Tapie bounces back with help from his fans

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The Independent Online
BERNARD TAPIE, banned from running the Olympique de Marseille (OM) football club after a bribery scandal, hit back at the sport's French authorities as his rivals in the city rallied to his support.

Mr Tapie, a minister in the last Socialist government and a controversial businessman already under investigation for financial practices at some of his companies, said in an interview published yesterday: 'If you want to kill me, I don't die easily. I will go, but I will be back.'

He confirmed that he would attack the decision in the courts and before the French Olympic committee, and said of Noel Le Graet, the football league president: 'I believe Le Graet has been leading a war with me which has nothing to do with football. Therefore, I will fight him.'

Mr Le Graet said yesterday that the whole French football family wanted Tapie to go, but accepted that he was Mr Tapie's target, adding: 'I understand the disappointment of supporters.'

On Friday, in a host of punishments, the French Football Federation banned Mr Tapie from any activity in the sport in France for an indefinite period and relegated the club to the second division from next season. The Uefa chairman, Lennart Johansson yesterday supported the decision, but added: 'Personally, I'm very surprised that the judgment was so severe.'

OM officials were accused of bribing players from the northern Valenciennes side to fix a league match last May. Marseille had already been stripped of their Uefa cup title won against Milan a few days after the Valenciennes game.

Paradoxically, the more the 51-year-old Mr Tapie is in trouble, the higher his stock rises in his adopted city of Marseilles. Heading a list for the European elections in June, he is also the designated presidential candidate for the small left-wing Radicals' Movement. But the real prize he wants is the powerful post of mayor of Marseilles.

This weekend, it was the turn of his political rivals, who had no alternative given OM's popularity in the city, to rally to his side. Jean-Claude Gaudin, the centre-right president of the regional council and a normally implacable foe of Mr Tapie, said the Football Federation should have let legal proceedings run their course before taking disciplinary action. He asked: 'I wonder what will happen if tomorrow the judiciary exonerates OM?'

Over the past weeks, as Silvio Berlusconi's election success in Italy was analysed, the Frenchman most compared with the Italian media magnate was Mr Tapie. Politicians fear his populism could bring similar triumphs. In Marseilles at least, where his and the city's misfortunes inter-mingled, his position looks as strong as ever.

Johansson's shock, page 35