by Martin Odoni

How close do you imagine Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final came to disaster? How close vintage negligence came to letting innocent people, perhaps in their dozens, be crushed to death? How close did the event come to recreating the horrors of both Heysel and Hillsborough almost exactly?

A new bottleneck

Judging by the stories we have heard, a crush similar to the one that happened at the turnstiles at Hillsborough in 1989 did develop on the perimeter of the Stade de France on Saturday.

The way the crush developed sounds eerily familiar too, and even though this time it appears to have eased before turning as serious, it still caused considerable stress. Some twenty thousand Liverpool supporters were herded through the perimeter into the outer concourse of the stadium via a single narrow passageway, a security decision so moronic in concept it almost sounded like the French Police were going out of their way to recreate the bottleneck outside the West Stand at Hillsborough.

On average it takes about twenty seconds to check an individual for anything inappropriate they might attempt to take into a stadium. When twenty thousand people need checking and all go through that same checkpoint, one steward checking would take one hundred and eleven hours to get them all through. That is over four and a half days. Even if you had five stewards checking at a time, which does not sound likely to make for an effective check in such a confined area, it would still take over twenty-four hours. And it is a constant feature of the Stade de France historically that it never has enough stewards, so the worry is that five is an over-estimate.

Is it any wonder the process appears to have broken down?

Locked gates

And what ineptitude led the French police to close three of the four entry gates assigned to a Liverpool fanbase that had already been massively delayed by the initial bottleneck – and then to close the only remaining gate to the extent that hundreds of ticketed fans, waiting with extreme patience and dignity, were unable to get into the ground at all?!

Lousy policing, lousy organisation

Some in the UK may find it strangely reassuring to realise that it is not just the various Football Associations of the Home Nations that are mired in this kind of obsolete amateurism. The French Football Federation is at least as awful, so we can feel slightly better about our own. Not me though. After watching and reading the many detailed reports from countless sources on the Sunday morning after the final, I was almost struck dumb in horror at the amount of ‘unlearning’ French football appears to have done since the Furiani Tragedy of 1992 in Corsica. Everything that was bad about European football culture in the 1970s-and-1980s, and that had largely ceased by the late-90s seemed to resurface on Saturday, in one evening of chaos and irresponsibility. The French police were the chaos, UEFA, characteristically, were the irresponsible ones.

The cowardly incompetence of the policing was reminiscent of Heysel, the heavy-handedness of the riot police was reminiscent of the way England fans were treated in Rome in 1997. I have argued before that tear gas should never be deployed as a method of crowd control, as it almost invariably leads to panic, stampedes, and crushing, as well as risking ill-effects among members of the crowd.

And then of course, there comes the deflection, horribly reminiscent of the South Yorkshire Police’s aggressive defensiveness after Hillsborough. The French police, and most particularly the ineffable UEFA, with a hurriedness that bordered on indecent, were quick to make public statements that Liverpool fans had arrived ‘late’.

Notoriously, a scoreboard inside Le Stade de France claimed fans had been arriving ‘late’ at the stadium when in truth they had been arriving impressively early. Photo c/o Getty Images

This stands in complete contrast to the same experience reported over and over by countless Liverpool supporters, of arriving long, long before kick-off and just being left kettled in various confined spaces for hours.

Just as UEFA has always evaded its share of legal responsibility for Heysel right up to the present day, again UEFA were covering their backs by trying to blame the victims. UEFA then changed their story and insisted that many of the Liverpool fans had ‘fake’ tickets, and filtering them out had caused the delay to kick-off, an assertion doubled-down on by French Authorities on Monday.

Very sinister.

Oh, it’s the ‘fans trying to get in without legitimate tickets’ hot button again, is it?

This insinuation about counterfeit tickets seems to have materialised out of thin air on Saturday evening, and as yet, only the barest fragment of evidence has been presented by the Police. This is doubly odd, as there has been talk on official channels of the numbers of forgeries involved being many tens of thousands – larger by far indeed than each club’s entire allocation of real tickets!

