Both clubs “boycotting” Canal Plus
20 April ~ Club football in France seemed to be on the up, with two French sides (Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco) reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League and the Zlatan effect at PSG meaning that France's Ligue 1 now gets mentioned on the front page of the BBC Sport website for the first time. But a controversy involving two of the biggest clubs could derail the optimistic mood.
Fierce rivals, PSG and Marseille are entering into an unlikely alliance against pay-per-view television channel Canal Plus, who hold the main television rights for France's top league. Following PSG's 3-2 defeat at Bordeaux on March15, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was filmed as he returned to the changing room launching into an expletive ridden rant (in English) in which he suggested that "this fucking country" didn't deserve PSG.
Later that night, a similar scene featured Marseille's French international Dimitri Payet lambasting the referee following his side's home 0-0 draw with Lyon. The sole “crime” of the referee in the Bordeaux v PSG game was not penalising the home team's goalkeeper for picking up what might have been a back pass, while the official for Marseille v Lyon failed to award the home side a goal even though television replays are not clear as to whether the ball crossed the goal line or not (but are more clear in that there was probably a foul on the goalkeeper anyway).
Ibrahimovic's outburst was headline news in France, with politicians lining up to condemn him, and Zlatan was forced to appear before the cameras and apologise in a way that only he can manage – he was sorry if we misinterpreted what he'd said. Payet was just as unrepentant, claiming that he couldn't be insulting the referee because the official was still out on the pitch when he made his rant. Both were called to appear before the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) disciplinary commission (only Payet turned up in person), with Ibrahimovic receiving a four-match ban and the Marseille player getting two games.
Both clubs subsequently announced that they would be "boycotting" Canal Plus until the end of the season. At the first round of matches after the announced boycott, Marseille's players refused to stop and speak with the Canal Plus pitchside reporter, as they are contractually obliged to do, at half time and full time, while during the manager's post-match press conference following PSG winning the League Cup final, Laurent Blanc refused to answer a question posed by a Canal Plus journalist.
Controversial LFP president Frédéric Thiriez failed to prove a calming influence. In fact, he announced that he was supporting the two clubs' stance, suggesting that Canal Plus should only show positive images of French football. This indicates censorship and did not sit well with influential Canal Plus analyst Pierre Ménès, who said it was akin to the driver who blames the speed camera for his ban as opposed to his own actions. Meanwhile, Lyon's influential president, Jean-Michel Aulas, who may well have his own agenda, pointed out that the actions of PSG, Marseille and the Ligue's own president could have a negative impact when the next set of TV rights come up for negotiation.
The same weekend that the boycott was announced, Thiriez was again headline news. Prior to the PSG v Bastia League Cup final, the LFP's president cancelled the usual pre-match protocol of coming onto the pitch and being presented to the two teams. The Corsican club have a long crime sheet at the LFP, with repeated infractions for the use of flares, smoke bombs and the throwing of objects onto the pitch. Thiriez claimed, not unjustly, that he feared that being booed by the Bastia fans might "spoil the party", bringing to mind the scenes of Bastia's appearance in the final of the French Cup in 2002 when their fans booed La Marseillaise.
By the following day, Thiriez's actions had been interpreted by the Corsican club as a calculated insult in refusing to shake their players' hands (perhaps conveniently forgetting that he didn't shake the PSG hands either), with Bastia's president, Pierre-Marie Geronimi, accusing Thiriez of racism. Such controversies couldn't have come at a worse time as the French Ligue 1 attempts to break out of the shadow of its English, Spanish, Italian and German rivals. David Winter