Matters of Blood
The travails of Corsica’s football clubs reflect the struggles of the island and its quest for autonomy
The Stade Armand Cesari — or Furiani as it's more often called, after the district it occupies — sits 10km to the south-west of Bastia's port, the main hub connecting Corsica with mainland France and Italy. Inaugurated in 1936, it has changed little since. Any estate agent would struggle to get through three sentences on it without involuntarily blurting out "rustic charm". Over the last 30 years Furiani has become the key to understanding Corsican football, a symbol of both its greatest strengths and its most telling weaknesses.
France is not unused to including perceived outsiders in its league structure. Monaco are the fourth most successful Ligue 1 club of all-time, although the Principality club's sense of separation is one of sovereignty rather than physicality. Yet the distance of Corsica's clubs from the mainstream is ideological as much as it is geographical. The island's football culture is an intense and prickly beast, reflecting many of the characteristics, current and historical, of Corsica itself.
Strong amateur sides exist in the likes of CA Bastia and FC Calvi, both in today's Championnat de France amateur de football (CFA), but the two clubs to have flown the traditional white headbanded 'moor's head' flag most prominently are SC Bastia and AC Ajaccio, the island's two professional representatives. They are also the two oldest football clubs in Corsica, with Bastia founded in 1905 and Ajaccio in 1910.
Untypically, Ajaccio are currently highest up the ladder, gently prodding the top six after a few seasons treading mid-table water post-relegation from the top flight in 2006. The west coast club have a modest history, with pride of place in their trophy cabinet being two Ligue 2 titles and one National (third tier). Though they cracked the top flight first— a year before Bastia, in 1967— they were soon surpassed, with relegation in 1973 signalling the beginning of a 29-year exile from the highest tier, with much of that time spent in the National and regional Corsican leagues. Corsican football has fallen into the doldrums in recent years, particularly when measured against the gold standard of Bastia's glory years in the 1970s and 1980s.
1976-77 was the key season in shaping the peak of the Corsican game. Bastia were in the championship race until the final few furlongs of the season, eventually surpassed by Nantes but still snaring third place, a best-ever finish for any side from the island (Ajaccio's best is sixth, back in 1971). The reward was a place in the Uefa Cup, bringing with it sufficient prestige to attract the Dutch legend Johnny Rep from Valencia.
Rep played a major part in the club's (and the island's) greatest achievement, top scoring and being voted France Football's foreign player of the year in a season that saw Bastia reach the 1978 Uefa Cup final. Sporting Clube de Portugal, Torino and Newcastle United were among those vanquished along the way, before Bastia lost to PSV in the final. The second leg in Eindhoven took place on May 9, the anniversary of the conclusion of 1769's Battle of Ponte Novu, in which the defending Corsicans were comprehensively defeated by the French— effectively putting an end to the nascent Corsican republic.
After scooping a first major trophy in 1981, a glorious French Cup win against the then-omnipotent champions Saint Etienne at the Parc des Princes, a run to the last 16 of the Cup Winners' Cup followed. By the time Bastia finished bottom of the league in 1986, they were nevertheless established as Corsica's flagship club, 'made' by their achievements in Europe just as Saint Etienne had been before them and Marseille would be after.
There was always likely to be a glass ceiling, with the crumbling Furiani allegoric of Bastia's overgrowth and barely sufficiently solid to pack in the official capacity of 10,000.That had long been the case. Before their Uefa Cup match at Furiani in September 1977, the Sporting Clube de Portugal coach Paulo Emilio had mistaken the stadium for the training ground, seriously asking officials how far it was to the actual stadium where the game would be played. These concerns were brought home in the most devastating way on 5 May 1992. Bastia played host to the champions Marseille in a French Cup semi-final, echoing the shock of the 1981 final to a degree even if the Corsicans had since sunk to the second tier. The excitement of a renewed love affair with the Cup had already captured the public imagination, with a temporary stand erected for the quarter-final win over Nancy in April.
The same was done again for the visit of Jean-Pierre Papin and company, but on a much larger scale. The north stand provided 10,000 extra seats, bringing Furiani's total capacity to 20,000— approaching 10 percent of the island's population at the time. Minutes before kick-off, part of the stand collapsed, with an estimated 3,000 people falling through the gap. 18 were killed and over 2,300 injured. Pictures of the whole horrific scene unfolded live on the French national broadcaster TF1.
It was 11 months until Bastia went back to Furiani. In the meantime, they shared with Ajaccio at their Stade François Coty. Unfortunately, work undertaken in the meantime was pure subsistence, rather than an overhaul. Looking back on the anarchic scenes that characterised the November 1994 clash against Monaco at Furiani, it's clear that limited progress had been made in terms of stadium security. Home fans scaled fences to invade the pitch and physically confront a linesman after he flagged Anto Drobnjak for offside when scoring, and the referee Antoine De Pandis ushered the players from the field after further first-half pitch invasions.
