Football’s looming missile crisis

HERE we go again. Football fans are back in the stadiums, the long and often heated debate about safe standing seems to be heading in the right direction for those that have been longing for the atmosphere of old and lo and behold, we have increased hooliganism to go with it. Yes, it is hooliganism, a nasty, invasive form of violence. 

This is not merely a case of cautious warnings like “be careful, that’ll have your eye out,” the throwing of objects at players is specifically designed to hurt and inflict damage on bodies. How long do we have to wait before a player’s eye is lost or something substantial knocks someone unconscious? This, the sport that goes out of its way to virtue signal whenever it can, the pastime where spectators are quick to declare their love of their club. Throwing lighters, bottles or anything they have to hand is considered OK, because the opposition have scored a goal, yet it’s cowardly, anti-social and drags down the name of the club and the game in general.

Over the decades, we’ve had all forms of deterrants to supress violence. The naïve often suggest violence is a thing of the past, but it’s always there, just below the surface, just as racism has always been there, waiting to find its release valve. It doesn’t take long to hear a group of people making a racist, sexist or homophobic comment the longer an evening goes on and the flow of alcohol becomes more potent. 

It’s no coincidence that in the past five years Britain seems to have rediscovered a form of nationalism that has been the catalyst for racism and anti-semitism. The resurgence of football hooliganism may be linked in some way. On the other hand, the repeated lockdowns and accompanying frustration this has brought could have something to do with this phenomenum. 

It’s a problem that is spreading, faster than we want to believe. The latest round of matches saw Aston Villa’s players struck by missiles after they had just scored against Everton at Goodison Park. Everton are having a bad time and it’s a club clearly unhappy with itself, but this was disgraceful and thankfully, the Police have grabbed the offenders. At Old Trafford, West Ham fans were apparently caught hurling items, while at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s Rüdiger was hit by disposable cigarette lighters. Similarly, at Arsenal, when Manchester City scored their late winner, their team was showered with objects. Like most things in football, when something becomes a trend, it is usually not long before grounds up and down the country have the problem. Furthermore, it’s not just players that will have to wary of flying bombs, other fans, be they men, women or children, could also be hit.

And this is all going to have consequences. Safe standing is being tested and so far, it appears to have been successful, but if fans continue to throw things, how easy would it be to blame the introduction of standing for the change in fan behaviour, even if there is no direct correlation?

The recent police report reveals that football-related arrests have risen by 47% since the start of the season and disorder has generally increased at games. Undoubtedly, there’s greater vigilance since the Euros when drunk fans stormed the barriers at Wembley.

With the pandemic already demanding greater pre-match preparations, increased security to ensure potential weapons are not taken into the stadium will mean more complications for matchday staff and those entering the arena.

Anyone who lived through the dark age of hooliganism and yearned for a more civilised experience will be hoping that we are not about to return to a less pleasant environment. Times have been tough for many people during the pandemic, but that’s no excuse to suddenly make football a game to be wary of once more. While missile throwing may be nothing more than a passing fad, we are turning back the clock a little. Wembley 2021 told us the mood might be changing, so let’s hope that’s not the case.

Football Media Watch: Why does France seem so unhappy?

FRANCE may be World Champions and UEFA Nations League champions, but all does not seem well in French domestic football. Last weekend, the game between Marseille and Lyon was abandoned after Dimitri Payet, everyone’s favourite punchbag these days, was struck by a flying bottle, the second time this season that he’s been on the end of someone’s anger.

The incident was in the fourth minute of the game and happened as Payet was about to take a corner. L’Equipe reported that Payet has come to the conclusion he doesn’t want to take some set pieces. “I stayed several minutes on the ground, the pain was intense. I am now afraid of taking corners when I play away,” he said.

Daniel Storey of the i newspaper called France “football’s wild west”, such is the level of violence among fans. He added such incidents are becoming commonplace. “It is as if the hooligan element of club support simply bottled up – literally, in the case of poor Payet – their fever over the long period of lockdowns and empty stadia and have sensationally made up for lost time.”

Ligue 1, meanwhile, believes violence is “destroying the image of the league in France and internationally”. Government officials have joined in criticism of clubs and fans. Interior minister Gerald Darmanin, for example, was adamant football should step-up stadium security. The league has reminded clubs that security is the responsibility of host clubs and local authorities.

Sports minister Roxan Maracineau was relatively dramatic in her assessment of the situation, claiming the very survival of football in France was at stake. She added the problem should be solved by the French league and that the game also runs the risk of upsetting broadcasters. “It’s a world where millions of euros are at stake. We cannot afford for broadcasters to fill blanks like the commentators did for an hour when we don’t know if the game is going to continue.” Amazon, who have the rights to Ligue 1, were left waiting for well over an hour for news of what was happening after the players left the field. Given the problems France has had with broadcasters, Maracineau’s warning should be heeded.

This shambolic state of affairs is just the latest in a string of incidents, including pitch invasions, fighting and fan protests. Marseille, who are all too often involved in negative headlines, are not the most popular club, while Paris Saint-Germain are despised because of their enormous wealth. PSG, despite the arrival of Lionel Messi and assorted other high-earners, don’t seem especially happy with themselves, and their coach, the sought-after Mauricio Pochettino, has at least one eye on the vacant Manchester United job. 

The former Tottenham Hotspur coach is possibly the only manager who see the PSG role – a club with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe in their line-up – as a stepping stone towards where he really wants to be. Some claim this team of all-stars has not lived up to expectations, but they have a big lead in the league and are going well in the Champions League, so what do people really expect? The time to assess the success of the current PSG side will be at the business end of the campaign.

And then there’s the financial woes of France’s clubs, who have had an aborted TV deal to deal with and the effects of the pandemic. PSG doesn’t count when it comes to normal clubs, but one of the big guns left trailing by their rebirth under Qatari ownership, Lyon, has been hit hard. In 2020-21, their revenues declined by 35% and their pre-tax loss totalled € 109 million, but their wages still increased slightly to € 134 million. Their wage-to-income ratio was a very disconcerting 113% in 2020-21. The club has net debt of € 260 million. Lyon are not the only club with problems, however.

Monaco coach, Niko Kovač, told L’Equipe that the French league is in the shadows at the moment. “It’s a very physical league with very fast players who are very good technically. This league loses a lot of young talents. But what’s amazing is that you always produce new ones. All these young players that arrive want to prove themselves and play at full speed.” He added that if Ligue 1 could keep its top players, it would be the second best league in Europe. 

French clubs are faring quite well in European competition this season. PSG are unbeaten in the Champions League, as are all three Europa League entrants and Rennes in the Europa Conference. The only team to have lost in the group stages of any of the three competitions are Lille, who have been beaten once and are well placed for further progress.

Of course, these are troubled times and the pandemic has disrupted football in most countries. France has had a decade of almost total domination by Paris Saint-Germain and Ligue 1 is only just hanging onto its status as a top five league. PSG need stronger competition at home to ensure they are well equipped for European action. They have the resources to win almost everything, but how often are they motivated enough to make fantasy football successful on the biggest stage?

Sources: L’Equipe, i, BBC, Goal, Inside World Football, Reuters, Guardian