After a year of football in empty stadiums the return of supporters this season should have been a cause for celebration, but France is reeling from a series of incidents involving fans in and around Ligue 1 games.
The latest came on Wednesday when supporters invaded the pitch and flares were thrown at the game between Angers and Marseille, while stones were thrown at a bus taking Bordeaux fans to their match in Montpellier, with 16 suffering minor injuries.
These incidents come after last weekend’s northern derby between Lens and Lille was overshadowed by a pitch invasion that delayed the start of the second half.
Riot police intervened when dozens of Lens supporters stormed the pitch at half-time to confront Lille fans, while both sets of supporters hurled seats at each other over a partition wall.
Lens have been ordered to play home matches behind closed doors until further notice, denying them of the crowd that usually creates one of the best atmospheres in France at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis.
Previously Nice were docked one point after the abandonment of their game against Mediterranean rivals Marseille on August 22.
Nice were also ordered to play three home games behind closed doors at the Allianz Riviera, where Marseille’s Dimitri Payet was hit by a bottle thrown from the crowd and supporters streamed onto the pitch as a melee ensued involving players, staff, fans and stewards.
The abandoned game will be replayed at a neutral ground next month, behind closed doors.
“Certain clubs managed in the past to put an end to this unacceptable hooliganism,” said Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s Minister of National Education, Youth and Sports, in an interview with news channel LCI following the trouble in Angers, which led to two arrests on Thursday.
“There are people who need to be banned from stadiums in future for this behaviour.
“We need to be firm. These people are damaging the image of the sport.”
The incidents certainly don’t help French football as it seeks to capitalise on the arrival of Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain.
Nor does playing matches in empty stadiums, but the French league has little alternative.
Fans have been allowed back into games this season with no limits on capacity, as long as those attending can show they are either fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or have recently tested negative.
The trouble began on the opening weekend, when Marseille’s Valentin Rongier was hit on the head by a bottle at Montpellier, leading to a 10-minute delay.
It has all led to much soul-searching in France, and it may be that many are using the return to the charged atmospheres of football grounds to release pent-up frustrations from a year of coronavirus restrictions.
Then again, the incidents have not been replicated in neighbouring countries.
Player to watch: Achraf Hakimi
The Spanish-born Morocco right-back cost 60 million euros ($70m) from Inter Milan in the summer, a fee that could soon end up looking like a bargain for a player emerging as the best in the world in his position.
Hakimi, 22, was sent on to play on the wing when Lionel Messi was controversially substituted by Mauricio Pochettino in PSG’s 2-1 win over Lyon last weekend. He then started at Metz in midweek and scored twice, including a stoppage time winner.
“He is not just a goal-scorer. He works hard at both ends of the pitch and offers us so many solutions,” said Pochettino.
PSG host Montpellier on Saturday before facing Manchester City in the Champions League next Tuesday.