Not so nice in Nice as ultras heap more shame on French football

Marseille players refuse to return to pitch after clashes with Nice fans

Kasper Dolberg walked down the tunnel, removed his shirt and ruefully shook his head. The Nice striker's reaction reflected the thoughts of nearly everyone watching. There were still 15 minutes remaining of Marseille's trip to Nice on Sunday night, but the Danish international, whose stunning chested finish had lit up the game minutes earlier, had not been substituted or injured. He had simply left the pitch in disgust as events descended into farce and humiliation for French football.

After 18 months without fans at the Allianz Riviera, Nice’s derby with their south-coast rivals was their first big home game in front of supporters since March 2020. However, sections of the crowd embarrassed themselves throughout the 75 minutes of play, as bottles were thrown at Marseille players.

One such projectile floored Marseille player Dimitri Payet, who angrily threw it back towards the Nice ultras before doing likewise with a second bottle. He was quickly joined by defender Álvaro González and Arsenal loanee Mattéo Guendouzi, who furiously remonstrated with the crowd as González booted the ball back into the stands.

Cue pandemonium. Nice ultras poured over hoardings, through metal barriers and on to the pitch to confront the Marseille team. Nice players soon joined the fray, with centre back Jean-Clair Todibo and Marseille’s Gerson being forcibly separated as stewards struggled to stem the flood of Nice fans, with electronic advertising boards bowing and collapsing. One intruder was pictured on L’Équipe’s front page launching a kick at Payet.


After a brief hiatus, a second wave of fans entered the pitch, sparking another mass brawl between the players and coaches of both sides, with Marseille manager Jorge Sampaoli at its centre. He was led away from the melee by Payet and his coaching staff, then another altercation erupted in the mouth of the tunnel before the players gathered outside their dressingrooms, with arguments continuing for some time.

Pictures of three Marseille players’ injuries quickly emerged – scratch marks on Payet’s back, what looked like a bloody gouge on Luan Peres’s neck and alleged strangle marks on Guendouzi’s throat. In the meantime, both Nice captain Dante and club president Jean-Pierre Rivère were seen attempting to calm down the ultras as Marseille’s players and staff retreated into their dressingroom.

Almost comically, Sampaoli soon reappeared wearing a backpack and ready to leave, despite new Ligue 1 broadcaster Amazon Prime announcing that the game would continue. Although Sampaoli may have had selfish reasons for departing – his side trailed 1-0 at the time – he had arrived at the right conclusion. Any attempt to continue with the Nice ultras still in full force would have been foolish, probably leading to more trouble even if Rivère insisted that they would behave.

At 11.48pm local time, as riot police guarded the tunnel, the game did technically restart for a brief moment. Nice’s players returned along with the officials to wait for a corner that would never be taken, as referee Benoît Bastien blew to restart the game despite the fact that Marseille were nowhere to be seen. Nice players even awkwardly applauded the stands in the aftermath as the game came to an official close. Bizarrely, the LFP affirmed that Nice, for now, were awarded a walkover victory, though Marseille plan to contest the decision.

Afterwards, Rivère and his counterpart at Marseille, Pablo Longoria, quickly went on the offensive, with Marseille posting a video of Longoria explaining the situation. "We need to set precedents for French football," Longoria explained. "The referee was with us. He confirmed to us that safety was not assured. His decision was to abandon the match, but the LFP decided to restart the match. That is not acceptable for us."

Meanwhile, Rivère insisted that “what instigated things was the reaction of two Marseille players”. The 63-year-old went on: “It’s disappointing that it ends like this. Things are quite clear. Marseille’s security should not have come on to the pitch and hit our players. I don’t really understand why Marseille didn’t restart.”

The sheer stupidity of these events is utterly mind-boggling. An impressive Nice team led a competitive game 1-0, but that hard-fought victory will now likely be stripped, with further punishments a given. Stadium closures are probable, as are fines , while points could even be deducted and players banned – the clubs have been summoned to a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday.

Marseille are also far from innocent, with a number of their players (Payet, Álvaro, Gerson) also likely to be banned. Although the repeated throwing of debris from the stands was inexcusable and Payet’s frustration understandable, throwing projectiles back into the crowd was unjustifiable and always likely to spark the riot that followed. Embarrassingly, Sampaoli lost his cool repeatedly and still had to be restrained over an hour later.

The incident is a total humiliation and a catastrophe for the image of French football amid the increased attention afforded to the league after Lionel Messi’s move to PSG. Ligue 1 were hoping that the transfer would lead to a sizeable uptick in sponsorship, foreign TV deals and increased investment for all 20 clubs, but these scenes will make that even more difficult for an already financially unstable division.

Most damningly for Ligue 1 and the LFP, incidents of this kind are not new. Just two weeks ago, Montpellier fans threw bottles at Marseille players, one injuring substitute Valentin Rongier. Fans were almost entirely absent from grounds last season but ultra groups still made headlines, most notably when Marseille supporters stormed their club’s training ground to protest against then-president Jacques Henri Eyraud’s running of the club.

In the last few seasons Marseille, Saint-Etienne, Montpellier, Lyon and many other clubs have been sanctioned for various types of fan unrest, including pitch invasions, homophobic chanting and the setting off of fireworks in stands. Games played behind closed doors already punctuated Ligue 1 weekends well before Covid-19 forced grounds to be closed last year.

Infuriatingly, the LFP’s half-hearted punishments have done nothing to change attitudes or prevent these increasingly violent and frequent outbursts. Despite ultra groups not having access to stadiums for over a year, incredibly, the problem has only worsened. If the LFP does not take genuine action against such troublemakers now, those new sponsors, investors and broadcasters, as well as real supporters of all French clubs, both new and old, will soon start to copy Dolberg – get up, shake their heads and walk out. – Guardian