Let them watch rugby! France digs deeper hole in row with Liverpool football fans

Let them watch rugby! France digs deeper hole in row with Liverpool football fans
Опубликовано: Thursday, 02 March 2023 21:06

France’s sports minister had hoped an invite to the Rugby World Cup in Paris could help ease tensions with the Liverpool FC supporters who were tear-gassed and beaten by French police at the Champions League final last year. But in England, rugby is the sport of the conservative elite.

John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.

France has a new queen of the fatuously and arrogantly missed point.

On Wednesday, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, the French sports minister, re-scripted Queen Marie-Antoinette for the 21st century.

Queen Marie-Antoinette, speaking circa 1789, probably apocryphally, said: “The poor people have no bread? Why don’t they eat cake?” Oudéa-Castéra, speaking to the French national assembly on Wednesday said, in effect: “Liverpool football fans are angry with us? Why don’t they come to Paris and watch some rugby.”

Oudéa-Castéra was aiming to assuage supporters of Liverpool FC and address their demands that she and the rest of the French government should apologize for events at the Champions League final last summer when thousands of fans were crushed, tear-gassed and beaten by French police outside the Stade de France, north of Paris.

At the time, she and other French officials placed the blame on Liverpool fans for — allegedly — trying to enter the stadium with fake tickets. The report of a six-month-long official investigation, confirming the earlier findings of the French Senate, has placed the blame on the European football governing body, UEFA, and the French police.

At a French parliamentary hearing Wednesday on the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, Oudéa-Castéra said that she had spoken to the chairman of Liverpool FC and offered to invite an unspecified number of Liverpool fans “to one of the matches of England during the Rugby World Cup” in France this fall.

Where to begin? The only thing more insulting would have been to offer Liverpool fans compensation in the form of tickets to a Manchester United game.

As French sports minister, Oudéa-Castéra is not expected to be an expert on the complex sporting and social geology of Britain. She ought to know something about the sociology of sport.

To anyone born and bred (like me) in northwest England, her comments are heroically fatuous.

Football fans and rugby fans are rarely the same people. In France too, they belong to different geographical and social tribes.

In northwest England, the boundaries are even more distinct. Football is the sport of the working classes. The second working-class sport is Rugby League. (Note to Mme Oudéa-Castéra: this is a different code of rugby featuring 13 rather than 15 players, which is mostly popular in northern England and on the east coast of Australia.)

French riot police in front of Liverpool FC supporters during the UEFA Champions League final on May 28, 2022 | Yoan Valat/EFE via EPA

In Wales and in France, Rugby Union is a working-class sport. In England, and especially in northwest England, it is the sport of the Barbour-wearing toffs — or at least the leafy suburban middle classes.

Even within the northwest, there are sociological and tribal boundaries. Snooty Manchester has a top rugby team (the Sale Sharks) as well as two top football teams.

The city of Liverpool sees itself as a bastion of the left-wing, anti-establishment working classes. It has two top football teams (although Liverpool fans would say only one-and-a-half). And it has no rugby club of any size — neither Rugby League nor Rugby Union.

To invite Liverpool fans to the Rugby World Cup, however well-intentioned, was like inviting rap fans to the opera.

If she truly wanted to make amends for the debacle at the Stade de France last May, Oudéa-Castéra should have started with an apology.

The events were traumatic for Liverpool fans because they recalled the crowd disaster at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield in 1989 when 97 Reds fans were killed. The responsibility of the local police was covered up by the authorities; Liverpool fans were unfairly blamed.

By good fortune, no supporter was killed last May. But the French authorities covered up the incompetence of the policing on the day; and Liverpool fans were again unfairly blamed.

The Liverpool supporters’ associations have asked for a formal apology from the French government for the lies that were apparently told. Oudéa-Castéra admits that there were mistakes but denies that there were any lies.

In this context, her invitation to some of the world’s most passionate football fans to come to the Rugby Union World Cup in France is not just a ridiculous remark. It is a patronizing evasion of responsibility. It is a professional foul.

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