France's Ligue 1 kicks off earlier than any other big league in Europe, and its top teams have been boosting their squads in the summer transfer window. Champions Lille has bought smartly to replace the Adil Rami-Yohan Cabaye-Gervinho spine that moved on while Paris Saint-Germain, flush with funds from new Qatari owners, has bought Nicolas Douchez, Kevin Gameiro, France internationals Blaise Matuidi and Jeremy Menez and Argentina's Javier Pastore.
Last season's runners-up Marseille have also been busy, not that sporting director Jose Anigo would have you believe it. Only PSG, Lille and Toulouse have spent more money this summer, as OM have plundered clubs below them for some of their best players: Alou Diarra (€4.5M/$6.4M) from Bordeaux, Nicolas N'Koulou (€3.5M/$4.9M) from Monaco, Jeremy Morel (€2.5M/$3.5M) and Morgan Amalfitano (free) from Lorient.
Recently, Anigo gave a news conference at which he claimed that a series of home-jackings at his players' houses had made it almost impossible to convince players to join Marseille. "Every time I speak to a player, he wants guarantees about his security and in such conditions, you have to be a miracle-man to bring players to this club," he said. "It's a very complicated situation."
Anigo was speaking just after center back Vitorino Hilton had become the eighth OM victim of a home-jacking in the last 18 months. Six men entered his house just before midnight, struck him on the head with a rifle-butt, and stole jewelry, watches, money and a Renault car, which was found burned an hour away. Hilton had 10 family members with him, including his children, and was understandably shaken. "My head was bleeding and the children were terrified," he told RMC Radio. "They want to leave here and go home to Brazil."
In March, a four-man gang broke into the house of Lucho Gonzalez at four in the morning, making off with credit cards, phones and the keys to player's Bentley. The player, Marseille's record signing, was too traumatized to play in the next game, against PSG, and so was left out. "It was a huge psychological trauma for me," Lucho told Canal Plus. His replacement, Mathieu Valbuena, did so well as the No. 10 that he kept his place, and now Lucho is up for sale -- not that OM can expect a full return on their €24 million ($34M) investment. In the same interview, Lucho upset his teammates when trying to defend his performances. "I make a decisive pass, but if the striker doesn't finish it off, then it doesn't become decisive. I feel every game we lose is my fault."
Other players to have suffered include Stephane M'Bia (January 2010), Fabrice Abriel (March 2010), Andre-Pierre Gignac (2010), the Ayew brothers (in November 2010 and May 2011) and even former president, Jean-Claude Dassier, when OM was playing at Manchester United in the Champions League last March. "The government now needs to intervene," added Anigo. "This has gone beyond a joke." After talks with the city's security chief, OM has upped its security around all players.
Meanwhile, police investigating are wondering if there is more to this than meets the eye: has a gang has been put up to it to help a local security firm get business? Are the players picked intentionally to force their departures from the club, or maybe influence the prices of a possible transfer? It looks certain now that Hilton will leave.
But one thing does not quite ring true, and that's Anigo's claim that the home-jackings are turning players off the idea of joining Marseille. It is France's best-supported club, has the legendary Didier Deschamps as coach, and in 2010 ended a 17-year trophy-less wait with the French title.
"The sporting challenge is first-class at Marseille and these [incidents] do not make it less attractive to players," Karim Aklil, agent to Souleymane Diawara and (ex-OM) Mamadou Niang, told RMC. Aklil said it was an agent's responsibility to provide security for his players, and has done just that for Niang and has family since they moved to Fenerbahce 12 months ago. Etienne Mendy, agent to the Ayew brothers, said they considered moving house after their burglary, but it has not affected their motivation.
The tension between Anigo and Deschamps has been well-documented, and it usually gets worse during a transfer window (the most recent disagreement was over Toulouse left back Cheikh M'Bengue, whom Anigo wanted but Deschamps, knowing he'd be at the African Nations Cup in January, didn't).
Anigo was probably just trying to overstate his influence in this summer's recruitment. Away from off-the-pitch concerns, OM has a strong squad in place to reclaim its 2010 crown.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.