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French soccer league struggling with violence, discriminatory chanting and low-scoring matches

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There's been homophobic and racist chanting in the stands, a team bus pelted with stones, a game called off because of crowd trouble, and precious few goals on the field.

The French soccer league is making headlines for all the wrong reasons this season. And now even the French government is calling for something to be done about it.

After 13 rounds of games this season, the number of incidents is worrying officials who have been dealing with an upsurge of violence in stadiums over the past two campaigns.

According to Interior minister Gerald Darmanin, more than 100 police officers were injured in soccer-related incidents last season, and 870 people were detained. And there is no sign of abatement.

“There’s no other sport with this level of violence,” Darmanin said recently.

In October in Montpellier, a match was stopped in added time after fans threw a firework from the stands that landed next to Clermont goalkeeper Mory Diaw. The Senegal player had to be taken off on a stretcher, but was not seriously injured.

A new nadir was reached a few weeks later in Marseille when the bus carrying Lyon players was stoned by fans outside the Velodrome stadium. The windows were smashed and then-Lyon coach Fabio Grosso was left with his face bloodied, an injury that required stitches.

Supporters were also targeted, five police officers were injured, and nine people placed in custody, according to Darmanin.

Another episode of violence broke out in Montpellier last weekend when a bus transporting Brest fans back home was attacked as they left the southern city following a 3-1 win for the away team. Their bus was hit by stones reportedly thrown from a motorway bridge.

“What happened was very serious. When you look at the impacts on the vehicle, you quickly understand the violence," said Pascal Robert, the club's managing director. “If the paving stone that was thrown at the front of the bus had fallen two meters lower, the driver would have been hit... I can’t imagine the tragedy that would have ensued with our sixty supporters on board.”

Meanwhile, the league isn't offering up a whole lot in terms of entertainment or suspense.

Paris Saint-Germain once again tops the standings ahead of Sunday’s match at Le Havre, having won nine of the last 11 league titles. With its star-studded team lead by Kylian Mbappe — the league’s top scorer with 14 goals — PSG has no rival on the domestic stage.

Nice, however, has mounted a credible challenge this campaign and lags just one point behind the leader ahead of Saturday’s match at Nantes. But the other 16 teams are not giving their fans much to cheer about. According to the league’s statistics, the average number of goals per game after 12 rounds was lower than in the last three seasons — at under 2.5 — with the number of scoreless draws on the rise.

Some supporter groups are finding other ways to stay entertained.

Before the match between Marseille and Lyon was ultimately called off, fans from both teams remained in the stadium and exchanged insults as they waited for play to resume.

Taunting their Marseille rivals, some Lyon fans were filmed making Nazi gestures and mimicking monkeys.

Vincent Labrune, the French league president, believes the violence reached a new high after stadiums welcomed supporters back following the COVID-19 pandemic during which games were played with no fans.

With the reopening of venues, violent individuals who had served stadium bans during the interruption were allowed back, he said.

“The guys had served their time. We ended up with a completely above-average number of crazy people," Labrune said during a hearing with French lawmakers this month.

Labrune estimated that about 50 violent fans at each French league club are causing trouble.

“If we manage to get them out of stadiums, the situation should improve,” he said.

Labrune added that the “zero tolerance” policy implemented by the league — with point deductions and the closure of stadium sections — is needed to improve the situation. But he seemed under no illusion that the violence can be eradicated without a bigger change in mentalities.

“Football is a reflection of society, we’re not going to stop it all on our own,” Labrune said.

Faced with an increasing number of homophobic chants in stadiums, Labrune also called for matches to be systematically stopped as soon as the first offensive chant can be heard.

“We’re prepared to go as far as we can,” he told lawmakers. “I find questions of discrimination in general intolerable, and questions of homophobia drive me crazy. We have to stop the match, this is an appropriate measure.”


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