Ligue 1 often made the headlines for the wrong reasons last season, with violent incidents in Bastia, Metz, Marseille and Nantes. The league’s governing body, the LFP, came down hard on the offending clubs and their fans, and there had been no major incidents in the current campaign – until Saturday evening, when hundreds of Lille fans invaded the pitch at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy following their team’s 1-1 draw with Montpellier.
Lille have struggled badly since Gérard Lopez bought the club last year, with results on the pitch mirroring the club’s rash approach to management. Marcelo Bielsa was hired in May and fired in December after his signings failed to make an impact. Bielsa’s replacement, Christophe Galtier, has brought the team some measure of stability. A vital win over Strasbourg and gritty draws against Lyon and Nantes gave the fans renewed hope of survival, but conceding late goals against Nice and relegation rival Angers has left them 19th in Ligue 1 with nine games to play.
A draw against a dogged Montpellier side who are fighting for a place in Europe may not look like a bad result, but the fans’ anger has been brewing for some time. They went into this season with such high hopes given Bielsa was in charge and had money to spend. Things reached a boiling point on Saturday. As the game tricked into injury time there were a few whistles and jeers but the stadium, barely half full, hardly seemed to be reaching any sort of critical mass, even as Galtier was sent off for coming on to the pitch. Shortly after the final whistle, though, fans streamed out from behind Benjamin Lecomte’s goal, rushing toward their own players and attempting to attack them. Thankfully the quick work of the club’s stewards prevented any serious injuries.
Captain Ibrahim Amadou was quick to condemn the supporters’ actions: “The fans reacted as if the championship was over and we’ve already gone down. There are nine matches left. Yes, they are disappointed but I can’t understand their reaction.” Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama added: “The real fan will always stay behind the team no matter what. Good or bad times.” Yassine Benzia said: “We cannot accept that there are players on my team who have been assaulted. In the locker room the players were scared. We have a quite young group and it is not every day we see this kind of images.” Thiago Maia reported that a fan had “tried to kick out at me but the steward took the blow”.
Galtier compared the fans’ actions to the behaviour of the crowd at Heysel, which was overstating things, but he was right to say there can be no place for this sort of behaviour. Lille were quick to issue their own statement of condemnation, acknowledging that legal action would be taken. Even with such strong rhetoric, however, the club are likely to be forced into playing least one match behind closed doors. Their next home match is a particularly vital one, with relegation rival Amiens scheduled to visit on 1 April.
Beyond the lost gate receipts, there could be further ramifications. Lille’s financial situation, already difficult before Lopez’s arrival, was exacerbated in the summer by the club’s large net spend. Selling Martin Terrier to Lyon for £10.8m in January has helped but the threat of a fine or a points penalty will worry the club. France’s all-powerful financial watchdog, the DNCG, has rarely hesitated before punishing clubs whose finances are not up to standard.
A sponsor who was visiting the match from Hong Kong with his family had supposedly committed to a deal worth in the region of €20m but was left horrified by the scenes. It would come as no small irony if the fans’ actions have harmed their club’s finances too.
On the pitch, after the players had been safely ushered into the changing rooms, the fans, before being escorted away, were seen chanting “if we go down, we’ll take you down” towards Lopez and general director Marc Ingla. Lopez has remained largely silent on the matter, but Ingla joined Galtier in condemning the fans’ actions, saying the club will have no tolerance in their reaction. The LFP’s disciplinary committee may also adopt a zero-tolerance approach when they meet on Thursday, with a points deduction not out of the question.
The irony of that outcome should not be lost on those who invaded the pitch. It may make for uncomfortable reading, but supporters in France – even if these violent agitators are only a small minority – must learn to stop this behaviour. Relegation is a matter of little consequence when compared to serious physical harm.
• With Mario Balotelli unavailable due to a thigh injury, was moved from the left wing to a central role and scored four goals for Nice in their 5-2 win at Guincamp. Scoring four goals is a rare feat in Ligue 1, and while it only takes Pléa’s tally to 10 for the season, his performance (as well as a lovely finish by Bassem Srarfi) served as a potent reminder of the variety of weapons that Lucien Favre has at his disposal. Nice have underwhelmed for much of the season, but with seven goals scored in their last two matches, and the squad’s fitness improving, Nice are showing no signs of a European hangover and could yet be priming themselves for another run at the Europa League.
• Nantes haven’t played the most attractive football in France this season – 29 matches played, 29 goals scored and 29 goals conceded – but their late win over Troyes was enough to take them into fifth, with Emiliano Sala’s headed goal the difference in a tense encounter. The win was the Breton club’s first in six weeks, but on a weekend when rivals Rennes and Montpellier dropped points, Claudio Ranieri’s side did just enough to keep their hopes of European football alive.
• Rennes were imperious for much of their 1-1 draw against Saint-Étienne on Saturday evening, constantly seeking to trouble the slow-footed Loïc Perrin and Neven Subotic with balls over the top for the fleet-footed Wahbi Khazri and Ismaïla Sarr. However, Stéphane Ruffier was resolute in goal for the visitors, and Rennes’ focus wilted as they tried time and again to beat their opponents with crosses rather than on the counter or with quick interchanges. Rennes have the weapons to finish in the top six – especially after spending a small fortune in the summer – but but unless they can demonstrate more focus, their considerable outlay will have gone for naught.