Why French football clubs will never play on May 5th again
05 May 2023
‘Pas de match le 5 mai’, no matches on the 5th of May. For years, these words could be found on banners in French football stadiums. But why is there no football being played on May 5th? Well, it all dates back to one of football’s darkest days in 1992.
It is a beautiful day on the French island of Corsica. The 5th of May 1992 is one with a blue sky and no clouds on the horizon. It promised to be a great day. Bastia had reached the semi-finals of the Coupe de France and the whole island was eagerly anticipating the match later that evening. SEC Bastia, who played in the second division, would welcome the then-top club Olympique de Marseille, who reached the European Cup final the season before. At the time Marseille was attracting the biggest stars in football under the management of their football director Bernard Tapie. His star-studded team would now come to Stade Armand Cesari, for the people also known as Furiani, where Bastia would usually play against other second-tier sides such as Perpignan or Martigues. It was a dream come true to welcome the mighty Olympiens, so all Corsicans wanted to be there.
Commercial spirit, however, is not an unknown concept for Corsicans nor for Bastia’s board members. They knew the game was going to be in high demand, so they decided to build an extra stand which allowed an extra 10,000 fans to attend. With ten days to go until the ‘match de gala’, they demolished the old Claude Papi Stand, which only had 750 seats. In no time a new gigantic steel colossal stand arose from the ground. The extra tickets were sold at a rapid pace. However, the construction did not really go to plan. Some materials were stuck in Marseille’s harbour, where workers had just gone on strike.
Three days before the match there was no sight of a new stand yet. The clock was ticking so the club decided to go over to plan b and build a temporary stand, which looked more like massive scaffolds. Match day had arrived and the construction workers were still building the stand, but in the end, 18,000 people could attend the semi-final. The boardroom felt relieved and over the moon. Bastia may not stand a chance against Olympique de Marseille on the pitch, but they delivered a new stand and knew that it would be a great night for the island and club nonetheless.
At the time Olympique de Marseille was pure class. Bernard Tapie oozed pristine in his always custom-tailored suits, the players were glowing in their beautiful white kits with dashes of light blue and the club had a great coach in the quirky Belgian Raymond Goethals. And let’s not forget about the players: Jean-Pierre Papin, Basile Boli, Didier Deschamps, Chris Waddle… the Corsicans had only seen these people on their television. One and a half hours before kick-off the stadium was already completely filled. The Corsicans cannot believe their eyes as they witness some of the biggest stars in football inspect their pitch. Tapie is having a conversation with his players Papin and Boli. Everything appears to be great.
But not soon after, concerns were being raised. The new stand was moving. In all the hurry to get the stand ready, it did not seem properly attached. Underneath the stand, some construction workers quickly start to tighten the bolts. Stupidly enough, people were not being evacuated. Instead, the stadium speakers asked fans to ‘not stomp their feet on the stand, especially not on the steel components!’ But when the players were waiting in the tunnel to enter the pitch for kick-off, disaster struck.
It is 8:23 pm and you can hear a deafening noise of clattering steel pipes. The rear section of the stand, which consisted of roughly twenty rows, collapsed. Around 3,000 people fell about 50 feet to the ground. Some manage to crawl their way out of the collapsed stand, whilst others lie motionless. French football fans who have just tuned in, witness the disaster live on tv. They see the players break down the barriers so that other fans on the stand can flee onto the pitch safely. Some Corsicans run towards the cameras to tell their loved ones they are still alive. In 1992 almost no one has a mobile phone. Meanwhile, the pitch has turned into a field hospital where players are assisting paramedics. Some injured people are being flown to Nice and Marseille because it is impossible for the hospitals in Corsica to admit everyone. In the end, 18 people died and more than 2300 people were wounded. The match was never played, nor was the final of the Coupe de France.
The investigation straight away focuses on the construction of the stand. The old stand was demolished without a permit and the newly-built stand was never officially approved. There appears to be gross negligence. Multiple contractors and board members are sentenced to prison. Bastia’s chairman Jean- François Filippi had already been murdered, which was definitely not uncommon at the time. Corsica was the murder capital of Europe and homicide cases were rarely solved. The investigation report concluded that the Furiani Stadium disaster was not a fatal accident, but a catastrophe that occurred due to human failure and the reckless disregard for the safety or lives of others.
In 2012, the French Cup final was scheduled on May 5th, exactly twenty years after the Furiani Stadium disaster. It was like the French Football Association was playing games with the devil. Lauda and Josepha Giudicelli, two Corsican girls who lost their father in the tragedy, were outraged. The final was rescheduled to a different date but in the following years, French football matches were still being played on the 5th of May. In the meantime, football fans all over France became supportive of the girls’ efforts to ban all matches on this particular day. The banners ‘Pas de match le 5 mai’ can be seen anywhere, even in the stadiums of Bastia’s rivals in Marseille, Paris and Montpellier.
Finally, in 2021, a new law was introduced: No more football in France on May 5th. Something which the UEFA, by the way, completely ignores. In 2022, thirty years after the disaster, Olympique de Marseille had to play a home game against Feyenoord in the semi-finals of the Conference League. Because the UEFA refused to reschedule, they allowed a moment of silence to remember all victims as a compromise.
Today, it is silent in the French football stadiums. On social media, clubs and fans remember the victims. Nobody is playing football, because no one is supposed to go to a stadium without arriving back in the arms of their loved ones at home after. A dark day in French football history, which thirty years later has finally gotten a definitive tribute.