OM-PSG D-2: The match that divides a nation
The rivalry between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain may not be the oldest in France's top flight, but it is undoubtedly the fiercest and most significant both on and off the pitch. Take a look back at the history of the 'Clasico', a fixture that divides loyalties right around the country.
While this could be explained by the fact that the two clubs represent France's two biggest cities and are the country's two best-supported clubs, which draw on massive fan bases right around the nation, the reasons for the all-consuming rivalry between them reach much further.
For the clubs embody the long-standing cultural divisions in France between The North and The South, between the metropolitan and the provincial, between the nation's seat of power and the rest of the country.
So when OM and PSG meet, be it in the league or in cup competition, it is in fact France's cultural identity, and the many divisions it contains, that finds a focus in one match. From Biarritz to Brest, from Calais to Cannes, no-one is left indifferent as, for 90 minutes, there can finally be a winner and a loser.
Despite this huge cultural significance that is now attached to the fixture, the rivalry between the two sides is a relatively recent development. With Paris Saint-Germain founded in 1970, the clubs have faced off 'only' 71 times in all competitions, with honours close to even (28 wins for Marseille, 25 for Paris).
In fact, the fixture only really took on significance in the early 1990s when television station Canal Plus, perhaps with an inkling of the significance it could take on in the French socio-sporting landscape, began to actively promote confrontations between the two sides. Marseille's infamous former president Bernard Tapie also claims he instigated and nurtured the rivalry to motivate his team.
Whichever theory you believe, there is no question that the fixture has developed into an event that produces show-stopping football and brilliant performances from great footballers such as Franck Ribéry, Laurent Blanc and Ronaldinho, who inspired Paris to home and away 3-0 wins in season 2002-2003, as well as Basile Boli, whose long-range header in Marseille's 3-1 win, just three days after he scored the winner in the European Cup final in 1993, is still talked about today.
League titles have been won and lost as a result of Clasicos; French Cups decided and eras begun and ended, careers made and broken. But even when neither side has a big prize in their sights, the stakes are undiminished and the intensity of the matches as electric as ever.
"It's always a special match for us players," says Paris's Pegguy Luyindula, a former Marseille striker. "We all want to play in it. It's an exciting match, with a huge atmoshphere."
From one to the other
While the number of players who have played for both sides is surprisingly high considering the enmity between the clubs (Marseille's current squad features five former Parisians and Paris's three former Marseillais), a player's transferring directly from one club to another is seen as high treason, as Fabrice Fiorese discovered when he was effectively whistled and chanted out of a Clasico by Paris fans outraged by his transfer to their arch-rivals.
Off the pitch, the tension between Marseille and Paris fans is the stuff of legend, and both clubs' world-class stadia (the Stade Vélodrome and the Parc des Princes respectively) are renowned for the white-hot atmosphere and fervent fans.
The more the matches live up to the hype, the more the hype must in turn live up to the matches, and so on until you have the biggest and most heavily charged match on the French football calendar, where passions run high on and off the pitch - and across France.
With the clubs' last meeting a 3-1 win for Marseille at the Parc des Princes in March 2009, Paris will be looking to make a dent in OM's home-ground advantage and emulate their stunning 4-2 win at the Vélodrome in 2008.
And as per usual, on Sunday night battle-lines will be drawn in bars, cafés and living rooms around the country, opinions heatedly exchanged, hopes pinned, formbooks tossed aside as the Clasico captures hearts and divides the nation once again.
Ligue1.com - Stephen Willis