Champions League final chaos must not happen again because football, fans deserve better

The French government and UEFA have announced inquiries into events before, during and after Saturday night’s UEFA Champions League final. These were the sort of scenes the European game hoped were long behind them: supporters (including children) being pepper-sprayed, ticket-less individuals forcing their way through or over gates, fans being mugged and intimidated, supporters being penned in for hours in dangerous conditions.

Truth isn’t just the first casualty of war; it’s also the first casualty in situations like we witnessed Saturday night. Different camps defending their corner, half-truths and outright fabrications, mistrust and tribalism, cultural differences and accusations, age-old prejudices and historical fears… all amplified by social media and sometimes decontextualised by a 24/7 news cycle.

What we need now is a full investigation: calm, transparent and independent. In fact, we need multiple ones, and it’s right that UEFA commissioned an independent inquiry to go with the French one. What’s not helpful is comments like those from the French sports minister, Amelie Oudea-Castera, who said Liverpool “let its supporters out in the wild” as if they’re rabid animals.

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French interior minister Gerald Darmanin said that more than two-thirds of the 62,000 Liverpool supporters who he claimed showed up at the Stade de France had presented fake tickets. That may or may not be accurate, just as it may or may not be true that the actions taken by law enforcement were, as he claims, “proportionate” and helped “prevent deaths or serious injury.” But I’m not sure how you can make such a claim less than 36 hours after the match, and I’m not the only one.

“I would just say we are incredibly surprised that someone in that position would make comments in the first place at this point, when we haven’t had adequate time to understand what happened,” said Liverpool CEO Billy Hogan. He was referring to Oudea-Castera, but he might as well have been talking about Darmanin. “There hasn’t been an independent investigation to establish all the facts… There needs to be that independent, transparent investigation into what happened. We should know all the facts to make sure the scenes that we’ve all seen, absolutely disgraceful, from Saturday do not ever happen again.

“Everyone should be focused on getting the investigation right and less about making inflammatory comments that attempt to deflect responsibility for what happened on Saturday night.”

He’s right: we know bad things happened. The “who” is important, but so are the “why” and “how,” and in situations like these, your best-case scenario comes in two parts.

The first is that those who did wrong are held accountable. On this occasion, that list might include organizers, law enforcement, local criminals, ticket-less fans and those who sold forged tickets. I pray for justice, but I’m not holding my breath on this one. Such was the chaos, such is the willingness of those with oversight to close ranks, such is the desire of victims to put everything behind them that, frankly, justice here might end up feeling like a bonus. But there’s a secondary aspect: learning from mistakes and ensuring they don’t happen again. Here, I’m a tad more optimistic for the simple reason that, in addition to reputational damage, there’s money at stake. Lots and lots of money.

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The Champions League final is the European game’s answer to the Super Bowl. It’s not just the game itself and the VIPs who attend, either; it’s the whole carnival around it, one that UEFA hopes to monetise and commercialise further, turning it into a weeklong event. Saturday night saw not just rank-and-file supporters treated badly — Liverpool fans might have had to endure more, but it was by no means an easy ride for Real Madrid’s faithful either — but also many of the VIPs, corporate partners and high rollers who make it a point to attend these events.

Indeed, there was a perverse democratizing effect to Saturday’s events. You might have driven up in a Rolls-Royce, clutching your €12,000 hospitality package ticket, but once you’re out of the car, blocks from the first security cordon, you’re a mere civilian, facing the same obstacle course of queues, crushes and, if you’re unlucky, heavy-handed policing.

It might sound cynical and crass, but that, more than anything, is what is likely to spur action. Along with ordinary fans, there were corporate sponsors, commercial partners, politicians, players past and present, club officials and federation officials who ended up with an evening to forget. And their voices matter, sometimes more.

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It’s 2022. It’s not an unreasonable expectation that, regardless of socioeconomic status, people should be able to attend the biggest game in club football without having to show up six hours early, without needing to be shepherded from Point A to Point B as part of an official tour, without enduring a military gauntlet, without biblical queues in confined areas, without being robbed or defrauded, and without feeling unsafe, especially at the hands of the very people who are there to protect them (the police).

We can do better. I don’t know how to get there, other than establishing the facts and being smarter about how we hold these events, but I do know that fans deserve better and football deserves better.


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