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

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".

News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Businessman at desk circa 1950s
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Linux Systems Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of UK Magento hosting so...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Development Manager - North Kent - OTE £19K

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are working with this secondary s...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: We are working with a school that needs a t...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea