It is a unique club in a unique city, one that ignites the passion of the locals like few others on the continent.
It is fitting, then, that the Marseille skyline is dominated by the cathedral, which stands upon an imposing rock by the old port, and the modern, flowing outline of Stade Velodrome, which has stood eerily quiet over the last year, is one of the game’s great shrines.
When things are going right at Marseille, there can be few better places to play, yet as the squad discovered over the last week, things can quickly get out of hand.
Even at this unique club, this was a quite spectacular outpouring.
“I’ve been a Marseille player for 13 years,” captain and goalkeeper Steve Mandanda said. “I know everything about this club. I know the love and frustration it can generate, but today’s events sadden me and are unacceptable.”
It would get worse, too, as head coach Villas-Boas announced that he had handed in his resignation to the board when confronted with the media on Tuesday. The former Chelsea and Tottenham boss attacked the club’s transfer policy, citing in particular the arrival of midfielder Olivier Ntcham from Celtic.
“He’s a player I said no to,” Villas-Boas told the media on Tuesday. “He wasn’t on our shortlist. I’ve presented my resignation to the board, and I have said that I’m not at all in agreement with their politics in a sporting manner. I don’t want anything of OM. I don’t want the money.”
Villas-Boas deserved better at Marseille
Whichever way the problem is looked at, Villas-Boas’ time is up in Marseille, blowing up in a sad and spectacular manner.
It is not what he deserved. For the best part of 18 months, Villas-Boas led the club with dignity and quality, showing impressive tactical acumen in leading the 1993 Champions League winners back to that level for the first time in seven years.
Villas-Boas might not have had the same success as the Spurs boss, but there are similarities to be drawn between the two. Both are pragmatists and smart tacticians, capable of extracting the best out of their players, for short periods at least, but both can also be spikey when faced with criticism they see as unjust.
Certainly, when Villas-Boas definitively leaves the Ligue 1 side, he will do so having made no friends in the local press corps.
He accused L’Equipe, France’s major daily sports newspaper, of spreading 'bulls**t' rumours, while he also targeted La Provence, the major regional paper, for 'killing the players'.
It is easy to imagine Mourinho going on similarly enraged tirades.
Villas-Boas, though, did not have a great toolkit to work with. After performing heroics with the squad by leading them to second place in Ligue 1 last season, he was then tasked with becoming a miracle worker by repeating the feat while competing in the Champions League.
With a small group of players, who rapidly grew fatigued due to the pressures of the schedule and, in truth, were probably not up to the challenge of the European Cup, in any case, Villas-Boas proved he was no alchemist.
Even amid poor results on the continent, Marseille kept plodding along domestically until a 2-1 away defeat against Rennes. OM led 1-0 thanks to Pape Gueye’s first professional goal, but his controversial sending off for two bookings before the break broke Villas-Boas’ spell.
OM have since won only one of ten matches, dropping from fourth in the league to ninth and seeing any prospect of a return to the Champions League vanish into thin air.
The single-minded Villas-Boas, meanwhile, slowly watched any prospect of a new contract slipping away. By the time his resignation came, he had already suggested he would not be at Marseille beyond the end of the season.
This sad run, too, probably ends any prospect he had of an imminent return to one of Europe’s biggest clubs, or even leagues. Six bad weeks may just have consigned Villas-Boas to being in Mourinho’s shadow forever.