Just as French football was congratulating itself on its raised profile thanks to the arrival of Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain, events on the Mediterranean coast have diminished its reputation. Amid scenes of uncontrolled violence involving spectators and players, Nice against Olympique Marseille, the standout weekend fixture, was abandoned with 16 minutes unplayed.
This, only three matchdays since the lifting of restrictions, imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic on the numbers allowed into stadiums in France. Nice-Marseille was always likely to fill the modern Allianz Riviera. The clubs have an edgy rivalry.
The atmosphere was charged from the kick-off, and referee Benoit Bastien warned supporters in a part of the stadium occupied by Nice followers about objects being thrown towards the pitch.
Then came the incident that sparked the abandonment. Nice were leading 1-0. With Marseille chasing an equaliser, they won a corner in the 74th minute.
As Payet addressed the ball at the corner flag, he was struck directly by a bottle, with enough liquid to cause him pain. Payet fell to the ground. When he got up he hurled the bottle back into the section of the crowd he thought it had come from.
It was an angry gesture by the Marseille playmaker, and it ignited tempers on the pitch and in the stands behind the goal. Two OM players, defender Alvaro Gonzalez and midfielder Matteo Guendouzi dashed to the front of the stand to remonstrate with spectators, several of whom gathered in front of the low wall separating pitch from seats.
Soon they were hurdling that barrier, and the advertising hoardings in front of it. Stewards failed to keep the supporters back and instead tried to maintain a moving line in front of the advancing fans. But they could not contain the pitch invaders.
One aimed a kick at Payet, who later posted a photograph of a red, swollen area of his back, apparently caused by the impact of the bottle. Guendouzi and the OM defender Luan Peres also showed photos of red marks on their necks, where they claim they were grabbed in the melee.
Some Nice and OM players confronted one another. Jorge Sampaoli, the Marseille manager, had to be held back from advancing towards the centre of the incident. According to news agency AFP, who quoted a witness to events in the VIP section of the stand, OM president Pablo Longoria and his Nice counterpart Jean-Pierre Rivere had to be separated from coming to blows.
Rivere said OM players had “lit the fuse” for the conflicts. He and Longora would continue to disagree about the blame for events and the LFP (French league) ruling that the match should be resumed.
After the players had been ushered to the safety of the dressing-rooms, they waited for around an hour and a half for a decision on whether or not the remaining 16 minutes could be played. To the surprise and anger of OM, the league announced it should be.
Rivere, the Nice president, had spoken with fans and in particular the Brigade Sud group of ultras who occupy the part of the stadium where the trouble had focused. The police then reported that order had been sufficiently restored for play to restart.
But when referee Bastien replaced the ball at the corner flag, as it was when the football stopped, there were only Nice players on the field. Those from Marseille had not returned to the pitch. So Bastien blew his whistle and prepared to report that OM had forfeited the fixture. The rules say that when that happens, the opposition should be awarded a 3-0 victory.
Marseille, naturally, will challenge that outcome. “Our safety could not be assured,” insisted Longoria. “It is not acceptable. We need to lay down a marker for French football.” Longoria also claimed referee Bastien thought the game should not resume, but had been overruled by the LFP.
For Nice, who were taken over by the ambitious Ineos group — backers of successful cycling and Formula One teams — two summers ago, the scenes were deeply embarrassing. For Marseille, they were involved in a second episode of disturbance this month. There had been crowd problems at the Montpellier-OM match two weekends earlier.
For Ligue 1, the incidents are a stain on what was supposed to be its ground-breaking year. On Sunday, Messi is due to play his first minutes for PSG, the world’s best footballer giving fresh cachet to France’s top division. The debut will now take place just as debate intensifies about how to keep fans further away, or fenced off, from the stars they watch.