MARSEILLE: Everyone keeps asking Andoni Zubizarreta, a Barcelona legend, why he joined Olympique Marseille and when they are going to unveil the next Lionel Messi.
“That is the first question that Patrice Evra asked when I went to Turin to sign him up,” the Spanish goalkeeper hero and now sporting director at the French giants told AFP in an interview.
Evra has been one of a number of big name signings made by Marseille since they were bought last year by American tycoon Frank McCourt.
Zubizarreta, part of the team that won Barcelona’s first European Cup in 1992 and sporting director from 2010 to 2015 when they claimed another two Champions League titles, has been a key signing of intent for Marseille who will face a key test when they take on arch-rivals Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday.
“As I told Evra, between 1991 and 1994 there was either OM or my Barcelona in the Champions League final. We won it in 1992 and them in 1993.
“My memory is of this Olympique Marseille, a club with a big soul, a passion for football. You live it, you feel it.”
Zubizarreta added that McCourt and club president Jacques-Henri Eyraud had put across a plan to make Marseille a competitor on a European level.
“It was as great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, change country, change football and language.”
Zubizarreta and new coach Rudi Garcia are rebuilding Marseille, and their current sixth place is not where they want to be. But the signing of Evra from Juventus, Dimitri Payet from West Ham United, Morgan Sanson from Montpellier and Remy Cabella from Newcastle is a sign of the change.
Zubizarreta said Marseille needs a stronger structure, which he considers his speciality.
“At Marseille we have the pieces of the puzzle but not connection between them.
“We had to change the synthetic pitch at the La Commanderie training ground that was too old. It was a clear need but people were asking who decides and how to fit it in the timetable.”
The scouting, the dressing rooms, assistants for Garcia. All need to be looked at to get the club with some of the most passionate supporters in Europe moving in the same direction.
Looking for new players remains “the heart” of Zubizarreta’s mission. But for the moment he is giving little away.
“It is difficult to talk about the transfer window in February,” he said. “The first job is to define the profile of the players, not the names.”
There are inevitable comparisons with the job he did at Barcelona, where the likes of Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi came through the youth ranks.
“The project we are developing is for OM not Barca, they have other needs, a different situation,” he said.
“You can learn, get to know the experience of others, see what works and what worked less well. But in the end you must have your own project.”
Marseille’s demanding fans are eager for success and want a superstar in the team to rival Paris.
“People are always asking when were are going to produce the next Messi,” said Zubizarreta.
“But the right question is when there is a player of great talent, the decision has to be taken on when he plays.
“When people say to me that it was easier with Messi. I tell them that at the age of 15, Messi was the little one, the player who was different, taking on big tough guys.
“We had to give him his chance, give the youngsters confidence. In real life it is the players who develop, we just facilitate things.”
Marseille academy graduate Maxime Lopez, just 18, is being talked about as France’s next big star. The attacking midfielder has made 19 appearances so far and in November against Caen made a club record 129 touches of the ball in one match. He was Ligue 1 player of the month in December.
“Rudi is trying to give Maxime confidence, instead of looking for excuses for not playing him,” said Zubizarreta.
“It is for him to start playing. We set out the path, help him with structures, training methods.” Lopez says his idol is Messi and, perhaps to Zubizaretta’s exasperation, reports are already linking the teenager to … Barcelona.