Fear grips French football as violence at matches gets out of control

Crowd trouble in French Cup latest example of worsening situation as sanctions have failed to interrupt pattern of incidents

The Christmas holiday season in France will be brief for those who sit on the Football Federation’s disciplinary commission. On Monday afternoon they will be back at their desks on urgent business, meeting to study the various reports on the latest outbreak of violence at a major event.

This has been a busy five months for those in charge of safety at the top level of French football. So routine has disruption to matches become, that the sport will hold its breath ahead of 2021’s final round of Ligue 1 matches on Wednesday.

At a number of stadiums, sections of the grandstands will be empty because of sanctions. Away supporters of several clubs are under blanket bans. A number of players may well have a moment or two of apprehension when they go to take a corner, or think about celebrating a goal in front of rival fans.

The latest round of investigation and setting of punishments for the parties identified as responsible for disorder focuses on last Friday’s French Cup match between ambitious second-division Paris FC and Olympique Lyonnais, OL, who regard themselves as the second most powerful club in the country, behind super-rich Paris Saint-Germain.

Paris versus OL was the glamour fixture of the round, and had been allotted its own evening time slot, to maximise its broadcast audience. At half-time it was evenly poised at 1-1.

When the Lyon players emerged for the second half, they were confronted with alarming scenes in the stands, flares being thrown from one group of fans to another, violent scuffles and screams as hundreds of spectators rushed towards the exits. Photographs posted online show individuals armed with iron bars and bicycle chains. The footage displays clearly that security personnel had little control.

The referee suspended the game relatively quickly, acting on advice and protocols that had been brought in barely 24 hours earlier in the aftermath of previous incidents this season, when club officials, law and order personnel and the sports governing bodies had publicly disagreed on when and how rapidly to suspend games interrupted by crowd trouble.

In August, most notoriously, the players of Olympique Marseille, OM, remained in the dressing-room for well over an hour after their Ligue 1 match at Nice was stopped. The OM playmaker Dimitri Payet had been struck by a bottle thrown from the crowd. He fell and when he got up, threw the plastic bottle back.

There was an immediate pitch invasion, in which some Marseille players were involved in scuffles with fans. They refused a later instruction to restart the match and only after an appeal to the French football authorities was an initial ruling - that OM should forfeit the match and Nice be awarded the three points - overturned.

In the end Nice, the home club, were punished with a point’s deduction, with another point-deduction suspended. The league table, less than halfway through the campaign, is skewed elsewhere, too. OL have had a point deducted for an incident in which Payet, again, was hit by a bottle thrown from the crowd at the OL stadium in late November.

All this in a Ligue 1 session that opened with huge anticipation that French domestic football would attract expanded global television audiences, drawn by the summer arrival of Lionel Messi to PSG and to a championship where the usual predictions had shown they could be defied, Lille having pipped PSG to the 2020-21 title.

Instead the headlines have been made, consistently, by the behaviour of crowds. On the first weekend of the season, OM’s Valentin Rongier was struck by a projectile that left him with a bloodied lip towards the end of a see-saw game at Montpellier. Two weeks later came the shocking scenes at Nice.

In September, Lens against Lille was held up for 30 minutes because of clashes between rival fans that spilled on the pitch. In October, the kick-off between Saint Etienne and Angers had to be delayed and riot police summoned to protect the home dressing room after home fans damaged the goal nets during a pitch invasion.

Some of the blame has been cast at a shortage and low standard of stewarding, with clubs complaining of the difficulties of recruiting and training match stewards after the long lockdown during the Covid pandemic meant they were not required at stadiums closed to spectators.

But collective sanctions against clubs, like bans on travelling supporters, closing of sections of stadiums, and even points deductions, have not interrupted the pattern of incidents. “It is disastrous for football,” said Noel Le Graet, the president of the French Football Federation, after OL’s trip to Paris had been suspended. “Everybody needs to realise this must stop.”

Updated: December 22nd 2021, 10:26 AM