French game in a flap over length of Barthez ban

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The Independent Football

By spitting at the referee during an obscure friendly, Fabien Barthez has triggered a crisis in French football.

By spitting at the referee during an obscure friendly, Fabien Barthez has triggered a crisis in French football.

The effective suspension of the Marseilles and France goalkeeper for only three months last week has sparked controversy within the French Football Federation. It has also raised fears among French referees that it might become more difficult for them to retain the respect players, not only in Ligue 1 matches but also at amateur level.

The FFF has appealed against the ruling by its disciplinary committee, saying that the governing body's rules state that the punishment for such an offence should be a ban for at least six months with no suspension. The appeals committee of the FFF is expected to come up with a new, tougher sentence within the next two weeks but Barthez's lawyers have already threatened to take the case to the civil courts.

With the end of the season approaching, the sanction announced on Friday, a six-month ban with three of them suspended, means Barthez will miss only four Ligue 1 games and will be available when the new season starts on 30 July.

"I'm surprised because I think that respect for the referee is of paramount importance," the French sports minister, Jean-François Lamour, said immediately after Friday's ruling.

The FFF then said it would appeal but insisted its decision had nothing to do with pressure from the government. "Our only concern is that our rules were not interpreted correctly," said the FFF president, Jean-Pierre Escalettes.

Bernard Saules, the president of the National Union of French referees, called the verdict "simply ridiculous" and said it could have repercussions on the amateur game.

"When you have problems in Ligue 1 games on a given weekend, you have problems in the amateur games the following Sunday," he said. "The showcase matches have to be clean, otherwise the sport as a whole suffers."

French referees had been saying even before the Barthez case that there was a growing lack of respect for referees, and not only in the professional game.

Barthez was reported for spitting at Moroccan referee Abdellah El Achiri during a friendly between Wydad Casablanca and Marseilles in February that was marred by ugly scenes. He has never really apologised publicly.

The 33-year-old, a member of France's 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000-winning squads, said he intended to carry on training during his suspension, which started at the weekend. The former Manchester United goalkeeper announced last month that he had decided to retire at the end of next year after becoming increasingly disillusioned with football.

Marseilles said they would defend Barthez and did not rule out taking the matter to the courts if the sanction were to be revised.