Words by Nicolas Guillon @AOC
Translated from French by Ramona Frost
Domestic championship undermined, recurring failure of the clubs of the Hexagon on the European scene, repeated incidents in the stands: the football season that ends last season was a long affliction. In the background, the limits of a development model focused solely on commodification, an allegory of that of our lives.Nice-Nantes: rid for the first time in eight years of the cumbersome presence of a Paris Saint-Germain that no longer even makes its own supporters dream, the poster of the 105th final of the Coupe de France smelled good the spring of the game. This opposition between two historic clubs of French football revived the fever of Saturday night. Filled with two-thirds of Canaries fans, the Stade de France looked like a field of daffodils and scents of yesteryear tickled our nostrils. During the match, won by the Canaries – their first trophy in twenty-one years – we even glimpse in sequences snippets of nantes-style play, a quality label that must have escaped the Qatari football culture. Unexpected and providential epilogue in the opposite of a detestable season from end to end, between projectile throws and abject songs, protest movements and invasions of the field, match interruptions and prefectural arrests. As the Yellow Vests had occupied the roundabouts throughout the country, no region was spared and this is undoubtedly the observation that must challenge us the most. Because the chronicle of the last ten months hardly echoes clashes between fanatics, it tells the degree of nervousness of audiences who can catch fire at the slightest spark, anywhere, anytime.
An admissible explanation would of course be the state of exhaustion of a French society depressed by two years of pandemic, confinements, curfews, feverish expectations, anxieties, tensions, etc. But then how to explain that in countries where much more than at home the round ball is religion and where therefore the holding of matches behind closed doors was a real frustration, it is in joy that we returned to the stadium when the light went back to green and not to pour out his hatred?
Football has certainly always been a magnifying mirror of the imbalances in our society. The cult devoted by the city of Marseille to Bernard Tapie, for example, does not come from nowhere: by offering the European Cup to the Phocaean city, the businessman made the children of the northern districts winners – they perhaps only won by proxy on match nights at the Velodrome stadium but at least these evenings were on the side of the born goods.
Because it unleashes passions this sport has a strong propensity to uninhibit fools and this is not new. Without going so far as to say that it is consensual, violence has always kept football company, perhaps because too often we wanted to give it a warrior turn. As early as 1885, in England, a match between Preston North End and Aston Villa turned into a nightmare: the players of both teams received spitting, stones and even blows with sticks! To describe this incredible fury, a journalist refers to the Irish “Houlihan” family, infamous for anti-social acts committed in London. Houlihan would be the most probable etymology of the word “hooligan”.
It is fashionable in these tempestuous times to salute Thatcherism, which has defeated hooliganism. In the 80s, the Iron Lady put in place a radical program to eradicate this scourge based on methods usually used in the fight against terrorism: surveillance, infiltration, carding leading to the pronunciation of many stadium bans, etc. With undeniable results.
But as always in such circumstances, regrettable amalgams were made. Real fans were asked to pay much more for their entrance ticket to the stand and to sit wisely in their place: discrimination by money took place and English football lost its popular dimension. The foundations of the Premier League had been laid: it would be the championship of the rich.
It is necessary to distinguish between hooliganism, of fascist inspiration, and the Ultras movement, of revolutionary sensibility.
However, the somewhat hasty exposure of this seemingly ready-made solution usually forgets to mention that most of the English hooligans of the eighties came from the most disadvantaged classes of the country, completed by a savage and brutal deindustrialization. It was from there, at a time when, in a totally disoriented society, the skinhead identity movement was emerging, that the most nauseating ideologies brought them into the stadiums with violence as a corollary. Like football, politics also unfortunately sometimes has an inclination to generate not only intelligence and we must then assume the consequences.
It is an understatement to point out that Emmanuel Macron’s first five-year term will not have contributed to bringing serenity to a society in the midst of a crisis of meaning and which has the force of demonetization of the political verb seems for some of them to no longer believe in it. Faced with the uncertainty of the future, the most lost sheep would have needed to hear an empathetic speech, instead they were served for five years a kind of fable, an abstract reality escaping the most enlightened minds, and especially provocative, unusual protrusions on the part of a President of the Republic.
When the first of the French offends, it should not be surprising that some of his subjects debug. Beyond its fundamental absurdity, the policy of “at the same time” has had a perverse effect: cultivating trouble and division and, even more terrible, suspicion among the most fragile, with the main consequences of the deportation of the debate of ideas to the extremes and the return of political and social violence to the stadiums.
At a time when Manichaeism and generalities are popular, however, it is necessary to distinguish between hooliganism, of fascist inspiration, and the Ultras movement, of revolutionary sensibility. If the former is far from having been eradicated in Europe, proof of this is the regular clashes reported by their protagonists on social networks, it has virtually no place in the stands.
