— Published 12 September 2023

For France 2023, the spectator experience remains on the doorstep

Worrying? It’s hard to deny. With less than eleven months to go until the Paris 2024 Games, the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France got off to an improbable start last weekend with a series of organisational glitches. They affected neither the game nor the players. But the now sacrosanct “spectator experience”, brandished as a rallying cry by all organisers of major sporting events, has taken a serious hit.

Top of the list: transport and access to the stadium. In Marseille and Bordeaux, two of the host cities, the 2023 World Cup kicked off on Saturday 9 September with images of chaos and confusion. In both cases, some of the fans missed the start of the match.

In Marseille, poor flow management and technical problems disrupted the start of the match between England and Argentina, one of the highlights of the preliminary phase. Several thousand fans were blocked at the gates of the Stade Velodrome. Former England international Brian Moore had this to say: “The organisation at the stadium was more than dubious“.

The following day, the organisers admitted what had happened and made amends, assuring us that “measures had been taken to improve access to the stadium“. The number of volunteers will be increased. There are also plans to step up transport announcements. Marseille is hosting six matches at the 2023 World Cup, including two quarter-finals.

Initially, World Rugby pointed the finger at the behaviour of the England supporters, who in its view were guilty of turning up “in large numbers quite late and mainly at only one of the two designated entrances“. However, the governing body rectified the situation after the match, explaining that it was “working with all parties to understand what happened and to take steps to avoid further delays“.

The second grey area: Bordeaux. A real rugby town. But the tournament got off to a slow start on Saturday 9 September with the match between Ireland and Romania. The problem was transport. The Irish supporters, disciplined and respectful of the rules, had opted for the tram to get to the stadium. They may well regret it.

The metropolitan operator, TBM, acknowledged in a press release that two incidents had disrupted tram traffic to the stadium. A tram broke down at 2.15pm, just over an hour before the start of the match. It was back in service a quarter of an hour later. Then another tram was stopped in the middle of the track after passengers “activated the emergency stop” at two stations from the stadium. This second incident occurred 45 minutes before kick-off. As a result, the next two trains were blocked. And spectators were forced to complete the journey on foot.

Another, more subjective setback was the opening ceremony on Friday 8 September at the Stade de France, before the clash between Les Bleus and the All Blacks. The organising committee had wanted it to be very much influenced by the local area, representative of a rugby-playing France wearing a beret and never giving up its baguette. A France of the 50s, turned towards its past and dressed in nostalgia.

In the stadium, the public seemed to appreciate it. Elsewhere, the impression was more mixed. “Allez la Rance“, ran the headline in the daily Libération.

The question of the national anthems also drew criticism. The organisers opted to call on children’s choirs as part of the operation “La mêlée des chœurs“. A laudable intention, but a disappointing result. At the Stade de France, as elsewhere, the anthems were judged to be inaudible, if not completely false.

At Saint-Etienne, the Fratelli d’Italia played for Italy’s opening match drew criticism. “Can’t we just have the anthems sung normally, please, said former international Mirco Bergamasco. The most important thing is the players… It’s a unique moment!” Sky Sport commentator Francesco Pierantozzi was equally incomprehensible: “It’s all right to do something different, but an anthem has solemnity and emotion. It was a disaster, a fiasco…

Interviewed on FranceInfo on Monday 11 September, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, the French Minister for Sport and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, did not shy away from the issue. She acknowledged the incidents. “There were a number of operational failures in the organisation on Saturday, which should not be minimised, but fortunately no major incidents occurred, she explained. There are still further adjustments that need to be made, including reinforcing the volunteer teams.