As Ligue 1 kicks off on Friday, French clubs are wrestling with how do cope with an unfamiliar presence at their games: the fans.
Last season, Covid-19 restrictions meant matches were played either in empty, or almost-empty, stadiums.
At the end of June, the French government removed attendance caps, instead requiring vaccination certificates, negative coronavirus tests or evidence of recovery from a bout of the illness.
Relieved that ticket revenues can finally take off again after 18 months at close to zero, the French league (LFP) is following the government’s recommendations without adding any restrictions.
It is up to the clubs, and their local governments who can impose their own restrictions, to decide how to welcome back fans and what to charge for tickets.
Some grounds will be at full capacity from the kick off.
At Metz, up to 28,000 people can attend the visit of champions Lille on Saturday. Strasbourg can fill their ground when they host Angers. Troyes has decided to operate at 100 per cent of capacity for the whole season.
On the other hand, the attendance at Montpellier’s 22,000-seater Mosson Stadium has been limited to 13,500 for Sunday’s visit of Marseille, while Monaco is limiting capacity to 70 per cent.
The health paperwork check adds a third hurdle for fans entering the ground after the ticket inspection and the security pat-down.
“If people come in the 30 minutes before kick off, half the crowd will miss the first half,” said Jacques Cardoze, director of communications at Marseille,
At Troyes, Richard Rabahi, the club’s director of operations, said he is hiring “300 to 350 temporary staff” when Paris Saint-Germain visit on Saturday.
Other clubs are also hiring extra staff and some aren’t happy.
“It’s 50 per cent more stewards and security guards”, not to mention “the costs associated with setting up barricades, marking the ground, hydro-alcoholic gel”, Karim Houari, the Rennes stadium manager, told AFP.
The LFP also recommends clubs set up testing booths at the stadium and create an area for disputes with fans who think they should be allowed in.
– ‘Exacerbated repression’ –
Some fan groups are not happy.
In Nantes, the Brigade Loire ultra group said it will boycott games while it assesses the implementation of the health pass, which it says is part of “exacerbated repression”.
Compulsory masks and distancing in the stands are “measures that are incompatible with our way of supporting”, they added.
Fan groups in Lyon and Saint-Etienne are also threatening boycotts over the health pass.
Even so, ticket demand suggests a pent-up appetite for games.
Yet, while some clubs are pressing ahead with season-ticket sales others are holding back, fearing another wave of infections and the reintroduction of restrictions.
Nice says it has made a “record start with 9,000 season tickets” sold. Promoted Clermont say they too have set a record. Saint-Etienne and Rennes are also reporting strong sales.
Lorient is only making tickets available to former season ticket holders because of the “uncertainty” about the health situation.
Others, such as Angers, Nantes, Reims, Montpellier and Marseille have not yet put season tickets on sale.
“We’re going to launch the season ticket campaign in the first half of September,” said Cardoze at Marseille.
This cautious approach has also been met with cynicism by some fans who point out that season tickets make matches cheaper.
Angers agreed to give former season-ticket holders a 30 per cent discount but one fan group, the Kop de la Butte, nevertheless called the prices “unfair” and called for a “boycott of home games”.