Olympique de Marseille is the only top-level football club in Marseille, and its support is rabid and unswerving; you could even go so far as to call it religious devotion.
Upon arriving in the city, there is no escaping it. You will see it emblazoned on chests, sprayed up on walls, on cars, in adverts that resemble shrines, private supporter clubs and even in the windows of local stores: OM, everywhere.
Marseille comes to a standstill when their team plays, because you either go to the match or sit in the bar and watch it. With friends, your partner, your problematic uncle – whomever it may be. When the game is on, the crowds will grow, but if you are in the city and get tickets, you should take a walk from the center of town up to the Velodrome, OM’s impressive 67,000-capacity stadium, where you clamber up the steps to a football experience unlike any other.
It is here that the city of Marseille – the underdog, constantly considered a rebel city by the French media, and a true melting pot, where Northern Italy, the island of Corsica and North and Sub-Saharan Africa meet on the streets and in cross-cultural attitudes – becomes one. In the stands, there is no doubt that no matter your color or creed, you are a Marseille fan first.
No matter your social status, in pearly white and heady sky blue, you join with others to support what you love to the death. The Velodrome stadium is a temple of this pride and of radical togetherness. The whistling, the smoke, the chants and the flares are the fierce warnings to others that together say, "We defend who we are and we will be seen."
Things to know before you go
Tickets and seating
Purchasing tickets online is a painless affair on the official club site. You should ideally request seats around the halfway line, in either of the stands that run alongside the pitch. The fierce Ultra supporters position themselves behind each goal, and for your first experience it's best to be seated and central as fans' cries fill the air to deafening levels and smoke and light from the flares widen your eyes.
Timing and concessions
The stands begin to fill one or two hours before kickoff, with fans arriving early to take in the atmosphere. You can buy beer and pizza in the stadium as you take in the vast space, filled only with booming voices and the team's colors.
Every week, the Ultra fans meet and organize the enormous banners to be held aloft inside the arena, known as tifos or tifosi. A visual display choreographed in the stands, each tifo is a one-off spectacle never to be repeated; you'll struggle to find a better sight in European football.
Meanwhile the fans bellow out their famous chants – chants you could learn before you arrive, of course:
“Nous sommes les Marseillais! Et nous allons gagner!”
(“We are the Marseillais! And we will win!”)
As the players stretch and warm up before the game, you will hear the cheers of allegiance that greet the hometown heroes and the intimidating whistling and jeers for the opposition team.
At one game recently, North London's Tottenham Hotspur visited to play in the Champions League. It was a cauldron of noise when goalkeeper Hugo Lloris came out to warm up before kickoff. A great leader – then captain of both Spurs and the French national team – he physically shrank from the piercing whistles, describing it later as a "psychological battle." When he spoke of Marseille in an interview as a "special place," it was understood he meant a terrifying stage for an outsider.
When to go
The French football season begins in August and ends in May. Games are held in the league almost every weekend, played both home and away. There are also midweek cup games. The fixtures to look out for are the ones with fierce rivals, such as Nice, Lyon and, of course, Paris Saint-Germain.
Costs and expenses
Compared to the Premier League in England, the prices are very affordable – depending on the match, sometimes as cheap as €15. In the stadium, refreshments and snacks are also reasonably priced. The club understands that the loyalty of its fans helps it function, so it remains an arena for the people: in a city of tremendous unemployment and a population that often experiences life below the breadline, football is still a go-to for all.
Keep it going
After (and before) the match, you will find many bars outside the stadium to celebrate a great victory or to commiserate as you follow the crowd. The best bet is to make your way to the Vieux Port, where many fans who did not attend the match will have watched it on giant LED screens. English and Irish pubs carry the colors of many European teams on their walls.
They will continue serving drinks into the night in the center of town. The local drink of Marseille is pastis: an aniseed spirit served with water and an ice cube. At once heady and refreshing, it's as much a symbol of the city as anything else could be.
Take it home
Before you take your seat above the gleaming green turf, make your way to the club shop in the Vieux Port. Purchase a club jersey or a reasonably priced white-and-sky-blue scarf. Hardcore fans will wear them tied around one wrist or the waist, but around the neck will also do.
How to prepare
By the time you fly to Marseille to enjoy the sun and make your way to the stadium, your love affair should have already begun, your hopes and fears already entwined with one of the most important football clubs in Europe.
To make that happen, start watching the matches on television before you go, getting to know the players and following the results in the sports pages of newspapers and opinion magazines, such as the Athletic. For more information on the club, there are podcasts and various blogs, like Bleacher Report, the Football Trimmings and MarseilleUK, that decipher and analyze what it means to support the team.
Understanding the fans' energy is to understand a uniquely complex and historical city before you even arrive to attend a match yourself. It is an experience that you'll find impossible to forget.