Footage shows De Pandis running from the pitch towards the tunnel, the collar of his shirt hanging, torn in the fracas. L'Equipe's headline the following day read "Furiani perd la tête" — "Furiani loses its head". It was all too reminiscent of the scenes in a match with Dijon in 1989, when, after awarding a contentious late penalty against the home side, the referee Michel Nouet was chased from the pitch by irate Bastia fans, who also attacked visiting players and vandalised the stadium.
Furiani's visceral swell had served Bastia well in Europe back in 1977-78, particularly in the late comebacks against Sporting and Newcastle, but this was too much. In the 21st century, the old ground has started to become a by-word for racist behaviour in European football circles. The Guadeloupe-born French international Pascal Chimbonda left the club to continue his career in England following relegation to Ligue 2 in 2005, but claimed his life— and that of other black players in the squad— had been made a misery by a highly-vocal minority.
In his final season at Furiani the situation escalated to such a point that Chimbonda's girlfriend fled back to Paris mid-season. Few blamed her— after a thumping at home to Saint Etienne in November 2004, Chimbonda and his team-mate Franck Matingou were spat at and had monkey chants aimed at them, with the former and his family having stones thrown at their car as they left the stadium.
Talking to the Guardian's Dominic Fifield in 2005, Chimbonda hinted at a degree of empathy with his tormentors. "They're young and they don't understand what they're saying," he said. "But the club tried to brush it all under the carpet. It wasn't good for their image to be talking about racist fans all the time." Bastia fans turning on their own players may have been unprecedented, but the smell of the most repugnant kind of racism continued to follow the club around, even away from the island's shores. Boubacar Kébé, a Libourne Saint-Seurin player from Burkina Faso, was sent off in a Ligue 2 home game against Bastia in September 2007 for directing a bras d'honneur at the visiting fans. Kébé was reacting to racist taunts. "I just cracked," he later said, feeling the need to excuse himself as Libourne shipped two goals in the five minutes that remained of the game after his dismissal, sliding to a 4-2 defeat.
One would have hoped that the ensuing one-point deduction issued to Bastia by the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP), the first point penalty for racist behaviour in French football history, was for the away crowd's behaviour alone rather than its context in the match result. Yet Bastia weren't about to accept the sanction without a fight.
The approach of the club's lawyer, Dominique Mattei, was to disassociate the club from the transgressors, even questioning their connection to the club and pointing out that Bastia hadn't organised an official away supporters' trip to the game. "What's disgusting is that people are making Bastia out to be a racist club while we don't even know that they [those abusing Kébé] were Bastia fans." The Front Populare group referred to it as the latest "in a long list of incidents revealing general anti-Corsican racism, particularly in sport".
Eventually the Administrative Court of Bastia reversed the original decision— and its endorsement by the French Football Federation's high commission of appeal— and gave the deducted point back in November 2008. In the aftermath Mattei and the club's board talked pugnaciously of redressing the morale-draining effect the affair had on the playing fortunes of a team that finished 14 points off a promotion place.
By then, Bastia's fans had already responded to the initial punishment in typically defiant style. In the return at Furiani in February, the referee had stopped the match for three minutes to order and observe the removal of two large banners carrying the phrase: "Kébé, we're not racist; to prove it, we'll fuck you in the arse."
A steaming mad Frédéric Thiriez, the LFP's president, revealed afterwards that he had called the Bastia president Pierre-Paul Antonetti before the game to reiterate that he would not tolerate any more incidents related to what had now become known as 'The Kébé Affair'. Perhaps, in retrospect, this was the equivalent of telling the class troublemaker that if he mucks about one more time he'll be in more bother than he can possibly imagine; a dare, almost a provocation. And all this on the same weekend that Ligue 1 and 2 players wore T-shirts carrying an anti-racist message.
When the LFP's disciplinary commission ruled that Bastia should play a match behind closed doors, the stymied Thiriez appealed against his own body's decision, arguing that it was too lenient. Eventually, Bastia were docked a further two points.
The offending banner was in the classical Corsican tradition of getting even. Believed to date from the 14th century, the Vendetta was the social custom of killing specifically to avenge lost honour. In his 1855 book Wanderings in Corsica; its History and its Heroes, the German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius quoted an official statistic from the Corsican Prefect, stating that 4,300 such assasinats were committed in the years between 1821 and 1852— out of a population of 250,000.
It may appear a leap of faith to attempt to use island culture to contextualise not wholly uncommon football-related problems, even if they are of a particularly extreme nature. Yet separatist politics and football are inextricably linked in Corsica, and Corsican separatism is a niche, but extremely violent faction.
Ajaccio have been more explicitly linked to island politics than Bastia in recent years. Alain Orsoni, the erstwhile leader of Le Mouvement Pour l'Autodétermination (MPA), became club president in July 2008, succeeding his close friend Michel Moretti. Stricken with cancer, Moretti had committed suicide the previous March. Orsoni is more than just a local politician; he founded the MPA in 1990 and the group gained a significant foothold in the ensuing years, winning four seats in the 1992 regional elections.
A charming and persuasive individual, Orsoni first ran into trouble in the aftermath of the election, when he was found to have spent more than the permitted limit on campaigning. He was forced to give up his seat and step down from the leadership, and Moratti took his place.
