Return of fans sees unrest cross the line in French football

Supporters of Nice had waited two years to be allowed back into the stadium to see their team take on Marseille in one of France’s footballing rivalries. Now it’s their violent conduct, rather than the pandemic, that could see the turnstiles locked again.

There were 15 minutes remaining in Sunday’s French league match when a plastic bottle was hurled at Marseille star Dimitri Payet. The winger was enraged, hurling it back into the stand behind the goal. Fans then surged onto the field to confront Payet and his Marseille teammates, leading to a wider brawl before the game was first suspended and then abandoned.

The French government said Monday that a red line was crossed with the unrest.

“There can be no tolerance for such acts,” Roxana Maracineanu and Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French ministers in charge of sports, said in a joint statement.

There was no such immediate clear condemnation from the French league, which only summoned Nice and Marseille to a meeting of its disciplinary committee on Wednesday.

Criminal proceedings are moving at a faster pace. French prosecutors on Monday opened several investigations on counts relating to objects being thrown that represent a danger to others, the use of furniture as projectiles and aggravated voluntary violence. Video surveillance images will be examined to try to identify those involved, including potentially players and team staff members who might be implicated, prosecutors said.

Such acts are punishable by a maximum of three years in prison, fines and a ban on entering sports arenas for five years.

Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivère pins the blame on Marseille players throwing the bottle back at his fans.

“After that, things went from bad to worse,” Rivère said. “I think that the Marseille security service should not have intervened on the pitch, and especially not hit our players, because two of our players were hit. But that’s not the point.”

The scuffles between players and staff from both teams continued for several minutes before both teams left the field and the game was suspended. The referee attempted to resume the game but Marseille refused to continue, leading to the match being abandoned.

Rivère said he thought the game could have continued.

“I spoke to the supporters to tell them that what they had done in terms of throwing bottles was not acceptable,” Rivère said. “They assured me twice that there would be no problems. I know very well that the match could have been restarted, everyone was for it. I was convinced that it would go well. Unfortunately, Marseille didn’t want to resume.”

Marseille president Pablo Longoria insisted it wasn’t safe for his players to go back out.

“We decided, for the security of our players, who have been attacked and because the pitch was invaded, that we could not return to the pitch, since the security of our players was not guaranteed,” Longoria said.

The season is only three games old and this was already the second attack on a Marseille player in the French league.

Midfielder Valentin Rongier had a cut lip from an object thrown from the Montpellier crowd when celebrating a goal in the opening round. That match was briefly interrupted but continued to completion.

On Sunday, Payet was left with blood and scratches on his back, while there were strangle marks visible on the necks of teammates Matteo Guendouzi and Luan Peres.

Nice could be forced to close part or all of its stadium to spectators as part of the punishment, having only just been allowed fans back with the easing of coronavirus restrictions.

“The response has to be as individualized as much as possible,” said Ronan Evain, the executive director of the Football Supporters Europe network. “The feeling of solidarity will be stronger if everybody is punished. I’m yet to see any substantive evidence that collective punishment works.”

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