Marseille vs Paris Saint-Germain: The Modern Day Derby That Became the Biggest Game in France

Josh Sim
Marseille vs PSG
Marseille vs PSG /

The Derby della Mole is part of 90min's 50 Biggest Derbies in the World Series

Olympique de Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain were always destined to be rivals.

The two teams represent the two biggest cities in France, with one located in the north of the country, and the other in the south. It's a clash between the elite in the capital and the working-class of the provinces. Yet Le Classique doesn’t retain strong historical roots compared to other global rivalries. It really only gathered steam in the 1980s, once PSG started to emerge as a disruptive force to Les Olympiens’ dominance.

That’s not a surprise, given that for 70 years of Marseille’s history, the Parisian club didn’t exist at all. Instead, the side that the club were focused on beating was Bordeaux, with teams from the French capital dismissed as a potential threat.

Marseille vs PSG
Marseille vs PSG / BORIS HORVAT/Getty Images

And even after becoming established in 1970, it took Les Rouge et Bleu 16 years to really make some noise, by claiming their first Ligue 1 title under Gerard Houiller’s management.

Before this, Les Phocéens’ success was a source of pride for the people of Marseilles, and they viewed their dominance in the sport as something they had over the Parisians. So, when PSG broke through to beat them to the 1986 title, it caused some resentment among the southerners.

Immediately after that season, Bernard Tapie was elected as the president of Marseille. And he set his sights directly onto knocking down the upstarts from Paris - despite once hailing from the capital himself. His belief that PSG had not earned their status to be one of the country’s biggest clubs hugely endeared him to the team’s supporters.

The rivalry escalated greatly afterwards, with both clubs going head-to-head for the 1988/89 title. And before a title-deciding game at the Stade Vélodrome, PSG president Francis Borelli accused Tapie of match-fixing, adding further fuel to growing tensions between the two sides. Yet it was the hosts who won 1-0, the win effectively handing them a first league crown in 17 years.

While the southerners continued to dominate Ligue 1 afterwards, PSG remained the inferior side. Until broadcaster Canal+ decided to buy the team in 1991.

It resulted in the fixture becoming a must-watch in France during the 1990s, as the games lifted in intensity and ferocity. One famed encounter in 1992 was dubbed “The Butchery of 1992” because, well, more than 50 fouls were committed by both sides.

This wasn’t limited to the pitch either, as violence between rival supporters became an increasingly common sight. Parisians were particularly incensed by Marseille’s on-field dominance, particularly after their 1993 European Cup triumph, as well as the regular inflammatory comments Tapie made concerning their club.

Yet it all came to a halt in 1994, when Tapie and Marseille were found guilty of match-fixing crimes, that resulted in the team’s banishment to Ligue 2.  And for the next 16 years, both sides found themselves unable to reclaim the trophies and titles that they fought hard for in the decades prior.

PSG struggled for consistency in the league during the 2000s, despite possessing the quality of stars such as Ronaldinho and Pauleta who thrilled supporters at the Parc des Princes. Meanwhile, Marseille regained their status as title contenders, only to often fall short, before finally topping the table in a double-winning 2009/10 season.

But the games between the two clubs remained fiery in nature, and off-field fan violence continued to be a factor, despite the authorities’ best efforts. It led to tragic circumstances, particularly in 2000 when a Marseille fan was left paralysed after being struck by a thrown seat from the PSG section. And before the teams met again a decade later, a PSG fan tragically died after being attacked by another faction of the capital club’s support.

On the field, ever since the Qatar Sports Investment group (QSI) took over PSG in 2011, the fixture has become completely one-sided. In fact, Marseille still haven’t beaten their rivals in a single game since 2011.

With the constant stream of world-class stars arriving in the French capital like Thiago Silva and Edinson Cavani, the Parisians have established an era of supremacy in France, having gone on to win six of the last seven Ligue 1 titles.

Meanwhile, since their success in 2010, Les Phocéens’ fortunes have taken a nose-dive. Before 2016, the club were often found stuck in mid-table, and are only now recovering their position as the closest contenders to their northern rivals.

And even though owner Frank McCourt has invested more money into the club, no comparison can be made between the two sides. This was clearly shown when upon his arrival in 2016, McCourt pledged to invest €200m into the squad over four years. A year later, he watched PSG spend €222m on Neymar.

But you shouldn’t take that as a sign that the rivalry has faded in significance. The hatred between both sets of supporters still lingers whenever the two sides play each other. So much so, that Marseille fans were banned from attending the latest Classique encounter in October 2019.

The enduring spirit of the rivalry couldn’t have been more evident when the teams met recently in October 2017.

In a clash that saw Neymar pelted with objects thrown by Marseille fans, Cavani’s late free-kick rescued a 2-2 draw for the Parisians.

So yes, it’s true that Le Classique is as competitive a fixture on the pitch, compared to those fiery encounters in the 1990s.

But even today, it remains one of the most highly anticipated games in the European football calendar. And the hatred between the clubs’ supporters remains just as genuine and strong as it once was, just as Tapie had hoped for all those years ago.

Is it still the biggest game in France? Absolutely.