TIt was meant to be a season of celebration and new acclaim for the French League. Not only will fans return to the stadiums after a year of matches behind closed doors, but the arrival of Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain has ensured unprecedented global interest in the French Ligue 1. Three months later, France is shocked and embarrassed, and there is talk among the authorities that there is a misfortune.
A wave of fan violence since the start of the season has prompted the president of the Professional Football Association (LFP), Vincent Labron, to denounce “gangrene that can kill us”, while the French sports minister, former swimming champion Roxana Maracino said: “Every time I go To the stadium [to watch a Ligue 1 match] I tell myself that it is a good thing that I got my son into rugby instead of football.”
Maracignano was speaking in the wake of last Sunday’s match between Lyon and Marseille, which was called off after Marseille midfielder Dimitri Payet was hit in the head by a bottle thrown by a fan.
It was the second time this season that Payet had been attacked on the field. After the first time, in Nice in August, he threw the bottle back into the crowd, an instinctive response that dozens of fans interpreted as an invitation to storm the stadium, resulting in an unusual spectacle involving spectators, players and backroom staff.
Marseille was also implicated in the first outbreak of the season, when Montpellier fans bombarded traveling fans with missiles on its opening weekend. The following month, a bus carrying Bordeaux fans was ambushed in Montpellier in an attack that injured 16 people.
On the same day, Marseille and Angers fans clashed in the stadium after a goalless draw and Metz fans invaded the pitch after a late victory over their team from Paris Saint-Germain.
It all came after a week of a fight on the field between Lille and Lens fans that delayed the Derby de Nord by half an hour. Nine Ligue 1 matches have been suspended or canceled this season. The questions the authorities struggle to answer are why the anger and what to do about it?
One common explanation is that violence in football is a result of the lockdown imposed when the Covid pandemic was at its height, and that people are now releasing pent-up frustrations. “The football field is a reflection of the state of our society,” Labron told L’Equipe this week. “And our post-health crisis society is not doing well: it’s restless, anxious, fragmented, quarrelsome and—it must be said—a bit crazy.”
But a similar diagnosis can be made for many other countries that do not experience fan violence on a similar scale. Why are French stadiums so bad? Once again, the shutdown has been blamed for weakening the clubs’ ability to deal with the chaos. During a year of behind-closed-doors matches, the hosts had to find other jobs and many were no longer experienced, leaving less clever alternatives to dealing with the fiercer ones. Some clubs have also been accused of underestimating security because they cut costs in the time of Covid.
Mostly, clubs have been accused of failing to crack down on misconduct by their ardent fans, or ultras, out of fear of alienating them. It was noticeable how reluctant club managers were to criticize their fans after even the most outrageous offense and how easy it was for them to try to shift the blame elsewhere or downplay the problems.
Clubs, LFPs, police and politicians blame each other for blocking or ignoring solutions. The Lyon-Marseille match lasted two hours after the attack on Payet confounded television viewers and exposed the indecisiveness and unity between the various authorities.
Last Tuesday, the government met with football officials to address this matter. “We’ve asked for such a meeting since August,” said Labron, who complained that the LFP had become the “punching ball of the system” and needed more powers to do anything other than enforce the stock reaction to violence, which is to request matches to be played behind closed doors.
Marasinho certainly did not underestimate the importance of the meeting, saying up front: “Everyone must understand that the very survival of French football is at stake. It is a world where millions of euros are at stake. We cannot afford for the broadcaster who bought the rights to fill in the void like [TV commentators] I did it last night for an hour when we didn’t know if the match would go on. We collectively cannot afford to continue like this.”
On Friday, Maracignano honored to attend another match, Lens tied 2-2 with Angers, and said plans to reduce violence in stadiums revolve around three approaches: improving security, giving referees more power to respond to fans’ problems and expanding the range of penalties that the league can impose. .
It also appealed to the Ultras. We need the leaders of the supporting groups to control their forces. I appeal to the fan groups: we need you and we need to work together to bring peace back to the stadiums.”