From the moment the Valenciennes player Christophe Robert alleged that the Marseille midfield player Jean-Jacques Eydelie and the club's general manager, Jean-Pierre Bernes, had offered him and his team- mates, Jacques Glassmann and Jorge Burruchaga, a fistful of francs to throw the game, it was inevitable the affair would develop into the French media event of the year.
There seems no escape from this midsummer serial of intrigue. Its daily bursts of exclusives, allegations and ripostes means a secure slot at the top of French television and radio news programmes.
It would be hard to imagine a greater football scandal. Marseille are France's biggest, best supported and most successful club and their president, Bernard Tapie, one of the country's most flamboyant figures.
Only six weeks ago Tapie was shedding tears of joy in the grandstand of Munich's Olympic Stadium. His team had just upset the form book with a European Cup final triumph over Milan and, after a prolonged wait of 38 years, the French nation could finally toast the conquest of the premier Continental club competition.
It was the culmination of Tapie's personal crusade for European glory, an obsession which involved a huge investment and the constant changing of coaching and playing personnel. Since he took over the club in 1986, Marseille have dominated French football.
Until now Tapie's life has been predicated on one common denominator - success. He amassed a fortune by buying ailing companies and bringing them into profit, ran a cycling team and was a minister in Francois Mitterrand's government.
The Marseille scandal broke nearly three weeks ago, when detectives dug up an envelope containing the alleged bribe of 250,000 francs ( pounds 30,000) in the garden of Robert's aunt. The central characters in the case were questioned and Bernard Beffy, the examining judge heading the investigation, led a raid by six police officers on Marseille's headquarters, where they spent several hours searching Bernes's office. When the Marseille players arrived in the Pyrenees for a pre-season training camp, 12 were taken away for questioning.
Eydelie and Bernes are now in prison, having been charged with 'active corruption'. Robert admits accepting the bribe, Burruchaga says he agreed but then changed his mind, while Glassmann says he never agreed to the deal.
After a fortnight of denials, Eydelie yesterday admitted that he had paid a bribe to three Valenciennes players. The confession followed a five-hour visit from Beffy, to whom Eydelie had written from prison. The public prosecutor in Valenciennes, Eric De Montgolfier, said of Eydelie's admission: 'It's a decisive step for the continuation of the inquiry.'
If a successful prosecution is brought, players and officials found guilty of bribery will face life bans and Marseille could be stripped of their 1992-93 League title and demoted to the Second Division. Needless to say, a stain of corruption on Marseille's famous white shirt must place their European Cup defence in jeopardy.
In yet another twist to the story, the coach of CSKA Moscow claimed that Marseille officials had tried to bribe his players before the two teams met in the European Cup last season. He later withdrew the accusation, but the governing body of European football, Uefa, is continuing to investigate the claims. The draw for the forthcoming season's competition will be made tomorrow, but for the moment Marseille's place in it is secure.
Noel Le Graet, the French League president, has vowed 'to deal with this gangrene', but says that punitive action will wait until the criminal investigation is completed.
'Marseille will probably start the new season on 24 July in the First Division,' he affirmed. 'If it is proved they committed an offence, they will be punished later. Let the inquiry follow its course. It's too important a dossier to rush things.'
On the sweltering streets of Marseille, the mood of the supporters has been one of defiance. Exhibiting that traditional French flair for boulevard demonstrations, 2,000 fans vociferously expressed their solidarity with Eydelie, Bernes, Tapie and company as they descended the Canebiere, the Mediterranean port's main avenue, shortly after the scandal broke.
With unemployment at 18 per cent and the municipal finances in anaemic shape, Marseille's footballing hegemony represents one of the few sources of civic pride for a population long frustrated by the Paris-dominated centralism of the French state. To defend their football dream many have adopted a siege mentality, refusing to give credence to tales of wrongdoing and ever willing to explain the scandal as a Parisian plot to destroy Tapie and his club.
'We are convinced Marseille are innocent,' the supporters' spokesman, Michel Baillou, said. 'What interest would we have in bribing a small team like Valenciennes?'
