Disgraced former Marseille owner questioned in new scandal

by Mark Godfrey

Bernard TapieBernard Tapie, the controversial business tycoon who was jailed following the Marseille match-fixing scandal of the early nineties, finds himself in hot water again with the French authorities over an alleged fraud relating to his former ownership and subsequent sale of sportswear giant, Adidas.

In an intriguing political affair that is gripping France, the 70-year-old was detained for four days last week before being placed under formal investigation by judges. Preliminary charges were lodged for an organised fraud over a €400m (£342m) state payout in 2008 during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

The allegations stem from a dispute between Tapie and the formerly state-owned Credit Lyonnais bank. Tapie alleges the bank cheated him out of vast sums of money while he was the owner of Adidas between 1989 and 1993. Sarkozy’s government decided to end the court case early and settle the matter by private arbitration, a decision that eventually saw Tapie personally earn around €200m of taxpayers money. Judges will look into whether or not there was a deliberate conspiracy within government to defraud the state in order to benefit the flamboyant entrepreneur.

The scandal could go right to the top of French politics with the possibility that ex-President Sarkozy himself could be questioned about his involvement, although if any wrongdoing is proved to have taken place while he was in presidential office he would be immune to any prosecution. Tapie was a substantial supporter of Sarkozy’s 2007 right-wing presidential campaign, despite having previously served as a Socialist minister. He is known to have been a regular visitor to the Elysée and the finance ministry to argue his case during the Credit Lyonnais dispute.

Tapie is no stranger to publicity or controversy. Not only has he been a well-known figure in the business community, he has also been a politician, actor, singer and TV host. His modus operandi in business is to take over bankrupt companies and return them to profitable status before selling them on, with Adidas being probably the most famous example. He also owned the French health-product chain, La Vie Claire, who sponsored one of the most successful Tour de France teams of all time, which included legendary cyclists Bernard Hinault, a five-time Tour winner and three-time champion, Greg LeMond.

In the football world he will forever be associated with Olympique de Marseille. He took over the club presidency in 1986 and proceeded to help oversee the creation of the greatest French club side ever assembled. With high-profile acquisitions of some the world’s top players including Jean-Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle, Abedi Pele, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona, Jean Tigana and Rudi Voller, Tapie’s Marseille set about dominating Ligue 1 with four consecutive championship victories between 1989 and 1992. Coaching legends Franz Beckenbauer and Raymond Goethals were employed in an attempt to bring success in the European Cup. They lost the 1991 final on penalties to the exciting Yugoslavian side, Red Star Belgrade, in one of the most eagerly anticipated finals in the competition’s history. The game held in the southern Italian city of Bari failed to live up to expectations and finished goalless as Marseille, who started the final as favourites, were left to rue a penalty shoot-out miss by French international full-back, Manuel Amoros.

They returned to the final, held in Munich’s Olympic Stadium, two years later in 1993 with the competition in its first year of rebranding as the Champions League. As underdogs, Marseille defeated the formidable AC Milan team of the era by a single goal, scored by defender, Basile Boli. However, soon after their victory over the Rossoneri, the match-fixing allegations were levelled at Marseille and Tapie.

Just days before the Champions League final they rested several key players for a French league game with Valenciennes. A comfortable 1-0 victory secured a fifth successive domestic championship and also meant they didn’t have to worry about getting a result in their final league fixture against their chief title-rivals, Paris St.Germain, a week later. Several Valenciennes players including Argentine World Cup winner, Jorge Luis Burruchaga, revealed they were offered cash to take it easy on Marseille as they prepared for the Champions League final. Although Marseille were allowed to retain their 1993 European crown, the scandal ultimately led the French Football Federation to strip the club of the 1992-93 league championship and relegate them to the Second Division due to financial irregularities during Tapie’s tenure.

Tapie relinquished control of the club in December 1994 and was sentenced to two years in jail the following year after a criminal investigation into tax fraud, corruption and subornation of witnesses. He served six months in prison in 1997.

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