This started out as a contribution to Salut! Sunderland‘s new presence on the FC Network corner of the ESPN site. Click here to see what has already appeared. A few hours passed without the piece appearing and Joey Barton himself then let it be known the loan deal with Marseille was now unlikely to go ahead. Now it looks back on again (he is in Marseilles this afternoon, Wednesday) so let us look at what he and this vibrant French city have to offer each other …
In a tweet proclaiming his desire to move on with his life and career, Joey Barton – the baddest boy of English football – said: “If that is in France, so be it.”
Barton so wanted to join OM, properly known as Olympique de Marseille, French champions in 2010, disappointing thereafter but top again at start of the present season.
“My heart is already at the Vélodrome,” he said in another message. “No gain to French football and no loss to England either,” retorted our own Jeremy Robson in a comment on Salut! Sunderland’s French Fancies column. “Good riddance.”
Sunderland fans have no monopoly on the hatred and contempt so often shown towards the player. The Newcastle United connection sharpens their hostility. Any rational analysis would make this entirely irrelevant but I do recall feeling disgust and relief in equal measure when Barton hinted that Sunderland had been interested in signing him before he went to QPR.
By his own account, Barton is an “ex-con, ranting anti-celebrity, football’s philosopher king, loving dad and violent thug all rolled into one”. He might have added: “… and currently serving a 12-match ban for extraordinary misconduct in the final game of last season, when he was sent off for elbowing Carlos Tévez before kicking Sergio Agüero, apparently trying to butt Vincent Kompany and even finding time to confront Mario Balotelli.”
Barton has intelligence and a lively mind. But it is for his frankly stupid actions as “violent thug”, to use his own phrase, and not for his philosophy and bons mots that he is best known.
And it seemed just my luck that the part of France he had his eye on was the area, or near enough, where I live and work for part of the year. “Other clubs are in,” he tweeted, “but I only want to play in Marseille. This is the place for me… “
But was it the place for him? In the interests of rehabilitation of offenders, I sought to advise him before he made any such move.
There is much to like about Marseille and its football. Whatever a Paris Saint-Germain fan would tell you, there is no more passionate set of supporters in France, no more rebellious city and no place where – despite a strong extreme right presence – people of all origins broadly rub along.
“When we score, blacks, Jews, Arabs and everyone else rises to their feet at the same time,” Joseph Antoine-Bell, the Cameroonian goalkeeper who played for the club in the 1980s, once said. The roll call of past players includes the great and the eccentric: Gunnar Andersson, Chris Waddle, Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin, Fabius Barthez, Eric Cantona …
If Joey’s hopes were somehow to come true after all, he might find this short guide useful:
• Marseille is France’s second city and has a large North African population so a smattering of Arabic, on top of whatever French he already has or can acquire, would come in handy
• People are more outgoing and friendly than, say, Parisians or Londoners. But he should take exceptional care about those he falls out with; this year’s tally of dead from score-settling at gunpoint is already 18 in the region, 14 in the city (or was; it rose to 19 a few hours after part one of Barton’s medical when a man was blasted to death with a Kalachnikov on Boulevard Casanova, prompting the mayor of two districts to appeal unsuccessfully to the government to send the army in)
• The OM “ultras”, the more fanatical fans who include some very rough individuals, expect and usually get respect from the players
• French referees are even less tolerant of physical contact than their English counterparts
* While others tuck into bouillabaisse, the delicious but heavy fish soup created in Marseille, highly paid footballers are best advised to stick to whatever the club’s diet prescribes, washed down with water not the rosé wine favoured in these parts
• A little humility is advisable when presenting oneself as football’s “philosopher king”, since this is a country that takes its philosophy seriously
If Joey is right and any prospect of a deal is off, there’s no need for my parting shot: since I live east of Marseille, could house-hunting please be confined to areas west or north of the city?