The Ultras, for their part, have only one purpose: the unwavering support of their colors, which can underlie an opposition to leaders who by the inconsequence of their management would jeopardize the values of their club. Stigmatizing without even trying to understand, punishing with closed doors or travel bans, for a few smoke bombs or a banner with a disturbing message, can therefore only be unproductive. To the point that some groups of supporters even came to wonder if the health pass was not going to be an additional tool in the service of their policing.
A man with a well-made head, Nantes coach Antoine Kombouaré paid a vibrant tribute to the Canaries fans after the final of the Coupe de France: “It’s their victory too. Because these are people who have suffered tremendously. Under the presidency of (Waldemar) Kita it was not easy for them. Painful, indeed, to see a club that was admired by all by its family spirit, its stability and its know-how in terms of training swap one by one its clothes of light for rags.
What do the Ultras of the Loire Brigade tell us, who at each meeting wave black flags and sing to the glory of Emiliano Sala, who died as a result of the stupidest transfer in history? Or those of the Auteuil corner who leave the Parc des Princes even before the end of the match on the evening of the officialization of the tenth title of champion of France of PSG? The same thing: they no longer recognize themselves in their respective clubs and the policy of commodification, whether high or low cost, which serves as their compass.
The unease goes back a long way, to a certain Bosman judgment delivered by the Court of Justice of the European Communities on 15 December 1995, which kicked off a gigantic fair at the pognon. Football had just been part of the neoliberal logic that would soon preside over our lives. In the winter of 2005, the working-class club Arsenal fielded sixteen non-English players on a match sheet for the first time.
At the same time, some of the Manchester United fans were schisming to protest against the takeover of their club by the American businessman Malcolm Glazer: FC United of Manchester was based on the cardinal values of a popular, democratic and solidarity-based football, in opposition to the mercantilism of the big funds, which, in constant search of better returns, now reduces the fan to a consumer.
The theory of the trickle-down of Qatari millions worked so well that we had to go and get Luxembourgers to bail out our Ligue 1.
Righteousness would have us believe that the guilty actions of the most agitated Ultras would be linked to the simple fact that they would no longer accept the inalienable principle of defeat. Nonsense! The Ultras are among the last to resist the societal model devouring our lives when tear gas and armor tend to become the systematic response to any manifestation of peaceful intent. The time of a final, the Nantes had the intelligence to “compartmentalize” to use a term used by Antoine Kombouaré and therefore to postpone the pursuit of their demands. But the impressive tifo deployed at the Stade de France suffered no ambiguity: “Whatever happens, let’s stay the course”.
The flow of the Ultras nice on the memory of Emiliano Sala has, of course, nothing to do in a stadium. It should be stressed, however, that it was in Nice that the problems began last August and that it was again in Nice that the unacceptable occurred nine months later. What has been done in the meantime to stop it? At the same time, it is difficult to tackle in depth the problem of the relationship with the public when you are busy negotiating the rights to broadcast matches.
The latest find of the Professional Football League (LFP)? Sell a share of its commercial income to the investment fund CVC Capital Partners in exchange for €1.5 billion in cash, including €600 million immediately. Officially, this new money should allow the development of French football – a challenge: six representatives of six different countries share this season the six places of finalist of the three European cups, among them no club of the Hexagon. However, it is possible to doubt the effectiveness of the strategy since 200 million euros will go to the club which dominates the championship and three times less to its main challengers.
The reality is that the theory of the trickle-down of Qatari millions worked so well that we had to go and get Luxembourgers to bail out our Ligue 1. A strong revaluation of the famous TV rights is again hoped – the astronomical figure of 1.8 billion euros per season has been put forward. To believe that the Mediapro camouflage (a billion-dollar contract not honored) has left no trace other than debt. Vincent Labrune, the president of the LFP, wanted to thank Emmanuel Macron in person for having made this project possible.
On the evening of the final of the Coupe de France, Christophe Galtier also went there with his pump polish to the champion of triumphant capitalism. Consistency is not obvious when the Nice coach keeps complaining about the low level of investment of his boss – the British oil company Ineos – in his work tool.
So let’s expect a new revolt from PSG fans who when the kiss comes will take a new cold snap in the Champions League. Their Nantes counterparts should also quickly come down from their little cloud, the prospect of playing in a European Cup does not bode well for tomorrows singing in the Yellow House. The euphoria had barely subsided, when three members of its management were taken into custody as part of an investigation into alleged secret commissions in connection with transfers. But ascended to heaven for a magical evening at least the Canaries fans will have finally been able to mourn Emiliano Sala by offering “this Argentinian who did not let go” a miraculous trophy. ✪