The ignominy of relegation has hit few clubs as hard as Sporting Club de Bastia. The 2016/2017 Ligue 1 campaign was a difficult one for the Corsican outfit, but it was only a foretaste of what was to come.
A glance at the club’s logo, bearing the symbol of the island’s flag – a Moor’s head with a white blindfold over the eyes – is meant to imply defiance. Instead, since I Turchini finished bottom of the table a year ago, three points off safety, off-field problems have taken their toll and have triggered total capitulation.
Fittingly, the same flag was used by the Corsican Republic of the eighteenth century, whose glory did not last. If defiance is read as “disregard for authority”, then perhaps their 1905 ultras can make a tenuous claim to have stayed true to the club’s ethos. First, came sanctions for a violent pitch invasion against Lyon in April 2017, which saw several of the visiting team’s players attacked. Mario Balotelli has accused the same set of supporters of racial abuse in the past, while Lucas Moura was hit on the head with a flagpole in 2016 while playing for Paris Saint-Germain.
Post-relegation, the next challenge Bastia were tasked with was proving they had the financial resources to compete in Ligue 2. They were unable to do so and were subsequently demoted again to the third tier. Finally, further financial irregularities saw them installed in Championnat National 3, and their professional status was gone.
While results on the pitch ought to be discussed separately from Bastia’s fan culture, the two elements of the club’s identity go hand-in-hand. It was in the 1970s that the team began to excel, reaching the final of the 1978 UEFA Cup, though ultimately losing to PSV Eindhoven. A notable element of their rise was their association with Corsican nationalists, including the Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale Corsu (FLNC), the island’s main nationalist militant group, which has since been banned, but whose splinter groups still operate a sporadic armed struggle against the French Republic. In a 2005 trial of one of its members, it was alleged that companies had been blackmailed into giving thousands of pounds worth of sponsorship money to Sporting Club de Bastia.
For better or worse, the club was an emblem of resistance for a cause which, like many nationalist movements throughout Europe and beyond, has experienced a resurgence in the last decade. The football and its politics have had polarising fortunes. In the last three years, nationalists have made significant progress, with the Pe a Corsica (For Corsica) alliance making huge gains in last year’s local elections. French President Emmanuel Macron paid his first visit to the island in February to listen to their demands, which no longer entail full independence but include greater autonomy, full recognition of the Corsican language, and the release of political prisoners.
What has come as a blow is that they can no longer use SC Bastia as a weapon with the same force. The 16,000 or so fans who have always packed into the Stade Armand Cerari haven’t lost any of their fervour. Yet, where the rest of French football was once forced to sit up and take notice, when the club is now thought of at all, it is with perhaps a little disdain, but chiefly indifference.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray comes one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous quips: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Bastia had reached new levels of infamy, or at least their fans had, during their last stint in the top division, but a year on, there is simply a lack of interest in their attempts at mounting a revival.
Antics such as the booing of La Marseillaise in the 2002 Coupe de France final – which Bastia lost 1-0 to FC Lorient – meant they were never held in particularly high regard by the more patriotic of their mainland rivals. Like Red Star Belgrade’s Delije, or Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys, who counted among their members countless paramilitaries during the Balkan wars, the line between fear and respect for these ultras has been blurred among their own communities. Many do not know quite how to feel about them.
This is a club, at least, that has endured a history of ups and downs. From relegations to promotions, tinged with the tragedy of the 1992 Furiani disaster in which 18 people died when a stand collapsed, a certain fighting spirit has always been required to overcome adversity. The last prospect of silverware came in 2015, when they were beaten 4-0 in the final of the Coupe de La Ligue by PSG thanks to a brace apiece from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani.
As easy as it is to focus on the more controversial aspects of Bastia’s history, it also boasts an impressive history of nurturing young talent, with Michael Essien and Alex Song both earning their professional debuts there. It is where Claude Makelele’s made his first, albeit tentative, steps into management with a six-month stint in charge.
Yes, there has been something self-destructive about Bastia from top to bottom, from their owners to the fans on the terraces. Critical levels of underinvestment would have an impact on any side.
However, for as long as the accounts have been ailing, investment of an emotional kind hasn’t diminished. The club may have lost some of its political clout, but it will live on as a football team for as long as its boisterous supporters love it.