Eight worried-looking Marseille players stayed on the field after the 1-1 home draw with Monaco in the French league on Sunday.
Several senior players were in the closed circle: attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet, forward Florian Thauvin, long-serving goalkeeper Steve Mandanda and Brazilian holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo.
They seemed at a loss what to do, until finally Payet sprinted off. His mission? Persuading the rest of Marseille’s players to leave the comfort of the dressing room to go back out to face the angry fans.
Eventually, as a reluctant group, the whole team walked slowly and with evident trepidation toward a large group of home fans massed behind one of the goals at a tension-filled and expletive-laced Stade Velodrome.
Discussions between fans and players were heated and agitated, complete with aggressive hand gestures from the fans. Burly security officials kept a close watch but weren’t needed as the verbal sparring — intense as it was — did not escalate further.
Moments later, under-pressure Marseille coach Rudi Garcia followed onto the field and cautiously made his way over.
He joined in the vehement discussions only very briefly, and more as a show of faith, before walking away with Thauvin. They spoke to each other with hands cusped over mouths, foiling the lip-reading cameras zooming in on them.
Tense discussions continued inside the stadium corridors, as the veteran Mandanda — who counts more than 450 appearances for Marseille — spoke at length with unhappy representatives from Marseille fan groups. Gustavo looked on pensively nearby, neither overawed or inclined to speak. Yet his stunned silence was perhaps reflective of how helpless both the players and the fans feel.
The atmosphere in Marseille was at its toxic worst on Sunday night – a far cry from May last year when tens of thousands of jubilant Marseille fans descended onto the French city of Lyon to follow their team in the Europa League final against Atletico Madrid.
Atletico won, but the huge level of Marseille’s support that day was a reflection of the club’s immense standing in France and also its wider recognition in Europe.
Marseille fans take their club very seriously and consider themselves to be the No. 1 club in France. After all, Marseille has won nine league titles — only Saint-Etienne has more with 10 — and remains the only French club to win the Champions League in 1993 when it beat Italian giant AC Milan. Marseille also reached the ’91 final — then known as the European Cup — losing on penalties to Red Star Belgrade.
By comparison, Paris Saint-Germain has only reached one Champions League semifinal. That was in ’95, and long before cash-rich Qatari backers QSI took over the club and invested heavily in the kind of star players Marseille used to cherish.
But this season things have taken a turn for the worse for Garcia’s Marseille, and fans are turning on the former Rome and Lille coach.
Marseille is out of the Europa League, both domestic Cup competitions and languishes in ninth place in Ligue 1 — with a third-place finish needed in the league to reach the Champions League playoff round and second place to qualify automatically.
The humiliating Cup eliminations were particularly galling for fans, with Marseille picking up one point in six group games in the Europa League — even finishing below unheralded Cypriot team Limassol — and going out of the French Cup to a team in the fourth tier.
The fans have had enough and want Garcia out. Not only that, they want the whole set up changed.
During Sunday’s game, fans unfurled banners with some choice comments.
“Players, Coach, Directors. All Guilty,” read one banner, while another struck an accusatory tone with “You are all an organized scam.”
Another strongly-worded one read: “Humiliated in Europe, League Cup, French Cup. Directors, coach, players, you’re the shame of Marseille.”
One banner even took a sarcastic swipe at club president Jacques-Henri Eyrault, mocking him for his use of PowerPoint presentations.
“Do you need a PowerPoint to work hard?” it said, seemingly to parody the team’s apparent lack of work ethic.
Only victories can stem the negative tide and Marseille desperately needs to go on a winning run to get fans back onside.
Next up is a difficult trip to fourth-place Saint-Etienne on Wednesday.
In a match opposing France’s two most proudly successful sides, defeat will only increase the pressure on Garcia.