By this point, Orsoni had already made some significant enemies. The MPA had renounced the idea of total independence, defining its raison d'être as 'autonomy'. Many Corsican separatists viewed the MPA with cynicism, as a business conduit hitched onto the back of the nationalist bandwagon.
The Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale Corsu (FLNC ) had officially split in 1989, but two armed factions continued— the FLNC Habituel and the FLNC Historique, with the two bitterly opposed and in violent conflict especially in the years between 1994 and 1996. The MPA finished in 1996, hoping to bring an end to the in-fighting, though splinter movements continued to clash until a December 1999 agreement saw the various factions under the FLNC call a truce.
Although he has spent significant parts of the last 20 years living away from Corsica— tending to business interests in South America and Europe— Orsoni has never completely withdrawn from the island's politics. Neither has he been able to escape links with nationalist violence.
Having returned to Corsica full-time from Barcelona on his appointment as Ajaccio president, he became a target. A month later, in August, Orsoni narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by a team of gunmen in a chilling reflection of the fate of his brother Guy, who was himself assassinated in July 1983. The trial of nine men charged with attempted murder and conspiracy began in Marseille in January 2011.
Orsoni himself spent ten months in prison between June 2009 and April 2010, suspected of involvement in the murder of Theirry Castola, a fireman, in the southern town of Bastelicaccia in January 2009. He was released following a 36-day hunger strike. There is little prospect of an end to the cycle of attack and recrimination. As recently as October last year another prominent nationalist (and close friend of Orsoni's) Antoine Nivaggioni was killed in a drive-by shooting in Ajaccio. Meanwhile a local football club— albeit one with reasonably valid ambitions of returning to French football's top flight— has become noteworthy as a subordinate clause to the Orsoni soap opera.
The darkest shadow hanging over Corsica's football community during the 1990s was the case of Pierrot Bianconi. The Bastia full-back vanished on 29 December 1993, telling his family he was going on holiday for a few days. He never returned. Bianconi was popular with team-mates, and though he had close friends in the MPA, media suggestions that he was involved with the banditisme with which Orsoni is so frequently connected is purely conjecture.
Bianconi had once stood as a candidate in local council elections on a pro-independence ticket, but it was his cult status with fans, authored by his combative playing style, which has really give risen to rumour and counter-rumour as to his fate, although he has long since been declared legally dead. Investigators found Bianconi's car but no witnesses, weapon or body.
What is certain is that the battering of Corsica's image is hitting normal people hard and life is an uphill struggle for many, including the football clubs, who see little of the estimated £1.1bn generated annually by tourism. It's a sad situation for an island described in the 19th century by Gregorovius as having "succeeded in forming itself into a democracy of a marked and distinctive character."
The 18th-century Corsican Revolution, led by Pasquale Paoli, had underlined the island's potential for trailblazing, beginning in 1729 and so predating the French Revolution by 60 years. Paoli is widely credited with composing the constitution of the modern age's first democratic republic, of which he was elected president.
The 1992 Furiani disaster was of course indicative of primitive infrastructure and poor organisation, but to blame that squarely on an isolationist, anti-development, quintessential island mentality is unfair. Corsica has been let down by generations of mainland statesmen pledging to develop economy and infrastructure, but delivering little.
The history of broken promises goes all the way back to the first president of modern France, Charles de Gaulle. On a visit to Ajaccio on 3 October 1958, shortly after presenting the constitution of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle said that "every time France goes through an important moment, destiny wants me to come to Ajaccio. Corsica, of all Europe's lands, is the most attractive. It has shown once again that it is the focal point of French unity."
The last of de Gaulle's six visits to Corsica was in November 1961, and the mood had discernibly changed, with the anxiety clear in this most pro-Gaullist of French regions about the lack of progress. Bastia's mayor Jacques Faggianelli appealed to the president for "a serious solution to Corsican problems," to which de Gaulle simply responded that it would "take time".
French unease about the prospect of a separate Corsica is understandable— Napoleon I was a native of the island, born in Ajaccio in 1769, just as the Corsican Revolution was ending. The Napoleonic Wars and the establishment of the Napoleonic Code are an immense part of France's contribution to modern Europe and thus its identity. While the island is cherished for its symbolic value, little governmental action has been taken aggressively to tackle the economic and geographical hurdles faced by this part of France (as it legally remains).
Plans to drag the Furiani kicking and screaming into the modern age were approved by the city's council as long ago as 1994, with the idea to create a modern 20,000-capacity arena. Progress has been slow, impetus blunted by Bastia's dwindling fortunes, bureaucratic wrangling and a seven-year downing of tools due to lack of capital, before a suspected arson attack during the night traversing of 6 November 2009 destroyed the new south stand.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, with work on an improved stadium that will hold just under 17,000 scheduled to finish this year. The hope in the town hall is that relief will outweigh the general outrage among supporters that addressing the problems of the Furiani disaster has taken so long. The self-perpetuating stereotype of a wild, untameable island— and culture— is an enduring one, but perhaps not one for which Corsica itself can fully be blamed.