It has been less than a week since the shocking scenes on Sunday in southern France, where the Lyon team bus was attacked on its way to the stadium for a game against rivals Marseille.
As well as the trauma for Lyon manager Fabio Grosso, who needed 12 stitches around his left eye and on his face, for his assistant Raffaele Longo, also injured, and for the players who feared for their lives, this incident has raised a lot of questions without many answers.
Less than two hours before kickoff, as the official Lyon team bus made the 10-minute journey from the hotel to the stadium, it was ambushed by Marseille fans who threw stones, pétanque boules, glass bottles, cans, flares and other projectiles at it. The side windows of the vehicle shattered, which led the attackers to throw more things and aim directly at the players and staff.
Grosso was initially injured by flying shards of glass, but was then struck in the face by a can or bottle. Some of the players hid in the bus aisle or on the steps behind the back door. The attack lasted less than two minutes, but felt like an eternity for the people who were stuck. Once safely inside the stadium, the players and staff gathered in the dressing room, in complete shock, while Grosso received medical attention from emergency services on scene as well as the club doctor.
With kickoff approaching, a decision had to be made on whether to play. Grosso was dizzy and could not hold a conversation, which prompted referee François Letexier to follow protocols and call off the game. However, his decision came with further controversy: Lyon owner John Textor said his players wanted to play, only for the referee to choose postponement. Then Letexier announced that Lyon told him they didn’t want to play.
Said Marseille manager Gennaro Gattuso about Grosso: “At the start, I saw Fábio had blood on his face, I thought it was going to be three, four stitches and nothing serious. After seeing what had happened, it was absolutely right that the game not go ahead.”
Inside the ground, the news was announced and the Marseille fans left in peace to go home, but some of the 600 Lyon supporters, allowed for the first time in years to travel to the Vélodrome, made more negative headlines. Indeed, reports circulated of racist chants and some Nazi salutes coming from their stand, which both clubs condemned.
This is maybe the most baffling element of the story so far. As things stand, nobody has been held responsible. Not Marseille as a football club, not the French league, not the private company providing security at the ground, and not the French FA. No one.
Because this incident happened outside of the stadium, l’OM is not deemed responsible, meaning this is now a police issue. In fact, the police are the only group that could potentially be blamed for not sufficiently securing Lyon’s route to the stadium or the perimeter around it.
Posting on social media a couple of days after the attack, Grosso was grateful for the support though all too aware that Sunday could have turned out very differently. “What happened on Sunday evening could have been a tragedy, and it certainly was for sport and for all those who love it,” Grosso said. “I hope with all my heart that it can be a lesson for our future. Thank you for all your support and your closeness.”
Gattuso, who played with Grosso in Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning team, spoke at length about the incident in his Thursday media availability. “Grosso could’ve lost an eye. We talked on Monday in a video call and he was already on his way to training.
“I am sorry this happened, because we have an incredible rapport, we shared something amazing together as players and were preparing for an incredible night of football together on Sunday. There were 65,000 people in the stadium, families together — some had even arrived from Belgium for the game. I saw children in tears and the majority of our fans were angry. None of them feel represented by three or four people who ruined a day of celebration.”
Three different investigations have been opened in France: two around the attack of the coach, and one for the reported acts of racism we saw in the Lyon end in the stadium. Although nine arrests were made on the day of the game after the bus was attacked, no one has yet been charged for their involvement.
In terms of fulfilling the league fixture, as of Friday morning we have a date, but not a place, for the game to be played. The league has decided that the “Olympico” between l’OM and l’OL will go ahead on Dec. 6, but Lyon don’t want go back to Marseille. So in an unprecedented move, the league will wait a bit longer and find out more about the investigation before deciding where to play this game.
It could be behind closed doors in Marseille, at a neutral ground like Lyon would prefer, or it could be in front of a full crowd at Vélodrome like l’OM would prefer. The Lyon players have been training all week, and a source close to the squad tells ESPN that they’ve put the incident behind them and are ready to play this weekend at home in a big clash with Metz: Lyon are bottom of Ligue 1 after nine games (no wins, three draws, six defeats) while their opponents are also in the relegation zone, with nine points from their nine matches this season.
Pictures of his injuries made the rounds on social media on Sunday, and Grosso has been given 30 days off work by doctors to recover from his injuries. He has a huge scar on his face from the attack but is reportedly back on the pitch already, working with his team.
Meanwhile, it has been business as usual in Marseille. The club has not receive any punishment or sanctions despite the behaviour of their own fans: no points deduction, no game behind closed doors, nothing. The team has trained all week, as scheduled, and is ready for the home game against Lille this weekend. The club is fully cooperating with the police, but the culture of omerta (the code of silence) around what happened on Sunday night is strong and it won’t be easy for the authorities to actually find the troublemakers, let alone sentence them.
This is maybe the biggest point worth making here. Incidents like this one have been happening too often in French football in recent years: in addition to this bus attack, we’ve seen other ugly clashes in Montpellier less than a month ago, in Marseille, in Nice, in Lyon, in Paris, in St Etienne, in Bordeaux … the list goes on. The Ultra culture in France is strong and some clubs clearly struggle to control their supporters.
In the aftermath, Gattuso even mentioned former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when it comes to how future incidents could be prevented. “I spoke to Fabio about how lucky he was because if that had struck him in the eye, he could’ve lost it. At the end of the day, he was actually fortunate in the circumstances.”
“I am not a security chief, but the Lyon hotel is five minutes from the stadium, so considering it was a high-risk game, they could have closed off the road for five minutes. It might be easier to say than to do in practice, but this is what I think,” Gattuso continued. “People always talk about how Margaret Thatcher rooted out hooliganism in England. Strong laws are needed, probably Europe-wide ones.”
Gattuso is right: big decisions have to be taken now. Incidents like the one last weekend are a burden for French football, and they generate terrible publicity at a time where the league is hoping to get a record TV rights deal. Sanctions have to be stronger and security has to be better.
It has been reported that Lille were very reluctant to travel to Marseille on Saturday, receiving assurances from police that they will deploy more resources on matchday to ensure they have a secure route to the stadium. Sunday’s disgraceful attack on the Lyon bus and the injuries suffered by Grosso cannot be just another incident forgotten quickly like the others. It has to be a turning point.