Marseille’s image once again dented after attack on player

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PARIS (AP) Frank McCourt’s plans to bring Marseille back to the top of French and European soccer could be undermined by local criminals.

Winger Florian Thauvin became the latest victim of the southern city’s notorious thieves this week, suffering a vicious attack near his home in a chic neighborhood of the port city.

Thauvin was attacked and strangled by two men on motorbikes who crashed into his car before they tried to steal his luxury watch. The Newcastle loanee managed to flee the scene and escaped uninjured but the incident highlighted once again the violence to which players are regularly exposed in a city with a long history of organized crime.

According to the L’Equipe newspaper, at least 12 players and officials from the club have been victims of robberies or thefts since 2011, a poor record slowing down Marseille’s development because it makes it difficult to attract top-quality players.

Five years ago, midfielder Lucho Gonzalez was robbed of his luxury car and credit cards by armed men who broke into his house, while then-Marseille president Jean-Claude Dassier had his house robbed during a Champions League game abroad. The same year, defender Vitorino Hilton was attacked in his home and hit on the head while armed men held his family hostage. He left the club soon after.

“It creates a very unpleasant climate,” Dassier said in an interview with L’Equipe. “It does help building a serene and calm atmosphere in the changing room.”

The assault on Thauvin was the first reported on a Marseille player since McCourt’s arrival at the former French champions. But it followed another incident last year involving former Marseille sports director Gunter Jacob, who was reportedly robbed of his car and computer while asleep at his rented villa. Jacob left the club three months after he was hired, replaced by Andoni Zubizarreta.

McCourt, the former owner of baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers, bought the club last month and has pledged to restore Marseille’s battered image. The club is the only French outfit to have won the Champions League, beating AC Milan in 1993. It has won the French title nine times but not since 2010, and has fallen way behind rival Paris Saint-Germain since it was bought by Qatari investors five years ago.

But with the winter transfer window looming, taking PSG off its perch will be a tall order if the club fails to build a competitive squad because of the city’s lack of attraction, in spite of McCourt’s vow to invest 200 million euros over four years as part of his project to rebuild the club. For now, Marseille is languishing in 12th place in the French league, 15 points behind Mediterranean neighbor Nice, the surprise leaders who recruited Mario Balotelli and Dante.