The approach to the stadium felt daunting and dangerous

ROB DRAPER: Football has been here before, the approach to the stadium for what should have been a joyous occasion felt daunting… the situation was tense and nasty and so easily could have ended in tragedy

  • Real Madrid defeat Liverpool 1-0 in Paris to win their 14th Champions League crown
  • The Champions League final is delayed for over 30 minutes owing trouble outside the ground
  • Liverpool fans report being stuck outside the ground for over two hours
  • French police use tear gas as a nasty situation brewed outside the ground

Jurgen Klopp was grinning at the end, applauding and embracing Real Madrid players as he walked through to collect a losers’ medal. He waited in the area cordoned off for the Liverpool players to corral his troops. Then he placed his hand on his heart, which was emblazoned with a Liverpool badge and raised his arm and then a fist to the handful of remaining Liverpool fans. He thumped his heart and in that moment you knew, behind the smile, the pain of defeat cut deep, but that he would use it to rouse this team again.

There would be no treble. No seventh European Cup. Real Madrid, who probably should have been knocked out by Paris St Germain, by Chelsea and by Manchester City, and who were hanging on at the end here, indebted to the sheer immensity of Thibaut Courtois’s refusal to yield.

And yet, as the confetti canons blasted, the fireworks began, and the party was in full swing for Madristas, your mind went back to hours before this final. To how close we came yet again to a complete breakdown of order, how the benign and glorious almost turned dark and tragic.

Vinicius Junior’s goal ensured Real Madrid won their 14th Champions League crown

Approaching the Stade de France, two hours before kick off, for an experienced football fan there was a sense of awful foreboding. What had been a delightful and joyous scene en route to the stadium and during the day in Paris was turning tense and nasty. And as football fans we’ve been here before. Too many times.

I’ve been attending football games since 1978. Many times, you have sensed a situation getting out of control. As a teenage fan, we watched and agonised over what Liverpool fans went through at Hillsborough and mourned the 97 dead. 

All those years prior to 1989 you had thought someone was in charge, that someone was in control of all those crowd surges and what felt like dangerous squashes getting in and out grounds. And then came Lord Justice Taylor’s report and it clear that the police and football authorities had no idea. They were making it up as they went along.

Liverpool fans reported heavy handed tactics from the French police as well as tear gas use

Saturday night felt a little like that. Having attended the Euro 2020 final last summer, it was astonishing that UEFA’s next showpiece event was also descending into chaos. It also comes just five months people lost their life in a crush at the Cameroon versus Comoros match at the African Cup of Nations. 

By the end here, there was pepper spray and tear gas as police lost control of a situation entirely of their own making. There were children in tears, blind fans attempting to navigate the crush with guides desperately trying to help them through. And not at any stage did there seem to be anyone with the authority to take control.

Shamefully, when it became clear the game couldn’t kick off on time, the PA announcer at the stadium said the game had been delayed ‘due to late arrival of fans.’ Not the ineptitude of police, not their own complete failure to organise security. No, fans were to blame again.

Maybe this was an overreaction to that night of ticketless fans storming gates at Wembley last July. But this was different. The mood was benign, not toxic like at Wembley. Fans were mingling, their respective songs being sung good-naturedly. But as you approached the stadium, to anyone with any experience of crowds, the situation was dangerously shambolic. And this was 7pm, two hours before 9pm kick off.

A French police officer sprays tear gas through a fence at Liverpool fans not allowed past

As you got within 50m of the Stade de France, the bottlenecks began. Incredibly, police had parked three police vans to block a walkway leaving only a narrow three or four metre gaps to walk through. The reason was unclear. It was obvious what would ensure. The build-up of fans was growing. 

At 19.05 I first I spoke to police in French and told them it was dangerous, to move the vans. Most just shrugged. Some tried to help. This is when I saw the blind fans trying to negotiate their way through a narrow gap. As I grew more frustrated – it seemed clear that the problem would get cnonsiderably worse as more and more fans arrived – one policeman agreed to call his boss. 

I explained there were thousands of fans behind us, that they needed to relieve the bottleneck. But there was nothing the junior officers could do without a commander to take control. Yet, again, why wasn’t anyone in authority here, at the danger points?

This is an important detail. UEFA’s statement would later say: In the lead-up to the game, the turnstiles at the Liverpool end became blocked by thousands fans who had purchased fake tickets which did not work in the turnstiles. This created a build-up of fans trying to get in.’

But that’s not entirely true. The initial build up was caused by the sheer stupidity of the police vans, the inability of the authorities to adapt to circumstances and a terrible plan.

Supporters were photographed clambering over railings at the Stade de France

The crush was now becoming uncomfortable. People were trying to get by on the dual carriage way roadwhich was fee, but required climbing over barriers. But police blocked that. 

Again the reasons seem unclear. By now, people were clambering over the barriers either to get clear or find a way through. There were no public service announcements. As the predicted thousands more fans arrived, the police lined up stopping people going on the road but the line looked fragile They couldn’t hold back the crush of growing numbers. You sensed they wouldn’t stay in control for long.

Meanwhile, we slowly filed through the gap incredibly the situation got worse. Rather than walk directly up a wide walkway to the Liverpool end, police closed that route off. Liverpool fans were directed down a pavement no more than two-people wide. Again the queue slowed. 

To exacerbate the issue, riot police then came barging through, knocking people aside presumably to deal with the situation behind us, which looked as though it was spiralling out of control. Later you would see familiar scenes, riot police pushing back fans, children being teargassed, fans clambering on to vans. To a dangerous, ineptly managed situation, they added batons and shields and pepper gas.

A Liverpool fan appears to be shoved away by a heavy-handed French police officer outside the Stade de France

Extraordinarily, even then as we progressed down the pavement, there were roadworks blocking the footpath, meaning you had to navigate around them at 90 degrees in almost single file. Every point slowed the thousands of fans to a standstill. One policeman watching from a Portakabin mocked fans. 

By this stage, I was remonstrating with police. You could feel the situation spiralling out of control: it had horrible echoes of past tragedies. The police with the actual authority weren’t there to manage the situation. It was left to juniors and they had no power to make the obvious changes to relieve bottle necks.

No-one would allow us to walk up the many walkways into the stadium. As we edged along, walking now away from our destination, it took 20 minutes to get to the Real Madrid end of the stadium but now there was nowhere to go, a vast crowd ahead of us coming from the opposite direction.

Everyone surged towards one tiny entry point, about 3-4m wide, for ticketholders. Stewards were struggling to contain the crowds. There has been no ticket check up to this point so it was impossible to know who had tickets and who didn’t. There was no chance of reaching the front. 

Liverpool fans appeared extremely distressed outside the ground as the atmosphere turned sour in Paris

Only my media pass got my through a police checkpoint and into the ground. It had taken an hour to cover around 100m. But even then, at 8pm, an hour before kick off, I suspected those I left behind wouldn’t make it by 9pm kick off. The queue wasn’t moving and clearly wouldn’t be for some time. Fans were whistling frustrated. Police, stewards and UEFA officials looks helpless.

I navigated the media entrance and once in the stadium , the Liverpool end was less than a third full. To anyone with any sense, it would have been clear there was a dangerous problem. Then came the delays, that crass announcement from UEFA saying it had been caused by late fans, which was deceitful. And if fake tickets were in circulation, gain, how did fans get as far as the turnstiles. They should have been weeded out long before then. Some might have been chancing it, but many would have been innocents, believing their tickets were genuine.

And at the end of it all, you felt like weeping, not because of the tear gas and pepper spray in the air, but because, 33 years after Hillsborough, football authorities seem incapable of learning.

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