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On Soccer: An Ex-Owner of the Dodgers Takes Another Swing in Marseille

McCourt does not see it like that. He sees those fans, that fire, not as some burden from Marseille’s past, but as the key to its future.

Buying In

In summer 2016, when Jacques-Henri Eyraud, an urbane French media executive, approached McCourt to invest in Marseille (the idea of buying the club outright came later), what captured the American’s imagination was the club’s “real history, the real pedigree, the real passion.”

It had a sleek, ultramodern stadium, worldwide renown, a fanatical fan base and a rich history, culminating in its victory in the Champions League in 1993. (Marseille is still the only French team to win club soccer’s biggest prize.) McCourt saw it, he said, as “one of the last, if not the last,” of European soccer’s blue-chip properties that was obtainable. “It is,” he said, “an epic brand.”

In a different light, though, it might have looked like a relic. Soccer has changed beyond all recognition since Marseille stood on top of the European game (though admittedly in a period in which the club was tainted by a match-fixing scandal). The landscape has been shifted not only by the influx of huge sums from Russian oligarchs and Gulf sovereign wealth funds, but also by globalization, by social media, by celebrity culture.

History and local fervor are no longer enough to attract viewers, to generate traction, to make a team famous. Increasingly, fans are drawn to individuals rather than collectives; more and more, what matters is star power, a trend best exemplified by Paris St.-Germain, Marseille’s most bitter rival.

In the French capital, P.S.G.’s Qatari backers have transformed an underperforming team into a European power by drafting in — at great expense — some of the most famous names in the world: most notably, of course, turning Neymar into the planet’s most expensive player and making Kylian Mbappé his deputy.

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