Name: Stade Velodrome
Address: 3, Boulevard Michelet, 13008 Marseilles, France
Last renovation: 1998
No. of seats: 58,830
Total capacity: 60,031
Home teams: Olympique Marseille, French national team
The date is 4 December 1977 and the world has just witnessed a World Cup draw like no other in the presence of some 30,000 people. For the first (and to dare only) time, the draw to determinate who would play whom and when was not held in an exhibition center but in a stadium – the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles.
Even people who do not speak French will surely glean from the stadium’s name that it has connections with the world of cycling. In actual fact, when it opened on 13 June 1937 after 26 months in the making, the stadium boasted not only an athletics track but also a tarmac cycling track that was eventually removed in the Bernard Tapie era of the 1990s to make way for more spectators.
The stadium was opened with an athletics meeting, a cycling race and a football match. In the latter event, Olympique Marseille, a club founded in 1899, played host to Torino and ran out 2-1 winners. The stadium was sold out, but as often be the case in Marseilles, the crowd figure was given as anywhere between 250,000 and way over 30,000. The total gate receipts were an impressive 208,000 francs, or around EUR 106,000 in today’s money.
The stadium, one of the first to be built out of concrete, is an architectural gem, particularly as there are no obstructed views whatsoever, but OM, as Olympique Marseille are commonly known, were not keen on the arena at first and they gave serious consideration to staying at their own Stade de l’Huveaune.
The first major sporting spectacle at the Velodrome was the 1938 World Cup semi-final between Italy and France, but just a few years later, with World War II in full cry, the French, German and US armies took it in turns to use the stadium as somewhere to leave their tanks. Fast forward twenty years and the city of Marseilles and OM were involved in a quite different tug-of-war. Having pumped a substantial sum of money into the club, new OM president Marcel Leclerc – a journalist by trade – demanded that the city authorities lower the club’s rent. When his demands fell on deaf ears, the club decided to move back to the Stade d’Huveaune, and in 1967 OM clinched promotion to the top flight while playing in their own stadium before an agreement was finally reached soon after.
Countless world-class players and coaches have graced the Stade Velodrome over the years, including Fabien Barthez, Jean-Pierre Papin, Josip Skoblar, Roger Magnusson, Karl-Heinz Forster, Rudi Voller, Marius Tresor, Alain Giresse, Chris Waddle, Eric Cantona and Jean Tigana to name but a few, but this is an article about the stadium itself, rather than the players who have made history in OM’s legendary arena. Who could forget one particular evening in March 1991 when the floodlights failed during a European Cup match against AC Milan, prompting the Italians to leave the pitch and walk straight into a one-year UEFA ban?
The club’s highs and lows under the presidency of the famous Bernard Tapie were as just memorable, with OM managed by coaches of the caliber of Franz Beckenbauer and Raymond Goethals, a man who had his favorite brand of cigarettes sent from his Belgian homeland. The semi-final of the 1984 European Championship between France and Portugal was yet another highlight with 54,848 people crammed into the stadium even though, officially, it could only hold 42,000. The stadium’s capacity was finally increased to 60,000 in time for the 1998 FIFA World Cup TM.
So what is the secret of Stade Velodrome? Maybe it is the feeling that you are at home, even though you are not actually from Marseilles. After all, who outside France would know that match tickets are sold by fan clubs that add a princely sum on top of the ticket price in order to pay their way?
The stadium was completely renovated for the 1998 FIFA World Cup at a total cost of 397 million francs (approximately EUR 69 million). Four stands were built, and while they cannot completely stop the devilish winds, they can at least provide fans with some form of shelter even though they are still more or less uncovered. In terms of total capacity, the Stade Velodrome (60,000) is second only to the Stade de France, but it is still the biggest stadium in which top-flight matches are played because the Stade de France is used mainly for internationals. Each of the four stands carries a name synonymous with a glorious past. OM have not even considered selling naming rights – yet another unmistakable sign of size and prosperity.