This was supposed to be a season of celebration and new acclaim for the French league. Not only would crowds return to stadiums after a year of matches behind closed doors but Lionel Messi’s arrival at Paris Saint-Germain guaranteed unprecedented global interest in Ligue 1. Three months in, France is shocked and embarrassed and the talk among authorities is of an existential crisis.
A wave of fan violence since the start of the season led the president of the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP), Vincent Labrune, to denounce “a gangrene that could kill us”, while France’s minister of sport, the former swimming champion Roxana Maracineanu, said: “Every time I go to a stadium [to watch a Ligue 1 match] I tell myself it’s a good thing I got my son into rugby rather than football.”
Maracineanu was speaking in the aftermath of last Sunday’s match between Lyon and Marseille, which was called off after the Marseille midfielder Dimitri Payet was hit in the head by a bottle thrown by a fan.
It was the second time this season Payet has been attacked on the pitch. After the first time, at Nice in August, he hurled the bottle back into the crowd, an instinctive riposte that was interpreted by dozens of fans as an invitation to storm the pitch, leading to an extraordinary scene involving spectators, players and backroom staff.
Marseille were also embroiled in the season’s first outbreak of trouble, when Montpellier fans bombarded travelling supporters with missiles on the opening weekend. The following month, a bus carrying Bordeaux fans was ambushed in Montpellier in an attack that left 16 people injured.
On the same day, fans of Marseille and Angers fought in the stadium after a 0-0 draw and Metz supporters invaded the pitch after a late winner against their side by Paris Saint-Germain.
All of which came a week after an on-field ruckus between fans of Lille and Lens delayed the Derby du Nord by half an hour. Nine Ligue 1 matches have been disrupted or abandoned this season. The questions authorities are struggling to answer are why the rage and what to do about it?
One popular explanation is that violence at football is a consequence of the lockdown imposed when the Covid pandemic was at its peak, that people are now releasing pent-up frustrations. “A football stadium is a reflection of the state of our society,” Labrune told L’Equipe this week. “And our society after the health crisis is not doing well: it is anxious, worried, disunited, quarrelsome and – it has to be said – a little crazy.”
But similar diagnosis could be made of many other countries that are not suffering fan violence on a similar scale. Why do French stadiums have it so bad? Again, lockdown has been blamed for weakening clubs’ ability to cope with disorder. During a year of matches behind closed doors, stewards had to find other jobs and many of the most experienced ones have not returned, leaving less savvy replacements to deal with more cantankerous people. Some clubs have also been accused of skimping on security measures as they cut costs in the time of Covid.
Mostly, though, clubs have been accused of failing to clamp down on misbehaviour by their most ardent fans, or ultras, because of a fear of alienating them. It has been noticeable how reluctant club directors have been to criticise their own supporters after even the most blatant offences and how readily they have tried to shift blame elsewhere or play down trouble.
Clubs, the LFP, police and politicians have blamed each other for impeding or ignoring solutions. That it took two hours for the Lyon-Marseille match to be abandoned after the attack on Payet left television viewers confused and exposed the lack of decisiveness and unity among the various authorities.
Last Tuesday, the government met football authorities to address this. “We have been asking for such a meeting since August,” said Labrune, who complained that the LFP had become “the system’s punching ball” and needed more powers to do anything other than apply its stock reaction to violence, which is to order matches to be played behind closed doors.
Maracineanu certainly did not play down the significance of the meeting, saying in advance: “Everyone must understand that the survival of French football is at stake. It’s a world where millions of euros are at stake. We can’t afford for a broadcaster who has bought rights to have to fill the void like [TV commentators] did last night for an hour when we didn’t know if the game was going to continue. We can’t collectively afford to have it go on like that.”
On Friday, Maracineanu deigned to attend another match, Lens’ 2-2 draw with Angers, and said that plans for reducing violence at stadiums revolved around three approaches: improving security, giving referees more power to react to fan trouble and broadening the range of sanctions the league can impose.
She also issued a plea to ultras. “We need the leaders of supporter groups to get a grip on their troops. I’m appealing to supporter groups: we need you and we need to act together to bring peace back to the stadiums.”