Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by "death threats" and intimidation

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate, asks John Lichfield
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Football may be mildly important to millions of people, but "boules" or "pétanque", the traditional form of boules, still played by millions of French during their summer holidays, is a matter of life or death.

Another "world cup" – the annual, international pétanque championship – is quietly taking place this week in a park in Marseilles.

Quietly? Hardly.

A three-man team from northern France fled the competition after a local trio allegedly threatened to "tear off" their heads. "It's my 14th Marseilles championship in a row," said Laurent Martinez, one of the northern players. "Intimidation is common but I've never had death threats before."

The Marseilles newspaper that organises the contest insists that the whole thing is an unfortunate north-south misunderstanding. "Here in the south, we use vivid language. We get excited," said La Marsellaise. "But the words rarely lead to actions."

Note the word "rarely".

More than 10,000 players from 20 countries have been competing since last week in the 53rd annual Marseilles international boules championship or world cup of pétanque.

The game may be best known to visitors to France as a form of bowls using small metal balls, played on rough ground by grumpy old men in flat caps.

To aficionados, it is a sport of great subtlety, that is expected one day to be included in the Olympic Games. To its critics, it is a lawless game, subject to countless outbreaks of "bouliganisme".

After a series of bad-tempered confrontatons at important boules matches, the Toulouse newspaper Midi-Libre complained in 2007: "Pétanque is no longer a friendly sport. It is being undermined by constant incivility, verbal threats and gross insults.

"The flouting of the sport's rules by some players is driving others away. Referees feel themselves to be in danger." The alleged "death threats" were made this week during a game between an unfancied trio from Marchiennes in northern France and a leading team from Vitrolles and Marignane, two northern outer suburbs of Marseilles.

The northern team took a decisive 11-6 lead with a lucky throw. The cochonnet or "piglet", the small wooden target ball, shifted its position, giving the northerners four points from one throw. Thirteen points are needed to win.

Anthony Laruelle, 28, one of the northern players, said: "They grabbed the piglet and said that if we won, we were dead. They would tear off our heads."

The local players are then alleged to have persuaded a referee of their acquaintance to register their game as a victory for them. The northern team argued for a while but then, taking the threats seriously, decided to catch a train home.

Laurent Martinez, president of the Marchiennes pétanque club, said: "They weren't just idle threats. One of them grabbed the hat of one of our players and threw it on the ground."

Mr Laruelle said: "I was with my wife and children and didn't want any trouble. They thought we were tourists and couldn't bear the idea of losing against us."

The local team were officially declared the winners, but lost in the next round. Patricia Jeanjean, president of the Marseilles region pétanque association, said that it was a simple question of one team's word against another. "This kind of argument is always happening in pétanque, just like in many other sports," she said.

The local newspaper, La Marseillaise, said the incident had been blown out of all proportion by Paris-based French media. In the north, the newspaper said, the favourite sport was not pétanque. It was "Marseilles-bashing".