European football clubs are spreading their wings and exploring new markets around the world. However, this internationalisation is predominantly focused on Asia and North America. At Olympique Marseille, that’s not the case. The French club has developed a special bond with the continent of Africa, and Laurent Colette, general director at the Stade Vélodrome, has explained the intricacies of this relationship to WFS.
“Marseille as a city has a long and rich history with Africa,” Colette pointed out. “People, goods and cultures have transited through the port and a stroll through Marseille shows how this city is linked to Africa. The relationship between Olympique Marseille and Africa is very natural, but had never been developed seriously. Real and sustained focus started recently with, among other things, a complete 360° strategic plan and the appointment of an international development manager directly reporting to me.”
Colette joined the Ligue 1 club in 2018 after spells working with FC Barcelona and AS Roma, and his team has focused on bringing Olympique Marseille closer to the fans on the continent by developing partnerships with local businesses. “We have worked with Puma to dramatically increase our presence in local retail, we have multiplied interviews with African media and we have geolocalised specific content in local languages for our fans using social netWFS speworks.”
Based on a 2018 study from JD Sports, we know Real Madrid remains the most popular club in most parts of French-speaking Africa, while Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are among the other most popular club sides in the continent. Looking solely at the French clubs, Paris Saint-Germain may be the most popular French club in Africa based on searches, but Olympique Marseille does a good job in competing with the perpetual Ligue 1 champions. The top five countries outside of France where Olympique Marseille comes closest to matching PSG’s popularity are Algeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Gabon and Cameroon, all of which are African nations.
“North Africa is the closest territory to Marseille and its footprint is very visible in the city. When we travel through these countries, and especially in Algeria, Olympique Marseille is among the favourite teams.” Laurent Colette, General Director of Olympique Marseille
One of the keys in boosting the club’s profile in Africa has been the fact that many African football fans share the French language with the club. “For obvious cultural reasons, French-speaking Africa is more our focus, but we are also quite well-known in other countries such as Egypt or Ghana,” Colette stated. “There is undoubtedly a strong focus on Maghreb countries, but not only. Senegal, Mali or Ivory Coast are also priority markets. North Africa is the closest territory to Marseille and its footprint is very visible in the city. When we travel through these countries, and especially in Algeria, Olympique Marseille is among the favourite teams.”
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that one of the most ambitious projects has been launched in North Africa. As part of the club’s determination to build bridges to the continent, they’ve launched an academies project and the first countries where the club’s football schools have been launched are Tunisia and Algeria, while the next one is Morocco.
This is all about maintaining a physical presence in Africa and occupying an active role in the continent’s football scene. There could be sporting benefits down the line for the club, as there is a strong belief that there is an abundance of talent in Africa. Over the years, ‘les Olympiens’ have had some of the top African talents pass through the first team, such as Didier Drogba, Medhi Benatia, Seydou Keita, Souleymane Diawara, Bakari Koné or Joseph Yobo.
“Talent is there and players are stars at the most prestigious clubs, such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and previously Samuel Eto’o,” said Colette. “Building a professional roster can’t be led by business or a marketing focus. However, we consider that French-speaking African countries have fantastic talent, and this is according to the most prestigious international scouts. We should be more active in the detection of promising players in countries where Olympique Marseille naturally enjoys a strong image and an emotional connection.”
“Promotor offers from USA or Asia are hard to challenge from Africa, but money isn’t everything.” Laurent Colette, General Director of Olympique Marseille
Overall, the belief that Africa should be a priority market has been paying off for the club. As Colette explained: “We are still at the beginning of the process, but we already have some important achievements such as the opening of the two schools in Tunis and Algiers, a strong boost of consumer offtake from Puma Olympique Marseille items in our target countries, and a constant PR effort expressed in dozens of press articles and projects from touring with the team in Maghreb.”
Taking the first team to Africa is a clear objective for the club and the general director would love to see more European clubs visiting the continent for their pre-season tours in the same way they currently spend time in Asia and North America. “I absolutely do and I hope Olympique Marseille will walk the talk,” he said of that prospect. “Promotor offers from USA or Asia are hard to challenge from Africa, but money isn’t everything. As global singers are doing, teams must get closer to their fans, and playing friendly games is undoubtedly a great way to reach that objective and create strong momentum in the visited territories.”
“I do hope WFS will create a strong momentum of talent, of thinking, of initiatives starring Africa and of positioning the continent as one of the top three spots in the world.” Laurent Colette, General Director of Olympique Marseille
Colette will personally be in Africa next year for the inaugural World Football Summit Africa on March 17th and 18th, 2020. It’ll be held in Durban, South Africa, and he is very excited at the possibilities this conference will bring. “It is great to consider Africa as a major football territory and to gather specialists together to exchange around the huge potential of this continent,” he said. “I do hope such a summit will create a strong momentum of talent, of thinking, of initiatives starring Africa and of positioning the continent as one of the top three spots in the world.”