I am not saying fake tickets were definitely not in circulation, but I would suggest that if they were there on the scale the French Government are suggesting, evidence of them should be easy to get hold of. Moreover, the French Police would surely be parading such evidence through the streets of Paris by now; so far they have produced evidence of just one single ticket that, they say, shows signs of being a fake.

I also have to ask a familiar question. If seventy per cent of tickets, as has been quoted, were fake, then seventy per cent of fans at the stadium would have been turned away, right? But why does no one appear to have noticed such an enormous crowd of fans walking away from the stadium? The media of the world was watching, every millimetre of the stadium and its surroundings was under camera. How come so little footage exists of fans being marched away? In their tens of thousands? At no stage on the evening did the interior of the stadium show signs of being overcrowded. So if the gatecrashers did not leave, where did they go?

Tens of thousands of people are not a manifestation that can just quietly slip you by

The numbers, when you think about it, sound absolutely preposterous. The French Authorities claim seventy per cent of the tickets at a full-capacity seventy-five thousand stadium were fake. If those seventy-five thousand legitimate tickets were only thirty per cent of the tickets in circulation, that would means that there had to be over one hundred and seventy thousand fans in attendance! And as the French insist there was no trouble at all at the Real Madrid end of the stadium (not true – see below), they are therefore saying all of the fans with fake tickets were from Liverpool. Over one hundred thousand of them! Let us keep in mind that the official estimate for the weekend, never likely to be out by more than a few thousand at worst, is that there were around fifty thousand Liverpool fans in Paris in total.

In short, this whole allegation should be treated with enormously more caution than French authorities are employing.

Liverpool fan behaviour almost immaculate

Indeed, I was startled to see how well the Liverpool supporters were behaving, given how much unfair treatment they were forced to put up with. Most fans would have lost their rag completely and turned outright violent by the time the delayed kick-off arrived if it was still clear that they were not going to get in. (Fans from rival clubs who mechanically snort at this should pause to reflect on the vastly worse behaviour of England fans at the Euro2020 Final last year, and the spate of pitch invasions at other club grounds in recent weeks that have led to moments of violence towards players and coaching staff – including, it is worth pointing out to a holier-than-thou section of Everton fans, at Goodison Park; Liverpool fans do not appear to be responsible on any level for any of this.) The videos of fans lined up in an orderly fashion behind a barred entry gate, tickets in hand, and simply asking to be let in, and receiving a face full of tear gas, or maybe pepper spray, chilled me to the core.

In fairness to the police, there does appear to be trouble caused by some local youths who tried to sneak into the ground; for what reason we do not know, they may have been doing it for a bet, to prove their manhood, or some such for all we know. But this does not really extenuate the police brutality, as they seemed to react to these youths trying to sneak in and then run away by immediately walking up to the gate and fire gas at the Liverpool fans who had simply been standing there. And as for mass fake tickets, that just does not tally with the visual evidence, which, to repeat includes only tiny numbers being shown to be turned away.

Rome in 1984 revisited

After the match, scenes might well have been reminiscent of the 1984 European Cup Final in Rome, when AS Roma fans assaulted Liverpool supporters with missiles and machetes, after Liverpool had beaten Roma on penalties. This time though, fans of both Liverpool and Real Madrid came under attack by local gangs, and were beaten and robbed. Scenes taking football back to the very worst days of the 1980s.

But to return to my opening question, the answer appears to be, “Very close.” The French police displayed all the classic failings of enforcing crowd control without regard for crowd safety – recklessness, negligence and a total empathy-vaccum, as though unable to see humanity in the people in the crowd, and this makes it seem ‘okay’ in their heads to blame the people they have mistreated.

Even as I type the above, I realise that thirty-three years on, I could be describing the South Yorkshire Police Force. There is no worse condemnation in all of policing than that.