PARIS (AP) — Bernard Tapie, a flamboyant businessman who was beloved by sports fans for leading French soccer club Marseille to glory but also dogged by legal battles and corruption investigations, has died. He was 78.
A feature of French life for decades, Tapie’s death Sunday unleashed tributes from across the worlds of sports, politics, business and entertainment in France, reflecting the wide-ranging, storied and repeatedly controversial variety of his multiple careers and endeavors.
“He led a thousand lives,” the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said in a message of condolence to his family. It said Tapie’s “ambition, energy and enthusiasm were a source of inspiration for generations of French.”
Tapie’s wife, Dominique, and their two children announced his death to the Marseille newspaper La Provence, which he owned. Tapie had been fighting cancer, diagnosed in 2017. Tapie also had two other children from a previous marriage.
The family’s statement said Tapie wanted to be buried in Marseille, “the city of his heart.” He was adored there by fans of the city’s soccer club, which counts Macron among its supporters. The club tweeted that “he will leave a great void in the hearts of the people of Marseille.”
Lille and Marseille fans joined together in a moment’s applause before their match on Sunday as a picture of Tapie was shown on Lille’s scoreboard. Marseille players wore black armbands.
Tapie’s popularity peaked during the 1980’s and ‘90’s when, as club president, he guided Marseille to victory in the 1993 Champions League. Marseille is the only French club to have won European soccer’s showcase club competition.
Euphoric Marseille fans sang “We Are the Champions” late into the night after defender Basile Boli’s bullet header defeated Italian giant AC Milan 1-0 in Munich. The side was captained by Didier Deschamps, a midfielder whose huge work ethic matched Tapie’s and who then coached Marseille to the league title in 2010 and France to World Cup glory in 2018.
“Bernard Tapie’s death deeply saddens me. It’s under his guidance that I experienced my first big achievements,” Deschamps said. “But I keep many other memories of our relationship and I will never forget that he shaped my path. He definitely strengthened my spirit as a competitor … his iron will rubs off on players.”
Tapie was extremely demanding of his players but also close to them. Among his star recruits were dazzling wingers Enzo Francescoli and Chris Waddle, ruthless finisher Rudi Voeller and imposing central defender Carlos Mozer. Long before the days of social networks and camera phones, Tapie would be filmed opening Champagne with his players in the dressing room after a big win.
“RIP Bernard Tapie what a man Legend,” Waddle tweeted and shared a photo of him standing alongside prolific striker Jean-Pierre Papin with Tapie behind them.
Players were devoted to him and played electrifying attacking soccer that lit up stadiums in France and abroad.
Marseille also won five French league titles between 1989-93 and the league and French Cup double in ’89. But the ’93 title was stripped and Marseille relegated to the second tier because of a match-fixing scandal. Players for league rival Valenciennes were paid to throw a game, with a lump sum of money buried in the garden of one of the players. Tapie was convicted of rigging the match and served more than five months in jail. Marseille was not able to defend its European crown.
The prosecutor in that case said at the time that “soccer has come out of this sordid, stained and dirty.”
Marseille fans, however, continued to adore Tapie. Admirers on Sunday attached bouquets of flowers to a portrait of Tapie erected outside the club’s stadium.
Tributes also came from Marseille’s rivals. Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe tweeted: “RIP to this great man.”
Known by the nickname “Nanar,” the gregarious Tapie started his career as a singer and made his fortune by buying out struggling companies. He was a familiar figure for decades, known for his tailored suits and a broad lower jaw.
A multifaceted businessman, Tapie was also an actor who looked comfortable in the limelight when on the Paris theatre stage and as a politician. Appearing frequently on television, Tapie became a celebrity with his excesses, successes and failures that led to bankruptcy and legal battles.
Tapie was born in Paris in 1943. After a short and unsuccessful stint as a pop singer, Tapie thought about embracing a career in auto racing before a serious accident left him in a coma.
He sold televisions and then specialized in the recovery and resale of companies. One of the first businesses Tapie purchased was Leclanche Wonder, a battery manufacturer.
His masterstroke came in 1990 when he bought German sporting goods company Adidas, a move that also proved to be his downfall.
Tapie, who briefly served as minister of city affairs under the late French President Francois Mitterrand and was a member of the French parliament for several years, sold his majority stake in Adidas through French bank Credit Lyonnais in 1992. Tapie then claimed the deal was mismanaged and began a 20-year legal battle with the bank in an attempt to claim damages.
In 2017, an appeal court ordered him to repay 404 million euros ($449 million) that he was awarded in 2008 for the disputed sale of the company.
Tapie’s huge appetite for enterprise also led him into sports beyond soccer. He managed star cyclists Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond to victories in the Tour de France with the La Vie Claire team.
Associated Press writer John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.
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