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OPINION: Frédéric Thiriez: Is he really the right man to lead French football forward?

Frédéric Thiriez is the President of the LFP or Ligue de Football Professionel to be exact. The LFP is the governing body that is supposed to represent and protect the interests of French football’s top two flights, Ligue 1 and Ligue 2. 

I am writing this series of pieces questioning the legitimacy of LFP President Frédéric Thiriez in his current position because French football is currently running around in circles and it is time for somebody to ask some questions. As I sit here this evening typing away, I have just tuned into Canal +’s Monday late night French football programme, J + 1, a relatively new show that seeks to provide a more laid-back and comic reflection on events that occurred during the previous footballing weekend. Now, in this weekly show, there is a segment called “Version Originale” where Canal + looks to show the quirkiest moments from their up-close footage of Ligue 1 matches from the previous game-week, presumably to leave the audience with an idea of some of the more private conversations going on before, during and after the matches that take place. One of these moments aired on tonight’s show immediately caused a backlash on Twitter. The footage shows LFP President Frédéric Thiriez apologise to PSG President Nasser Al Khelaifi on Friday night following Les Parisiens’ 3-1 “away” victory over RC Lens at the Stade de France (Lens are unable to play at their home ground the Stade Félix-Bollaert because it is currently undergoing renovation works in time for EURO 2016). The next logical question for you to ask is what on earth could he possibly be apologising for. His quote read as follows: “I am very sorry for the bad refereeing.” In case you were unaware, this is the particular fixture whereby Edinson Cavani was initially booked for his iconic “Sniper” celebration after dispatching a penalty before being sent off after apparently touching the referee in protest at the initial yellow card he received. 

Now there a several reasons why I take objection to Frédéric Thiriez’s comments to Nasser Al Khelaifi shortly after Mr Nicolas Rainville blew that full time whistle on Friday night, in a game marked by refereeing decisions, with two Lens players also being given their marching orders over the course of 90 minutes for separate incidents. 

The first is that it fundamentally undermines what little credibility French football refereeing currently has left to hold on to. Yes, there are debates over the current batch of officials’ supposed incompetence, over their inaccessibility towards the players during matches and over their perceived card-happy nature, but for President Thiriez to insult Mr Rainville’s performance in such a way, a man who has over 4 years experience as a Ligue 1 referee and who has represented France on occasion as an official in the Europa League, shows a lack of inherent loyalty towards somebody who effectively is an employee of the LFP, the very organisation that Thiriez currently has what some might call the honour of leading. 

After all, according to French newspaper L’Equipe the following day and indeed many other pundits across the French football world, Rainville had been perfectly within his rights to send off all three players (Cavani, Gbamin and Lemoigne) during that match. There was terrible misreporting by sports outlets across the world that night and indeed the following day implying that Edinson Cavani had been sent off for his “sniper” celebration alone. This could not be further from the truth. The actual video footage shows Edinson Cavani receiving a yellow card for what Rainville viewed as a provocative gesture towards the RC Lens fans following the conversion of his penalty. Cavani then approaches the referee in an aggressive manner and appears to touch his arm. At no point in the 6 seconds that follow does Rainville show Cavani a second yellow card. The Uruguayan is shown straight red, further indicating that Rainville sent Cavani off for manhandling him, something that he was perfectly within his rights to do. The only mistake Rainville might have made is not having sent off Javier Pastore as well, as the Argentine also makes contract with the referee as soon as he has sent off Cavani. The two red cards that the Lens players received were both for second bookable offences and in both cases contact is clearly made with PSG players, even if the contiguity is minimal on both occasions. Not only was Thiriez undermining a respected official that continues to work for the very organisation that he is supposed to run, but the apology was also wholly uncalled for based on widely accepted analysis of Rainville’s decisions that evening.

There are other, slightly more sinister concerns that were raised following the emergence of this short exchange between Al Khelaifi and Thiriez. The first question that many asked after seeing this footage was whether or not RC Lens President Gervais Martel also received an apology for the poor refereeing, after all, it was his side that lost 3-1 on the night. My guess is that he didn’t, not least because RC Lens have caused the LFP innumerable problems this summer (they were nearly excluded from Ligue 1 and then had a transfer embargo placed upon them for reasons I will explain in a later piece), but importantly they won half their battle and thus they are competing in France’s top flight this season. 

Everyone connected with French football is wholly aware of Qatari Sports Investment’s (QSI) significance in terms of raising the profile of French football as we currently know it. With a “flagship” club impressing on the highest level of the continental footballing stage in the Champions League, the hope has always been that this will create a knock-on effect for investors and new supporters to take a greater interest in Ligue 1. But the dynamics that were blatantly obvious in the exchange between the PSG and LFP Presidents itself indicated a worrying hierarchy as to who is really in charge of French football as we know it. Nasser Al Khelaifi, shook his head twice in response to Thiriez’s words like a disappointed father and then, without saying anything, walked off.

As the man from Qatar took his leave, Mr Thiriez tried a pathetic wave which Al Khelaifi did not even see because by then he already had his back turned. Yes, PSG are an important keystone and can play a great role in the future of French football, but Mr Thiriez’s boot-licking on Friday night proved that we have a weak President at the head of the only organisation that can truly implement lasting and significant change, the LFP. 

C.N.

[PHOTO: Reuters]

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