Q&A with Olympique de Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud
L’Equipe recently published a behind-the-scenes report on the club's activities during this period of confinement. Why did you decide to open the club's doors for them?
Just as the entire planet has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the French people under confinement since March 17, the football world is also going through an unprecedented crisis. The uncertainties have never been greater. When can football resume? In what form? What will be the consequences of the economic crisis for supporters, clubs, players, the transfer window? We are all asking a lot of questions, but we must also keep the boat afloat. This is why we offered some transparency with a look into what OM and the people who are still working there are up to. I was happy and proud that L’Équipe gave my colleagues, whom I want to salute and who do a remarkable job, a way moment to shine in the spotlight. In these moments, the true character and personalities are revealed and what I see in OM is very moving.
Specifically, how is the club's situation now?
Faced with a total standstill, the sporting world is in a danger zone - just as transportion, hotels and catering, events and culture and so many other business sectors ... We do not perceive turnover when we have to pay fixed charges every month. But our broadcasters have penalized us, particularly since a club like OM only receives 41% of its television rights, whereas we have played 73% of the national broadcast matches. We must therefore set up crisis management, where every euro counts.
For me, the priorities are threefold. First, we must ensure our responsibility to our employees by taking care of their health first. Then we must establish an emergency plan to get through the crisis. Concretely, adapting the organisation of the club to this exceptional period was a real headache. Only 60 people are still working, in reduced activity, to allow the continuity of the clubs business. 78% of our employees are partially unemployed. The members of Comex are working hard to manage this situation, make the right decisions and update the emergency plan according to the evolution of the situation. In this very serious context, they all spontaneously decided to lower their wages by almost 20%, to align themselves with all our collaborators in partial activity. The third focus is to live up to our social responsibility. It is also our role and we are carrying out several initiatives such as the dissemination of prevention messages and barrier gestures to our 13 million fans on social networks, the support for caregivers provided every evening from the Orange Velodrome, support for Marseille hospitals via a fundraiser, support for the most disadvantaged via the Food Bank and Restos du Coeur or support for victims of domestic violence. Football is an important factory of social bond. When it no longer exists, we notice it, in Marseille more than elsewhere. So we have a huge responsibility and we do everything we can to live up to it. Basically, we all pass the test of our professional life.
How do you envision a return to football
It's difficult to predict in such a context, where one obviously thinks first of all of the health issues playing out and the consequences - since we are all still in confinement which is absolutely unprecedented for the vast majority of us. No one is knows what's next.
It is my responsibility to plan for all eventualities to be able to adapt to the evolution of the virus. This is the work that is done between clubs. Obviously, you cannot be hypocritical and dismiss the economic argument. Each club is in a very difficult situation today, and stopping the league would mean an even more serious economic situation for them.
At the same time, I am very sensitive to supporters without whom we do not exist. It is certain: the resumption of football will cause immense expectation, and obviously to imagine resuming football in empty stadiums is hard. Ideally, football should resume when sanitary conditions allow, in full stadiums in the midst of supporters who sing, shout, and dance. Now, if the only solution for a safe recovery is to play matches behind closed doors, it may have to be considered, but it would be heartbreaking.
Having an OM game around a corner is the ultimate social experience. One of the few that remains. To put an end to the virus, it is of course necessary to adopt social distancing but the whole paradox, all the difficulty is that sport and social distancing do not mix. It’s the opposite in sport, where you must go body-to-body! But what will become of this precious social experience in the post-COVID world? I ask myself a lot of these same questions, with anxiety, around this subject. I trust our President, I would like to see the experts take the controls. I think we should all stand together and put the health situation before any other consideration. It's no interest to anyone do not do so. We all know this from the start: the virus will dictate its law. We will talk about it all together and I hope that we will reach a consensus on the best way to resume the Championship.
What do you think will become of this social experience in the post-COVID world? What changes will need to be made?
I think we have to come back to a very basic question: what is the role and responsibility of football in public life? For me, the role of football is to make people happy, but also to help support young people who, through the practice of our sport, can grow, succeed, flourish, get out of a future that was sometimes gloomy for them. To demonstrate that nothing has been written and that with a lot of work, talent and passion, we can change the game. And even for those who ultimately did not become professional footballers, they will have acquired strong values which will guide them all their human life. We are educators and this is perhaps our most important mission beyond winning titles.
