Another weekend, another crowd trouble fiasco in Ligue 1. After an idyllic two weeks with Les Bleus, French football was quickly brought back down to earth on Sunday night as the headline fixture of the weekend was once again called off due to fan misbehaviour.
Marseille’s trip to Lyon should have been a crucial match in the race for a spot in Europe. Jorge Sampaoli’s men had the chance to draw level on points with second-place Nice, while the hosts were in desperate need of a response after a heavy defeat to Rennes before the international break. The visitors were welcomed to a tense and hostile atmosphere, with their own away support absent due to a ban until the end of the calendar year.
The Olympico has often been marred by unsavoury incidents in recent years. Six years ago, an effigy of Mathieu Valbuena was hanged by Marseille fans from the stands after the midfielder moved to Lyon – which was seen as an act of treason by the fans of his former club. On that day, trouble in the stands delayed the match by 20 minutes. This weekend, the match was abandoned before the fifth minute.
As he was preparing to take a corner, Dimitri Payet – so often the target of opposing fans’ ire this season– was hit with a full bottle thrown from the stands, resulting in referee Ruddy Buquet suspending the game. The Marseille captain soon joined his teammates in the dressing room after receiving treatment, heading into the tunnel with an icepack on his head.
An exasperating two-hour wait for a decision ensued. The complete lack of news from any of the major actors for long stretches of the evening – much to the dismay of new Ligue 1 broadcaster Amazon Prime – only added to the tension and consternation. More than an hour after the match had first been suspended, the stadium announcer finally emerged to tell what was left of the Lyon fans that proceedings would resume – on the condition that no further incidents took place. Half an hour later, he emerged again to indicate that the game had been abandoned.
The suspected bottle-thrower had eventually been apprehended and placed under police custody, but the Marseille players had no intention of returning to the pitch. Their attitude was encapsulated by defender Álvaro González, who kicked a door in the tunnel, and Mattéo Guendouzi, who voiced his disapproval in his typically fiery manner.
The pantomime of finger-pointing that ensued afterwards was just as damning for French football as the initial incident. First up in front of the cameras was Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, who claimed that the referee had initially intended to resume the game before changing his mind in the face of virulent protests from the Marseille squad. Aulas went on to say that the safety of the players was no longer a concern after the offender had been removed, to the visible disapproval of pundit Thierry Henry.
In a rare instance of a referee facing the press, Buquet seemingly contradicted Aulas’ account by insisting that he had always wanted to call the game off. “There were other considerations to take into account but, for obvious sporting reasons, I decided to not resume the game,” said the referee. “You have what’s on the pitch and then what’s off it, and in the end the decision was mine.”
Marseille president Pablo Longoria also made an appearance to explain that Payet had been “very affected psychologically” – and understandably so. The former West Ham player, the subject of chants from Lyon fans long after he had left the pitch, had also been struck by an object earlier in the season when his team’s trip to Nice degenerated into bedlam. After returning one of the projectiles thrown at him, the midfielder had been kicked by one of the onrushing fans.
Speaking last night, Longoria lamented what had been a “dark evening for football” and insisted that solutions needed to be found. “What’s going on at the moment with this violence, these incidents, is not normal,” said the Marseille president. That is inescapably the case, with Sunday night’s embarrassment far from an isolated incident this season.
Later in the evening, Aulas called RMC’s post-match phone-in show for a full-blown tirade at host Daniel Riolo. The heated argument culminated in an announcement that the Lyon president would be filing a lawsuit against the journalist because he had insinuated that Aulas had lied in his post-match interview.
Even more bewilderingly, the blame game was also played out among those involved in the decision-making, only serving to prolong the confusion. The Ligue 1 authorities took an hour to release a formal statement. After condemning the attack and the “discriminatory insults” aimed at Payet, the league’s governing body, the LFP, claimed that the regional authorities had pushed for the match to go ahead. This was “firmly denied” by the regional prefect for the Rhône department, before a follow-up clarification altogether dismissed the claim as “false”.
Whatever the true version of events, one hallmark of French football’s attempts to deal with fan trouble has been an all-round denial of responsibility from all concerned. As clubs look to defend their own short-term interests, and the governing bodies grandstand and blame each other, any sort of coordinated action appears impossible. Because of this, the increasing number of local decrees banning away support gain credence, and French football’s matchday experience is all the poorer for it.
The league’s disciplinary commission meets on Monday. If they are to salvage any legitimacy in their efforts to quell such incidents, a change of approach from the usual half-hearted sanctions will be needed. However, input from outside the world of football and the full cooperation of the clubs will be crucial in enacting any sort of change. Amid its efforts to increase its standing and broadcasting revenue from abroad, French football’s image has already been gravely tainted by its inability to control its crowds. A season full of this, though, risks making the damage irreparable.