UEFA today announced that former Manchester United player Patrice Evra has been charged with violent conduct and suspended for at least one game after he was sent-off for kicking a fan in the head before Marseille’s Europa League match against Vitoria Guimaraes.

Evra is not the first French ex-Manchester United footballer to go in with a high-foot on a spectator. After being sent from the field during a league match between United and Blackburn in 1995, Eric Cantona famously delivered a similarly acrobatic kick to a spectator. Cantona initially received a prison sentence of two weeks after pleading guilty in front of the magistrate, but on appeal the sentence was revised to 120 hours of community service (ironically, the same fan who was targeted by Cantona was himself fined and sentenced to community service for punching the coach of his son’s football team in 2011).

In Evra’s case, the incident occurred before the match had even kicked-off. Marseille fans had managed to scale the barriers to get to the players (for which the club has been charged), and proceeded to taunt Evra for his recent performances on the pitch.

A formal decision is due to be made by UEFA’s disciplinary body on 10 November, but in the meantime Evra has been suspended for at least one game in accordance with Article 48 of the UEFA rules, which states that:

“As a rule, a player who is sent off the field of play is suspended for the next match in a UEFA club competition (i.e. UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League or UEFA Super Cup).”

To be sent-off before a match sounds like a contradiction in terms, particularly as Marseille started with eleven players (although they finished with ten after Kamara was also red-carded). In fact, referees are entitled to dismiss players before, during or even after a match. Law 3(6) of the International Football Association Board’s Laws of the Game states that:

“A named substitute who is sent off before or after the kick-off may not be replaced”.

Evra was a named substitute and as such was not replaced.

Had the incident occurred anywhere other than on a football pitch, it might be considered that the criminal law could have a role to play.  Yet the application of the criminal law in sport is a controversial subject and was explored in more detail in a previous two-part article by Sports Shorts (available here and here). In essence, as a matter of English law, it comes down to what is known as ‘implied consent’; that is to say, sports players impliedly consent to the risk of incurring injury.

However, the incident in question saw Evra kick a spectator, not another player. Unsurprisingly, no suggestion has ever been made that spectators impliedly consent to being injured at sports matches – although it is interesting to consider whether spectators should be understood to consent to retaliation of some sort, given the torrent of verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse players receive.

Moreover, the incident in question took place in Portugal, so the applicable law will not be the same as was applied to the Cantona situation.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen if and how Evra will be punished and whether he seeks to raise a defence for his conduct.  Whether or not recourse to the criminal law will be taken remains to be seen.