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".

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own