A cheer in Provence

27 March 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

When we think of hooliganism in football, our minds may immediately recall incidents such as that which saw Italy awarded a 3-0 victory against Serbia due to crowd trouble from the visiting supporters in Genoa. Or perhaps, we flick back to the bad old days of the 80s, when the Heysel disaster resulted in English clubs being banned from European competition for five years.

But hooliganism is not something we immediately associate with the French. Surely, they are far too cultured to ever engage in such activity, right?

Wrong. Matches between two of the biggest clubs in the land, Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille, have been peppered with fan violence, including one horrible incident last year when a PSG fan died after being attacked by a rival group of PSG supporters. No, that is not a typo, they were fans of the same club.

Drastic measures have been taken to curb this violence, by PSG, who have the country’s most notorious supporters, and by the French league, who banned away fans from attending matches between PSG and OM this season.

Of course, interested neutrals were able to attend. And so it was that an Australian who quite fancied the opportunity to see a Ligue 1 match found himself attending the biggest match in France this past Sunday.

They refer to it as Le Clasico a name based on El Clasico matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona. They use the Spanish word rather than the French Classique for reasons which can only be to do with increasing the hype by associating themselves with the biggest game in club football. Of course, and this can also be to the detriment of La Liga, Madrid and Barça are always first and second in Spain. Going into this match, PSG and OM were fourth and fifth, respectively, and without the record of success that the two Spanish giants boast.

Nonetheless, the two teams are the best-supported in the land and both could consider themselves in the running for the title; so make no mistake, this was a big occasion. It could be felt immediately upon arrival at Marseille’s St Charles train station, and walking down Le Canebière towards the Vieux Port, everywhere you looked you would see people kitted out in their OM gear.

The Vieux Port, a huge parking lot for pleasure boats that is only made nice by the deep blue Mediterranean which flows into it, was surrounded by more of the same.  The passion felt for Les Olympiens in the city stretches far further than the hooligans and into southern French culture.

The Stade Vélodrome, first built for the 1938 World Cup and later upgraded for the 1998 edition of the same tournament, doesn’t really ‘do’ tiers. As a result, it is possibly the most open stadium outside Victoria’s own Waverley – or Arctic Park as we oh-so-fondly remember it. Thankfully, this night was not windy, allowing for an electric atmosphere, even without the away fans. Curiously, the section set aside for these absent fans was still empty and segregated from the remainder of the stadium by a line of stewards. Who, or what, they were protecting may well be a question for the ages.

As for the home fans, they too had supporters’ groups on the north and south ends – presumably not at war with each other and certainly aware of the world which surrounded them. A minute’s silence for the victims of Japan’s earthquake was almost impeccably observed; the African hip-hop coming from one corner could have been switched off sooner, but switched off it eventually was as the northern stand formed a Japanese flag with their placards in tribute to those affected.

All niceties were dispensed with once the whistle blew to start the contest, with almost the entire stadium chanting: ‘Paris, Paris, on t’encule!’ (best translated as ‘Paris, Paris, go fuck yourself!’)

Such rivalries breed unforgettable moments, and when Marseille defender Gabriel Heinze, a former PSG player, curled home a free-kick in the 16th minute the Stade Vélodrome was rocking. The silence which greeted Clément Chantôme’s equaliser will live equally long in the memory, but it wasn’t long before André Ayew’s header restored the home side’s lead.

The second half was a cagey, and at times slow, affair, but the crowd were no less into the contest. A girl immediately behind got even more excited than the opening period, but sadly was unable to extend her vocabulary far beyond ‘Allez!’, ‘Merde!’ and ‘Putain!’ (‘Go!’ and two rather more delicate four-letter words.)

Protecting OM’s lead, Marseille manager Didier Deschamps withdrew the diminutive playmaker, Mathieu Valbuena, who had spent an hour running in all directions for little reward. Teammate André-Pierre Gignac didn’t receive as rapturous a reception after a performance which indicated he is not the star striker that his FIFA10 counterpart had led me to believe. But, of course, you can imagine the whistles that greeted each PSG substitution, so Gignac was no villain.

Ayew’s 35th minute header would prove to be the decider on this night, sending OM all the way up to second, just four points behind leaders Lille. The crowd went home happy, and thanks to the French league’s security fears, peacefully. The decision to shut out the away fans may not have affected the ability of the neutral to visit, but it certainly improved the willingness. And while anything labelled Le Clasico is always going to struggle to live up to the hype, the passion of the Marseille fans ensured that as long as the focus is on the pitch, the occasion can indeed be a wonderful advertisement for the game in France.

Evan Harding is a recent Master of Global Communications graduate at La Trobe University and a former upstart sport editor. He now lives in London.