Beyond the borders of Provence, however, public opinion is somewhat less prone to accept the theory of an anti-Tapie plot. Sickened by the corruption which appears to have taken root in the French game, football lovers are demanding remedies. 'I am glad the football authorities called in the judiciary to look into this scandal,' said a caller on a radio phone-in. 'If the League and the federation were in charge of the inquiry, it would have been eventually hushed up.'
Specialist magazines have excelled in their coverage of the story. France- Football produced illuminating interviews with Robert and De Montgolfier, while in a Le Sport scoop, the referee of the Valenciennes-Marseille match, Jean-Marie Veniel, spoke of what he perceived to be the home team's 'passivity' during the match.
Nor have the heavyweight dailies been found wanting. Indeed, Le Monde has consistently impressed with its revelations. It was two Le Monde reporters, Jerome Fenoglio and Edwy Plenel, who broke the story that an unusual brand of envelopes found during the raid on Marseille's headquarters were identical to the one secreted in Aunty Robert's Dordogne property.
It was also Le Monde that revealed that Eydelie's wife, Christine, had pointed the finger of guilt at her own husband, claiming he had agreed to Bernes' request to be the intermediary in return for a place in Marseille's European Cup final team.
It has been a remarkably public affair, but De Montgolfier shrugs at the idea that the case should be conducted in a more private fashion. 'The press plays a protective role, he said. 'If I don't speak, there is a risk the affair will be covered up.'
A CORRUPTION DRAMA'S CAST
Eric de Montgolfier: the public prosecutor in Valenciennes.
Bernard Beffy: examining judge who is leading the investigation.
Bernard Tapie: entrepreneur, former government minister for Urban Affairs and president of Marseille.
Jean-Pierre Bernes: Marseille general manager. Under investigation for 'active corruption'. Currently in jail in Valenciennes. Denies involvement.
Jean-Jacques Eydelie: Marseille midfield player. Alleged go-between in affair. Also under investigation for 'active corruption'. Originally denied charges, but yesterday admitted that he had paid a bribe.
Christine Eydelie: Wife of Jean- Jacques. Confirmed her husband was the intermediary in the affair, contradicting his initial version of events.
Christophe Robert: Valenciennes forward. Admits originally agreeing to accept a bribe but claims he changed his mind: 250,000 francs recovered from his aunt's garden. Cautioned with 'passive corruption'.
Marie-Christine Robert: Wife of Christophe: says she collected the money from Eydelie at Marseille hotel.
Jorge Burruchaga: Valenciennes' Argentinian midfield player. Also faces 'passive corruption' charge. Gives same account as Robert.
Jacques Glassmann: Valenciennes defender. Robert and Burruchaga say he was part of the deal. Glassmann denies this.
Noel Le Graet: President of the French League.
FRENCH OFFENCES: A BRIEF HISTORY
May 1971: A storm erupts when Saint-Etienne accuse Marseille of illegal approaches to French internationals Georges Carnus and Bernard Bosquier. Saint-Etienne president Roger Rocher banishes the pair and watches helplessly as Marseille pip his team to the League title.
December 1977: The Paris-Saint- Germain 'Double Ticket' scam. Club sanctioned sale of match tickets on black market and used cash to boost signing-on fees. Chairman Daniel Hechter banned for life.
November 1982. Saint-Etienne 'Caisse Noire'. A slush fund is discovered which was used to make under-the-counter payments to players. Chairman Rocher imprisoned for fraud. Nine former players, including Michel Platini, forced to pay large sums of unpaid tax.
November 1990: Bordeaux president Claude Bez reveals Parisian call girls were put on the club's payroll to take care of match officials after European games.
January 1991: Allegations made that Marseille attempted to fix matches with Caen, Brest, Saint-Etienne and Bordeaux. Charges fail to stick. But president Bernard Tapie suspended for 12 months for 'damaging sporting morale and insulting referees'. Marseille players threatened to strike.
February 1991: Bordeaux pounds 30m in the red. Claude Bez imprisoned for fraud.
June 1991: Bordeaux, Brest and Nice relegated to the Second Division because of excessive debts.