French football increases violence in stadiums

After only 3 minutes 54 seconds of the match, Dimitri Payet carefully ran towards the corner flag at the Stade de Gerland. The match be...


After only 3 minutes 54 seconds of the match, Dimitri Payet carefully ran towards the corner flag at the Stade de Gerland. The match between his team, Marseille, and host, Lyon, was young and still shapeless. There had been no goals. There had hardly been time for a chance. Everyone, fans and players alike were still settling in.

In the stands above him, Wilfried Serriere, 32, a food delivery driver, looked down and saw a half-liter bottle of water at his feet. It was full. Payet placed the ball for a corner. His back was turned. In footage captured by stadium security cameras and later played out in a courtroom, Serriere can be seen picking up the bottle, pulling down his hood and throwing it.

A moment later, Payet fell on the grass, clutching his face. The bottle had caught him red on the cheek.

Payet’s teammates rushed to his aid. Anthony Lopes, the Lyon goalkeeper, waved to his own supporters, pleading for calm. Serriere later told a court that he “didn’t know what was going on in my head: the euphoria, I don’t know”. He admits to throwing the bottle that hit Payet, but he can’t explain why.

The rest of France spent the first few months of the football season asking the same question. A wave of violence has swept through Ligue 1, the country’s top division, since supporters returned to its stadiums in August after a year-long absence caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Two matches, both involving Marseille, were suspended – and ultimately postponed – after Payet was struck by an object thrown from the stands. In Lyon, the players were quickly withdrawn from the field. In the previous incident, in Nice, there was a furious confrontation on the pitch between Marseille players and hundreds of opposing supporters. This confrontation also had consequences: a Nice supporter was given a 12-month suspended prison sentence for having kicked Payet, and a Marseille coach was excluded for the rest of the season for hitting an invader from ground.

These, however, were just the two most publicized incidents. Supporters invaded the pitch during matches in Lens and Angers. There were pitched battles between rival groups of Ultras before and after matches in several cities. Missiles were launched at Montpellier and Metz and the Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint-Germain.

In total, nine Ligue 1 games have been affected this season by what the Dauphiné Libéré newspaper described as an “epidemic” of violence, so endemic that French football authorities have come to regard it as an existential threat. Vincent Labrune, the president of the French league, called it nothing less than “a question of survival for our sport”.

If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s at least rooted in realism. There are concerns that the violence has financial ramifications; Roxana Maracineanu, the country’s sports minister, said French football could not “collectively afford” not to broadcast content for which league broadcasters have paid for. But there are also fears that this will make France an inhospitable workplace for the players.

During Serrière’s conviction, Axel Daurat, a lawyer representing Payet and Marseille, testified that the player had suffered a “significant” psychological impact following being assaulted twice in three months. “The fear will be there every time he puts the ball down for a corner,” Daurat said.

But while the potential consequences are clear, there has been less progress on the causes. Labrune suggested that the increase in disorder is best read as a reflection of the state of post-pandemic French society: “Anxious, worried, fractured, argumentative and – I have to say – a little bit crazy. “

And yet, this explanation does not quite stand up to scrutiny. France is not alone in feeling a certain civic aggressiveness as it emerges, hesitantly and uncertainly, into an uncomfortable new reality. Most of Europe’s other major leagues, hailing this same reality, have seen nothing quite like the upsurge in violence that Ligue 1 has faced.

“It’s a bit like cod psychology say it has to do with a tension in society that manifests itself in the stadium, ”said Ronan Evain, Executive Director of Football Supporters Europe. The violence is more likely, he said, to illustrate structural and institutional failure.

“It is as if the clubs have lost a bit of expertise,” he said. “In the incident between Lens and Lille, there was no buffer zone between home and away supporters. I haven’t seen this at a game in 20 years, maybe more. The clubs have insisted a lot on the Covid protocols for the return to the stadiums. Perhaps there was not enough emphasis on safety.

Evain argued that this could be linked to the loss of experienced flight attendants and security personnel during the pandemic, and he drew a parallel between the French experience and the scenes at Wembley Stadium in London in July, when Thousands of ticketless fans stormed the doors when England faced Italy in the Euro 2020 final. very critical report this month documented how police failures left stadium security workers in an impossible – and potentially fatal – situation that day. “You can’t ask someone who is underpaid, under-trained, and in poor working conditions to risk their health by preventing someone from going on the pitch,” Evain said.

Nicolas Hourcade, a sociologist at École Centrale de Lyon specializing in fan movements, suggested that the lack of expertise was compounded by the financial difficulties encountered by the French teams. France, alone among the major European championships, chose not to conclude its 2019-20 season cut short by the pandemic, and its teams are still reeling from the subsequent collapse of the league’s broadcast deal.

“It is possible that the clubs have not invested enough in security,” he said, “which would explain why the measures were sometimes insufficient”.

But while that provides a possible explanation for why French football has provided such fertile ground for violence, it fails to offer insight into the root of it. Sports minister Maracineanu blamed ultra French groups, urging their leaders to “control your troops”. But it is not that simple.

During Serriere’s hearing, it emerged that he had been a Lyon fan for 15 years – although reports indicated he appeared in court in a Bayern Munich shirt – but did not was a member of any organized group. He was not, in other words, an ultra.

“There have been incidents involving ultra groups,” said Pierre Barthélemy, a lawyer who acted on behalf of the ultra movement. He cited two in particular, including the invasion of the pitch in Lens, which he said was triggered by the presence of “Belgian hooligans” among visiting Lille supporters, and an incident during a match in Montpellier. that the ultras boycotted.

“When the match was suspended in Nice, it was because the authorities had let people launch missiles on the pitch for 40 or 50 minutes,” Barthélemy explained. “These are not organized incidents. They’re spontaneous, and most of them don’t come from the ultras.

This, however, only makes them more difficult to control. France has some of the most draconian sanctions for crowd unrest in Europe, Evain said, including the possibility of closing stands or even entire stadiums.

He fears that the current epidemic will meet with a “populist” response: increased calls for monitoring supporters in stadiums, and welcoming any incident, even individual action, with collective punishment. At least one club owner has privately confided that he will agree to play behind closed doors if the issues persist.

But perhaps more significant, the atomized nature of the incidents in France makes them more difficult to understand. “The violence caused by the ultras and the incidents caused by other fans are unrelated,” said Hourcade, the sociologist.

Violence can be an organizational failure, he said. Or maybe long-standing grievances between ultra groups resurface after lying dormant during the pandemic.

But through it all there is the feeling that the stadium has become a place where lines can be crossed and taboos broken, and 3:54 in a match, when the whistle trill barely fades and that the game has barely started, a fan can look at a bottle and, without ever knowing why, pick it up and throw it at a player, and strike a new blow on the image that French football presents to the world.



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