UEFA starting to gather evidence for Champions League final probe

Police officers guard the Stade de France prior the Champions League final soccer match between Liverpool and Real Madrid, in Saint Denis near Paris, Saturday, May 28, 2022. Police deployed tear gas on supporters waiting in long lines to get into the Stade de France for the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid that was delayed by 37 minutes while security struggled to cope with the vast crowd and fans climbing over fences. (Christophe Ena/AP)

The French government is blaming Liverpool fans. The English club is enraged by the “irresponsible, unprofessional” rush to conclusions. European soccer's governing body, UEFA, will now try to uncover what went wrong in the disorder and chaos in Paris at the Champions League final before Liverpool lost to Real Madrid.

UEFA is starting to gather evidence about issues outside the Stade de France that marred one of the world’s biggest games in sports on Saturday.

Liverpool fans' leadership groups are already complaining about heavy-handed policing and poor organization on a troubling night that saw children and elderly people among those getting sprayed by tear gas.

These are the key issues the review will need to take into consideration:

BAD ORGANIZATION

The challenges of staging the final with just three months' notice — Paris was awarded the game in February after a decision was taken to strip Russia's St. Petersburg of hosting rights — has been floated as a reason for the chaos that unfolded.

Having months, rather than years, to plan for the final was still enough time for hospitality facilities to be prepared and the stadium wrapped in special competition branding.

There was, though, a shortage of signage on streets leading to the stadium and on the subway and train lines. While private security was at stadium entrances, there were no volunteers deployed to help fans navigate unfamiliar streets and communicate as lines grew longer.

What was the reason behind the decision to herd fans — mostly from Liverpool — into a narrow passage on the walk up to the stadium from the metro, with police vans blocking much of the space? Why were there so few police officers in and around the stadium for such a big occasion?

UEFA'S MESSAGING

The “late arrival of fans” was the initial reason given for the delay to kickoff for what proved to be 37 minutes. Yet there was clear evidence many fans had arrived near the stadium up to three hours before the scheduled start of the game and simply ended up stuck in lines that barely moved. Liverpool fans, pressed up against the railings and many fearful of their own safety, hadn't even been told the match had been delayed. That appeared to add to the panic, as some thought they would miss the game.

UEFA seemed slow to realize the extent of the problems. Steve Rotheram, a mayor in Liverpool who attended the game, said he had his cell phone, money, bank cards and match ticket stolen outside the Stade de France. He said he saw UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin in the VIP section of the stadium later and explained his concerns. “He seemed oblivious to it,” Rotheram said of Ceferin.

POLICE

Why did police use bottlenecks to control the flow of spectators? The review will need to look at the policing of the final, from how they planned the hazardous route to the stadium from the train station and metro stops, as well as the instances of heavy-handedness toward supporters in using tear gas and pepper spray indiscriminately in areas where there were kids and elderly people. There is footage of police deploying spray directly into the face of fans.

Repeated allegations of brutality have hit French police in recent years, notably during the Yellow Vests protests against the government, amid calls police should exercise greater restraint.

French police have struggled to get a grip on fan violence at domestic matches this season. Was that considered when the event was moved to Paris after direct talks between Ceferin and French President Emmanuel Macron?

TICKETING

This is likely to be a key focus of the review after French Interior minister Gérald Darmanin said there was "massive fraud at an industrial level," claiming that “70% of the tickets were fake tickets coming into the Stade de France.” Those numbers have been received with skepticism. Past and present Liverpool players — including Andrew Robertson — have said tickets they had received through legitimate channels hadn't been accepted at the gates. There were undoubtedly some fake tickets — The Associated Press has been shown an example of one. But the AP is aware of malfunctioning scanners unable to validate genuine tickets. Were those considered to be fake at the turnstiles?

STEWARDING

Just like at Wembley Stadium last year when there was violence and crowd chaos at the European Championship final, stewards bore the brunt of the disorder on Saturday as they were overwhelmed by large crowds at the gates. Low-paid and under-resourced, it seems unfair to expect stewards to resist aggression and force from both frustrated fans and other people trying to enter stadiums illegally by barging through checkpoints. Even as the chaos was unfolding, some private security officials turned their focus on media, ordering video footage to be deleted.

LOCALS

There are a growing number of testimonies from people who attended the final, detailing how they got mugged and attacked before and after the match at the Stade de France, which is located in an impoverished suburb of northern Paris. Local thugs appear to have exploited the chaos on the night. Some were seen fighting with police outside the stadium. Among those seen vaulting the fences to get into the stadium without tickets were people not wearing Liverpool or Madrid colors, potentially therefore locals taking advantage of overwhelmed security.

STIGMATIZING FANS

According to some testimonies, the crowd management issues brought back disturbing memories of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1989 that led to the deaths of 97 Liverpool fans. Hooliganism was rife in English football throughout the 1980s, and there were immediate attempts back then to falsely assign blame on the Liverpool fans and defend policing at the FA Cup match in Sheffield. A false narrative that blamed drunken, ticketless and rowdy Liverpool fans was created by police. It took decades of campaigning for Liverpool supporters to prove there was a cover-up by authorities who tried to blame them. Now Liverpool fans are challenging the authorities again, this time in France, and are determined to seek the truth. Darmanin, the French minister, claimed on Monday that “this kind of situation occurs” within certain clubs from Britain, stigmatizing Liverpool fans.

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