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A Storm Brewing in French Football

The recent success of Lyon and Bordeaux in the Champions League, with victories over Real Madrid and Olympiakos respectively, has sparked talk of a revival in French football. Lille and Marseille also made it to the knock-out stage of the Europa League, and the national team is facing a relatively straight-forward group in the World Cup in South Africa. However, under the surface, there is major trouble brewing in the French game.

On Wednesday night, a 38-year-old man passed away, having been in a coma for over two weeks, following clashes between rival PSG fans before the clash with arch rivals Marseille on February 28th. Paris Saint-Germain have taken the step of banning their own fans from travelling to away matches, whilst their upcoming match this weekend at Nice will be played behind closed doors following trouble involving the Nice fans in their match on January 30th against Monaco, when they invaded the pitch and attacked Monaco fans. This could be a potential blessing, since there have been violent clashes and injuries in recent seasons at matches between the two sides.

The problem of hooliganism and violence is taking centre stage, with even politicians becoming involved. French sports minister Rama Yade said, “The worst has happened. Passions turned into sordid, senseless, murderous rage. Love of the team jersey has become hate for the other, hate for the sport, hate for life.”

Paris Saint-Germain has rival factions amongst its fans – a far right element that gathers in the Kop of Boulogne section of the Parc-des-Princes stadium has long been in open conflict with supporters from another section at the opposite end of the ground, the Auteuil. Ahead of the game against Marseille, the Kop of Boulogne fans attacked their rivals outside the Auteuil entrance, leading to the death of the unfortunate fan. Reports also suggest that they were chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans during the attack.

The disturbing thing is that this death isn’t the first. Only four years ago, Julien Quemener was shot and killed trying to protect a Jewish fan that had been attacked by a hate mob made up of other PSG fans. The killer was an off-duty policeman. Only last year before their UEFA Cup match with FC Twente, around 250 hooligans fought in Central Paris and outside the stadium, sending innocent passers-by running for safety. Racism is also still a common problem in French football, despite the best attempts of the authorities and the government. Before the Cup Final in 2008, an Arab man was attacked by around 30 PSG fans at the Saint-Michel railway station, before being rescued by surrounding passengers.

PSG fan groups have close ties with the club management, even having the power to influence aspects of the internal running of the club. However, following recent incidents, the club has severed ties with all fan groups, pledging to eradicate violence in and around the Parc-des-Princes. The league has ordered PSG to play their next game behind closed doors, and the French Interior Minister has intervened, forcing them to play their upcoming cup game in an empty stadium as well.

Hooliganism remains a major problem in French football at the moment and is threatening to dampen the optimism generated by the success of French sides in Europe in recent weeks. Far-right and anti-Semitic groups are amongst those at the centre of the problem and the police and authorities will have their work cut out to curb the problem. Reports suggest the future of Paris Saint-Germain is at stake if they are unable to control the violent elements of their support and it would be a shame if a famous club such as PSG was forced out by the behaviour of their own fans. However, this is a real threat coming from the highest levels of the French political system and the club and their fans would do well to heed it.

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