French football official defends postponing match

French football league president Frederic Thiriez has denied that postponing Marseille’s match against Paris Saint-Germain at late notice was the catalyst for widespread violence erupting in Marseille’s city center.

Fans of the bitter rivals had running battles after Sunday night’s game – scheduled for 2100 local time and televised on cable TV – was called off about six hours before kick off because PSG players Ludovic Giuly, Mamadou Sakho and Jeremy Clement had contracted swine flu.

That meant thousands of fans were able to mingle in the city center.

“Claiming that they (the incidents) are linked to the postponing of the match is intellectual fraud, unfortunately these fights were prearranged,” Thiriez told sports daily L’Equipe on Monday.

Nearly a dozen people were injured, according to Marseille police chief Philippe Klayman, and reports Monday said 16 had been arrested following the clashes outside Marseille’s main train station and the nearby Vieux Port (Old Port) area.

The late cancellation played straight into the hands of those looking for a fight, with PSG’s notorious hooligan element heavily involved in downtown clashes. French reports before the match spoke of prearranged fights over the internet and a higher level of threats than usual.

“There is only one person responsible and that is the president of the French football league (Thiriez),” Philippe Pereira, speaking for a section of PSG’s supporters, told LCI television on Monday.

Pereira said Thiriez was playing with people’s safety by canceling so late. Pereira said he arrived with other PSG fans by train at Marseille’s Saint-Charles station and that the violence began almost immediately outside, with police ill prepared.

Thiriez defended his decision by saying it was based on advice from the LFP’s medical commission.

“What would people have said if the match had been maintained and the whole Marseille squad had been infected (with swine flu)?,” he told L’Equipe. “There would have been an outcry.”

The LFP initially said Saturday that the game would go ahead despite the first two swine flu cases, Giuly and Sakho, being diagnosed. It called the match off after another case, that of Clement’s, was detected Sunday.

Clement traveled on the plane with the rest of the squad.

Marseille president Jean-Claude Dassier said he was “dubious” about the decision.

“All this seems a bit amateur,” he said. “I am a little dubious that with two (players ill) you play, and with three (ill) you don’t play.”

Dassier said officials from both clubs plan to meet with Thiriez on Thursday.

“We need to think quickly about what happened so that it never happens again,” Dassier said.

No new date for the match has been decided but Marseille coach Didier Deschamps wants it on Wednesday. PSG players and staff members have been quarantined for a 72-hour period to try and prevent any new infection.

Police used tear gas to break up the fighting, with one newspaper capturing a fan throwing a knife at rivals.

Chaos runs riot

Early Sunday afternoon, about 100 PSG fans – some wearing shirts emblazoned with the Kop of Boulogne emblem of PSG’s hooligan fringe – started fighting with Marseille fans.

French football hit rock bottom three years ago when PSG fan Julien Quemener was shot and killed by an off-duty policeman protecting a Jewish fan surrounded by a hate mob, after PSG’s UEFA Cup match against Hapoel Tel Aviv.

PSG has long harbored a far-right element, many of whom converge in the Kop of Boulogne section of Parc des Princes.

Despite pledges at French government level to stamp out football violence, problems persist.

Before last season’s UEFA Cup match between PSG and FC Twente, around 250 hooligans from PSG and their Dutch rivals fought in the city’s historical center in broad daylight, with Christmas shoppers running for cover, and again later that night outside Parc des Princes.

PSG’s hooligan fringe has been highly active since the early 1990s, with incidents in Paris against Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, and Galatasaray.

With their team having failed to qualify for Europe this season, PSG’s hooligans have targeted away games at Marseille, Nice, Lyon, Saint-Etienne, Montpellier and Bordeaux.

PSG hooligans fought with Montpellier fans on trams and in the streets around Montpellier’s stadium on the opening day of the season, with one PSG supporter losing an eye.