That being said, in the face of this crisis, what should be the contribution of football to the current effort? It seems to me that the responsibility of football is to lead by example, to contribute to living together, to give back to society all that supporters give football in normal times. This crisis must prompt us to change many things. To put an end to what has gradually taken place in the world of football, to fight even more strongly against its dark side, its excesses.
In this crisis, I set priorities for the executive committee, one of which is to imagine the next world. OM must be at the forefront of the reconstruction of football once the crisis is behind us. It will be necessary to adopt, identify keywords that will be those of the football of tomorrow: humanity, governance, ethics, and innovation too. We have set up an internal task force to reflect on these subjects. We will participate in the debate humbly, in our place. And personally, it is clear that I will join all those who want to turn the table because we can no longer continue like this.
What do you make of the criticism of football ...
We hear a lot about football. I’ve seen a wave come up for the past few days: "football is too rich" or "let them manage." I've even heard a former minister recently say that she was not crying for soccer players. What do you want us to say in the face of the health disaster and the social distress we are witnessing? I understand that certain excesses of our sport make us difficult to listen to today. Now we must clean ourselves up and do better. Once I said that, when we arrived in Marseille, politicians of all stripes told me something in a serious tone: they warned me that OM was the main pillar of social cohesion in the city. And my city is not a small town: it has almost a million inhabitants. What do we do, then? Is football important or not for our societies? For the politicians, is preserving social cohesion an essential objective or not? Why do public authorities go into debt in millions to build and own their stadiums? Is it a good use of public funds? Should the funding of amateur clubs be a matter of political patronage or territorial cohesion? We are still in the crisis, we must first get through it and solve the short-term problems. We will then have to put everything on the table, be creative and proactive to reinvent our sport. Yes, I really think we're going to have to flip the script.
And the question of players' salaries…
In such an exceptional situation, everyone must contribute their share to the collective effort. They know what I want from them and I trust them to make the right decisions. But there are also some truths to remember. Millionaire footballers are easy targets, but players are not what are often described by ignorant people; they are not all frivolous individuals collecting luxury watches, racing cars or supermodel girlfriends. They can go from one very well paid CDD to another which may be much less. They are under very immense pressure, at the permanent risk of injury, which could end their careers. They have a very strong mind, and it is necessary when you play football and especially at OM. It must be remembered and not fall into the fallacies and populism.
How are these complicated economic contexts dealt with?
This crisis has come at a time when we completed phase 1 of our project, which has resulted in massive investment to revive the club, improving our infrastructure, launching ambitious strategies for our academy. The club required an extremely large capital injection. Thanks to Frank's contribution, we have changed the club's profile, its structure and its results.
We are entering a second phase, where the academy must generate the talents we need in the field. Post-academy must be at the heart of our recruitment strategy. And all the work done on the OM brand and infrastructure development should enable us to generate additional income which was impossible three years ago. When we arrived, we announced the surge of €200 million to strengthen the professional team, we actually spent €205 four years later. Financial balance and economic sustainability are now essential objectives of our second phase of the project, financial fair play or not.
Obviously this virus arrives at the worst time since we were on a very good dynamic, sporting and internationally … And that goes beyond football, because a football club today, it is also more and more an organisation that manages concerts , live shows, business seminars, conventions, etc. Everything has been canceled. At best, we will postpone to other dates later in the season when the health situation allows it, at worst, we will have lost all of this revenue. This amounts to millions of Euros.
But we are fortunate to have an exceptional investor by our side. Frank is very focused, very involved with all his team, although the health situation in the United States is also very difficult, especially in New York, where a large part of our offices are located. His outside gaze, his intimate knowledge of the world of sport, are major assets for all of us. We share everything. As for the people who have fun constantly waving the red cloth of a club sale, I can only disappoint them and send them back to their fake news. And too bad for those who dream of it at night.
Faced with this unprecedented situation of a health crisis and its impact on the world of football, Jacques-Henri Eyraud wishes to broaden the reflection to supporters of OM in order to collect their feelings and questions. Several meetings will be organized in the coming days.