So, that happened. The first match of the 2012/13 Ligue 1 season, the grand event, reigning champions Montpellier at home to Toulouse, was a strange affair.
Outside the ground, there was the usual hustle, people eating and drinking in the fanzone, a trail of blue and orange shirts making their way to the ground, a banner, hung on some railings, saying “Boycott beIN Sport – BP91” – a message from one of the ultra groups, opposing, presumably, the way that Ligue 2 has had its timetable screwed around with so the new boys on the TV block can have their big Friday night game; or possibly that there are links between the backers of the new channel, and the owners of PSG.
There were more stewards on the gates than normal, and they were armed with barcode readers to check the tickets. That was new. As were the blue, yellow and orange seats – seats with backs, even – in the stadium. A small band of away fans, maybe 100, 150 in the number, sang songs and displayed a banner paying tribute to their former captain, Daniel Congré, now a Montpellier player. More stewards in the stadium too, in orange shirts saying ‘controle’, scattered around the stairways.
The teams were announced – Toulouse, perfunctorily, Montpellier, with the usual big-screen display and round of applause for everyone, tailing off a little as they got down to the bench. There were special announcements for the new signings, both those starting (Herrera and Congré) and those not able to play this evening (Charbonnier and Mounier). Everything seemed normal. Ish.
The match kicked off, and the most noticeable thing was that the backing track was provided by the away fans. The home end Etang de Thau, home of BP91 (of the boycott banner outside – the Toulouse fans had one as well) and the Armata, was strangely unresponsive, as were the Kop Wolf, at the other end. The lack of chanting and singing was unsettling, as was the realisation that there were no flags, no banners, no drummers, in the Etang de Thau. A bat flew around mazily, swopping over the crowd. This was all getting a bit surreal.
It seemed that the ultras were on strike. They could not control themselves completely, of course – decisions going the other way were booed and whistled, Toulouse players hitting the deck were barracked mercilessly, and when the camera panned past them, there were the usual suggestions for where exactly Paris should go – but there was no positive support. The match was an edgy, bitty affair; Aymen Abdennour had clearly been tasked with marking Herrera upfront, and he did a good job of it. Montpellier’s new signing was unable to out-jump his massive nursemaid, and his only other idea was to be caught offside, again and again. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa showed just why La Paillade are so eager to hang on to him, dribbling his way out of defence, nutmegging players, and putting balls forward. Remy Cabella, in a central role for the injured Younes Belhanda, tried to spray the ball around, but there was a lack of ‘click’, and perhaps one too many step-overs. The final ball was definitely lacking. The best chance came in the 20th minute, a free-kick awarded 25 metres out, just right of centre. With customary piledriver-deliverer Marco Estrada suspended, Cabella took the shot, a lovely curling strike, measured rather than mullered, which went just over the bar.
An unexplained break in play around the 25-minute mark, when everyone trudged to the touchline, and then trudged back again, only added to the air of disconnect. A drinks break, it turns out, to leaven the effect the 30 degree heat and horrid humidity was having on players not fully up to speed.
When Souleymane Camara scored in the 34th minute, having slightly overcooked his ball on, but recovering it with a lovely dink over Ahamada, there was cheering, of course. And two guys near us, in the Cevennes stand, rushed down from their seats with a banner – showing LouLou Nicollin, with his blue and orange mohawk, fist raised, and the club crest. They stood, they waved their banner, and they were cheered. Then they went back to their seats, the stewards appearing entirely unconcerned.
Then drama – with Montpellier there is always drama – Saihi managed to kick Sirieix in the face contesting a ball. No malice in it, from where we were sitting, but a stupid thing to do and the ref will probably note ‘dangerous / reckless play’ in his match report. Damnit. Cabella was taken off for Marveaux to replace the missing defensive midfielder (Montpellier now in danger of being very short of available defensive midfielders) as the tactic was clearly to sit on this lead against a Toulouse team without much attacking flair.
They held on until half-time, but then something else strange; when the whistle went, and the players headed for the dressing rooms, one stayed behind. Benjamin Stambouli, a fan favourite, went over to the home end. A conversation ensued – presumably, the U21 international asking the ultras ‘please sing, we need your support’. And then, as the match kicked off again, an explanation for the strange silence – a message, written in black block capitals over four white banners, saying – the club forbids us…to say thank you to you…no banners, but…we are proud of our champions.
At the last home game of last season, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of BP91, a massive banner was unleashed over the stand Etang de Thau – and flares were let off underneath it. While incendiary devices are not uncommon at Mosson, it appears that this was too much for the club management – they banned any other ‘tifos’. So, BP91 went on strike. Another group, Kop Wolf 34, put out a statement saying they would celebrate as normal, but they too were bannerless and eerily silent.
Sirieix, featuring pristine white bandages after his clash with Saihi, did not return for the second half, and was replaced by Ben Yedder. Montpellier held on, a man down, for another ten minutes, then another change – Herrera off, left-back fresh from new fatherhood Henri Bedimo on. The Montpellier formation now looked to be a 4-4-1, with Bedimo playing left wing, dropping back as necessary, and John Utaka up front. Then Rivière off, Braaten on. The two Toulouse substitutes then combined to score, Ben Yedder getting the header after some shaky defending from the home side. The singing, which had started up after the protest banners were displayed, tailed off, and the mood sank. And then Regattin went in very late on his former captain and was sent off as well.
With scores and complements level, Montpellier tried to go back on the attack, but over half an hour of playing a man down had clearly taken its toll. Another change, this time more attacking – Camara off, and the fresh legs of Ait-Fana on. Then more chaos, as Aurier went in on Bedimo, and the visitors were down to nine. Now with superior numbers, Montpellier still could not find that ‘click’ – Ait-Fana’s crossing from the right was downright woeful, and when your best attacking threat is a left-back being played out of position, that is not a good sign. Stambouli, also, had a chance to shoot but seemed to lack the confidence to do so and tried a cut-back that was cut out. Finally Utaka, hero in the last match of last season, looked like he would pull off another of Montpellier’s heart-stopping last-minute winners – but it was inches wide of the post. First-game legs, which had had to make up for a deficit in manpower, could not carry the champions to a win.
It ended with 2 goals, 3 red cards, and 40-something fouls. René Girard said after the game, “we weren’t really ready”, which is both true and a massive understatement. It looked for all the world as if Montpellier had forgotten that Giroud has gone – the balls forward to Herrera were not right for him, and Abdennour took him out of the game. It should be mentioned – I may have missed this earlier – that Toulouse played the ball around very nicely, although lacked a final hit, Capoué putting in a good display, and Ahamada as solid as ever. A point is not a bad way to start the season, but it could have been better. Then again, it could have been a lot, lot worse.
Even the journey home was unsettling. Next tram 14 minutes, said the sign for about 20 minutes. The platform was crowded, but quiet – there was one, desultory, tactical analysis conversation between a guy in a replica shirt and floral shorts, and an older gentleman in red sitting on the edge of the platform – “Congré, yeah, well, he was just… you know” – “yes, I know” – and then one of those strange moments that jolts you back to life again, as we finally boarded the tram, and the driver came over the intercom.
“Please accept my apologies for the delay, this was due to… <sigh>…<clear deviation from script>…it wasn’t my fault, OK? Sorry. To cheer you up, Lavillenie has won gold in the pole-vault, and the French team has qualified for the handball final!”
For that, there was cheering.
So, that happened…