Ligue 1 needs to crack down on fan violence before it is too late

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French fans have always been fiery but the severity and frequency of their clashes this year have been genuinely scary.

Fan unrest is not new in French football. In the last decade alone, Bastia supporters have thrown wooden rods at PSG players, Anthony Lopes has been hit by a firecracker while playing for Lyon and an effigy of Mathieu Valbuena has been hanged at the Vélodrome. There have been other incidents too, but they have been infrequent and usually the product of some special enmity between two clubs, or a player and a club.

This season, however, these clashes have taken on a more urgent character, as striking in their severity as they are in their frequency. The rest of Europe is not immune to ugly incidents, as we saw at Wembley this week when Hungary fans fought with police, and earlier in the season when young Sparta Prague supporters booed the Rangers player Glen Kamara. But the number of incidents in Ligue 1 is alarming.

There is a strong history of making your voice heard in French society, as seen in the gilets jaunes protests (which caused serious havoc on the Ligue 1 schedule in the 2018-19 season) and, more recently, in the series of demonstrations against the Covid-19 vaccine passports. But there seems something uglier and more menacing about the anger coming from football fans.

To trace the roots of the protests, violence and unrest this season we have to go back to January, when Marseille supporters – if they can be called that – invaded their training ground to protest against what they saw as a lack of ambition from their club. At a time when fans were not even allowed inside stadiums, the ultras breached the gates of the training ground and set off fireworks, firecrackers and smoke bombs, causing fires and even injuring the defender Álvaro González.

The fans were granted their wish in the end. Marseille reacted to their anger, appointing Pablo Longoria as president and strengthening their squad in the summer. Perhaps other fans have taken note because the anger shown by Marseille fans in January has spread throughout in France. Instead of being content to be back in stadiums, the seething anger has boiled over after the reintroduction of fans into grounds.

The opening weekend of the season was meant to be a joyful time for supporters in France, who were returning to stadiums for the first time in 18 months, but the football was overshadowed by violence from the start. The match between Montpellier and Marseille was marred by the home crowd throwing objects, including a bottle that struck Marseille midfielder Valentin Rongier in the mouth. The referee halted the match, but play continued after 12 minutes. This has been the pattern in France – the officials stop the action if necessary but try to finish the match so they do not rile the home fans further.

A sign hung by Marseille supporters aimed at Olympique de Marseille club president Jacques-Henri Eyraud reads “JHE: Marseille vomits you” in Marseille, southern France, Saturday Jan. 30, 2021.The French league postponed Marseille’s home game against Rennes just three hours before kickoff on Saturday after angry Marseille fans marched to the club’s training complex to protest poor results. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
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Montpellier is known to have a fairly fiery atmosphere, but Marseille are not one of their natural rivals so the violence came as a surprise. Montpellier’s head of security, Pierre-Marie Grappin, warned the fans over the loudspeaker that they were “in danger of giving Marseille the greatest gift” and the match was played out without further incident, Marseille winning 3-2. In the aftermath, Montpellier were hit with a partial stadium closure, with manager Olivier Dall’Oglio lamenting: “It’s still regrettable because it penalises everyone.”

Marseille were back in the news a fortnight later over an incident that started in a similar fashion, with bottles being thrown on to the pitch. Dimitri Payet, no doubt frustrated with being on the receiving end of such treatment twice in two weeks, threw the bottle back into the crowd. While Payet’s actions were unwise, the fans’ reaction was doubly so, as they stormed the pitch, coming to blows with several Marseille players and staff.

Marseille manager Jorge Sampaoli was apoplectic. Initially he had to be held back from the melee by his backroom staff and then, when it looked as if the game might resume, he put on his backpack and made for the exit. The match was eventually abandoned after 70 minutes, with Nice leading 1-0. Nice were hit with a two-point deduction, one of which was suspended, and the match will be replayed in its entirety in Troyes in two weeks’ time.

Again, the home fans cost their team. The race to qualify for the Champions League has no shortage of contenders so laying down a serious marker against a direct competitor would have done wonders for the confidence of Nice, who were only three matches into Christophe Galtier’s tenure.

Things have hardly improved in recent weeks. The Derby du Nord between Lens and Lille last month saw both sets of fans behave poorly – albeit towards each other and not the players – by scaling the fence that separated them as a melee delayed the match for close to an hour. That match was played to its conclusion, with Lens winning 1-0, but they were hit with a ground closure in their next home match, against Strasbourg.

A similar theme was in evidence a few days later, when Marseille supporters clashed with their counterparts in Angers, both sets of fans invading the pitch to scuffle with each other. The violence just continues – a brawl between Bordeaux and Montpellier fans left half a dozen people in hospital, and Metz fans gave PSG supporters a less-than-kind welcome on the same weekend, throwing bottles.

Things are no better in Ligue 2, where there have been a couple of incidents within the last few weeks. Le Havre forward Khalid Boutaïb briefly scuffled with a fan last month, and objects were thrown on to the pitch when Ajaccio hosted Niort.

The problem seems to be getting worse. A serious injury or worse is becoming inevitable. Marseille shared images of their players’ injuries on social media after the pitch invasion in Nice. Thankfully none of them were forced into hospital.

The LFP has acted decisively in handing out partial or full stadium bans, but has been reluctant to give points deductions. If the league and its financial watchdog, the DNCG, are all too happy to relegate clubs based on their financial situation, should points deductions not be deployed more readily in these cases? And can the authorities not help clubs by beefing up security? The ease and speed with which the fans got on to the pitch in Nice was truly scary and the situation would have been much worse had it not been for the intervention of several Nice players. If action is not taken quickly, Ligue 1 could soon gain a far more disquieting reputation.

(By Eric Devin, Get French Football News, 15.10.2021)

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