French football, fueling hysterical support with a violent edge.
After fans were involved in heavy clashes around Marseille's seaport in October 2009, away supporters were banned from attending the fixture for several years. The clampdown was relaxed recently to allow small numbers to travel, but only under strict police control.
Marseille's meager ticket allocation of 500 for Sunday's match was snubbed by the fans because PSG's away section holds 2,000.
Sunday's atmosphere will lack the deafening chants and vicious goading so commonplace before. One game at Parc des Princes got so hostile that riot police had to protect winger Fabrice Fiorese with shields when he was taking a corner.
Fiorese had left PSG to join Marseille in the summer of 2004, and the betrayal felt by PSG fans was reflected in the objects and insults raining down from the stands.
The edge in their intense rivalry has dimmed, however, due to Marseille's slump. Since winning its ninth league titles six years ago, it has only won the 2012 League Cup.
It still has something PSG craves, though.
Marseille is the only French side to win the European Cup, beating Italian powerhouse AC Milan 1-0 in 1993 — while PSG has only reached the semifinals.
But since being taken over by cash-rich Qatari owners QSI in June 2011, PSG has streaked ahead of Marseille.
Heading into Sunday, PSG was in second place, with Marseille in 12th.
PSG secured its second straight domestic treble last season, winning the league by an astounding 31 points and reaching a fourth straight Champions League quarterfinal.
Marseille finished a miserable 13th and failed to qualify for Europe. It was a turbulent season, with fans turning on players amid a chaotic merry-go-round of coaches.
Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, revered by fans but at odds with then-president Vincent Labrune, walked out one game into the season after saying he signed a new contract. He was hurriedly replaced by Spanish coach Michel, who clashed with Labrune and was fired near the end — replaced by Franck Passi.
The atmosphere became so toxic that riot police cleared incensed fans off the field during a 5-2 home loss.
Marseille's fans can be incredibly loyal or incredibly angry, depending on their perception of how the team is being run and performances on the pitch.
McCourt needs them on his side, in the same way the passionate and highly-popular president Bernard Tapie did during the successful 1990s.
The 63-year-old McCourt, who sold the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion in 2012, has given them strong assurances by hiring Garcia.
"When I met Rudi, he told me right away that he wanted to win the Champions League," McCourt said. "I knew he was the man for Marseille."