Jaques-Henri Eyraud’s exit as Marseille President: A major cultural clash between a Harvard-educated Parisian and proud locals
16 March 2021
After a four-year reign as president of Olympique Marseille, American owner Frank McCourt decided to replace Jaques-Henri Eyraud with Sports Director Pablo Longoria.
"...you have to be careful not to bring in a ‘fan in a suit’, because it will be someone who will talk about passion for the club...rather than looking at the plan defined together," said the former Disney-director. That comment was not well received.
The Parisian businessman made a number of management changes at executive level, but never got the backing of employees that was needed to realise his visions for the club. Big losses in the transfer market were also a problem.
Demoted to the supervisory board, Eyraud is still part of OM but will remain without influence in daily operations and speculation is ripe that he will leave the club.
When the American owner of Olympique Marseille (OM), Frank McCourt, announced on 26 February that Pablo Longoria would replace Jaques-Henri Eyraud as president, it signalled the end of an era for the 1993 UEFA Champions League winners who today find themselves in the midst of a storm - both on and off the pitch.
While Longoria was practically handed the keys to the castle, by being made chairman of the OM executive board, Eyraud was virtually stripped of all influence inside the club and sent to the dungeons by being sent to sit on the supervisory board.
Afterwards, McCourt made no bones about who was in charge. “The supervisory board has no operational responsibility. Eyraud still represents OM but he will not be involved in daily operations. Pablo is now the president,” McCourt told French radio-station RMC.
It was the end of a partnership which had otherwise seemed so promising when the American business tycoon and the French director of Disney joined forces when McCourt bought the club and Eyraud was made president in 2016.
Relationship became inflamed
But after an encouraging start when McCourt announced that he wanted to win the Champions League with Marseille, the relationship between McCourt and Eyraud became inflamed as Eyraud sacked key personnel, alienated himself from the club's massive fan base and approved questionable transfers.
“In the end there were really only two options available for McCourt. Either sell the club and leave or sack Eyraud as president,” Vincent Chaudel, former global marketing director at consultant firm Wavestone and founder of “l'Observatoire du Sport Business” tells Off The Pitch.
“l'Observatoire du Sport Business” is a Think Tank and open space for contributors and experts within Sports Business to discuss the economic and management-related mechanisms of the football-industry.
The dissatisfaction with club results and the actions of Eyraud came to a head on 29 January this year when 150-200 fans - in a scenario almost akin to French revolutionaries storming the Bastille in 1789 - forced their way into the Centre Robert Louis-Dreyfus as they protested against club officials and especially President Eyraud.
French sports paper L'Équipe carried a photo of a tifo just by the entrance saying “Eyraud dehors” (Eyraud out). A banner hanging from a bridge also urged Eyraud to quit: “Eyraud: You are making our club dirty ... get lost!" the banner read.
Before that, there had been four years in which Eyraud´s popularity had gradually plummeted. It was unusual for Marseille and McCourt to have handed the presidency to a man who had never worked in football before, but that was not necessarily a problem, says Chaudel:
“In France, we don´t expect the CEO of Samsung to know everything about technology. He should have a vision for the company and be able to attract and hire the people who can carry out that vision. The fact that Jaques-Henri Eyraud didn’t come from football wasn’t important. But of course it became an issue when he started talking about results and what happened on the pitch. It wasn’t his business and he should have stayed away from it,” says Chaudel.
It was certainly never popular that a Harvard business graduate from the upper echelons of Paris society took over the presidency of a club who had identified themselves historically with the poor man’s struggles against the establishment. But Chaudel says: “it’s not a question of Paris, it was a question of social class.”
“Bernard Tapie came from poor Parisian suburbs but went on to become a member of parliament, president of Adidas and also president of OM. So he became a symbol of hope, that people from poor parts of society can climb the social ladder. Eyraud came from the upper class and went to prestigious business schools. And the way Eyraud communicated with the fans was like a king in a castle talking to his subordinates,” says Chaudel.
Fans can't be employees
In December last year, Eyraud took part in a video call in a LinkedIn webinar which was supposed to be private. During the call, Eyraud pointed out that he didn’t want his staff to be made up of people who were also supporters of the club.
Eyraud said: “When I arrived, I was struck by the fact that 99 per cent of people working at the club were from Marseille. I think that this is a danger, a risk. Why do I say that? Because I was there for several months and we were on a run of two consecutive defeats. I saw just how grey the faces were. People were close to depression.
"In terms of productivity, the impact that a defeat had on attitudes, behaviour on a daily basis was strong. The English, the Americans are usually better able to distance themselves from that. When you are an employer at a football club, the first thing that you have to be careful of not doing is to bring in a ‘fan in a suit’, because it will be someone who will talk about passion for the club, for his team, rather than looking at the plan defined together.”
The video call immediately provoked a strong response from the fans, but also from club legends such as former French international Manuel Amoros, who was part of the 1993 Champions League-winning team.
“It is amazing how you can say such things when you are the president of Marseille. Eyraud doesn’t care about the supporters, the people of Marseille who live only for the OM. He is a Parisian and he can do what he wants to do. (But) he kicks out local people who have been here for several years and brings in Parisians who don’t have any knowledge about football. With such actions, how can you then on a trustworthy basis try to put Marseille on the right track and perform as well as before?” Amoros told RMC.
No team spirit
Chaudel characterises Eyraud´s statements as a diplomatic blunder.
“It was certainly a mistake. On Sunday (7 March) Marseille lost in the French Cup against a team from the 4th division. And of course on Monday, all fans of Marseille including the employees were very sad about the state of affairs. Eyraud didn’t want fans to work for the club because he didn’t want them to make decisions based on irrational and emotional motives.
"But it’s a mistake, because if the employees working for the club aren’t also fans of the club, you don’t have team spirit. And that is something which is crucial in any type of business. You need it in Nike, you need it in Samsung, you need it in Starbucks. If the employees are loyal and committed to the company, they are 100 per cent personally there for you,” says Chaudel.
Already in the summer of 2017, Eyraud began a massive clear-out at OM as 25 people were sacked from a number of the club’s departments - communication, media, marketing, administration, while OMTV, the club’s own brand media channel, was shut down. It was a signal that Eyraud did not want established members of the Marseille staff to block his visions as he continued to sack key personnel over the years.
The problem was, however, that it was too much too soon, says Chaudel.
“I understand that he wanted to implement his visions but it just happened too fast. And when you get rid of so many people, you also change the spirit of the organisation. It was like he ripped out the heart out of the Marseille organisation and put in a pacemaker. By making so many management changes at the same time, he took a big risk and he lost,” Chaudel says.
Eyraud will also have to accept blame for Marseille’s poor transfer record and recruitment policy during his time at the club. McCourt pumped €200 million into the transfers budget when he arrived the club and five French internationals were purchased.
They were all good players, but also old, as they were all about 30. Indeed, this has been a continual problem at Marseille - buying old, expensive players for money they cannot retrieve. Around €170 million was lost just on transfers during Eyraud´s reign.
“They pay too much for some players, too much for some agents, and too much in wages – a new vision is needed,” Chaudel concludes.