At Champions League Final, the Fans Weren’t the Danger

Preconceptions about Liverpool supporters and policing decisions that didn’t prioritize their safety led to the chaos at the Champions League final. That’s dangerous for every fan.

It can be hard, at times like these, to know exactly who to believe. On one side, there are the thousands of witness accounts, the contemporaneous reports from much of the world’s news media, the countless videos and an apparently bottomless reserve of high resolution photographs, all telling one story about last Saturday’s Champions League final.

And on the other side, there are the claims of the politicians and administrators and law enforcement officials who were responsible for the staging of European soccer’s showpiece event and who would, ultimately, be held accountable if it was found that they had overseen a complete and colossal organizational failure. It is just so hard to know which side is more likely to be telling the truth.

Not that it matters, of course, because the damage is done. Around 20 minutes before the game was scheduled to start, UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, announced to the Stade de France and to the watching world that the game would have to be delayed because of the “late arrival” of fans to the stadium.

It was not relevant, it seemed, that images had been floating around online for more than two hours of huge lines not only at the stadium’s gates, but at its perimeter, too, or that it had been blindingly obvious for some time that there were impossible bottlenecks to get close to the ground, or that several journalists had informed UEFA of the problems.

Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

No, all of that was put to one side, and UEFA blamed the fans. It did so either without full knowledge of the situation at its own event — an unforgivable ignorance — or knowing that its statement was at best misleading or, at worst, an outright and pernicious lie.

And that was all it took. As soon as UEFA decided that the real problem with this sporting event was all the people who wanted to watch it, the — let’s keep the lawyers happy — misinformation spread and disseminated and infected everything it touched. From that point on, Liverpool’s fans were presumed guilty until proven innocent, not least by considerable portions of the people who should, really, have been their allies: other soccer fans.

Still, UEFA can take some solace from the fact that — even with that head start — it has not been the worst actor in the sorry story that has played out over the last week or so, a time that should have been dedicated to celebrating the marvel that is this ageless Real Madrid team.

No, that dubious honor goes to various elements of the French state. Not just the body-armor-clad riot police — who sprayed tear gas at fans waiting patiently to attend a sporting event, who tried to funnel thousands of people through two narrow gaps under a highway overpass, who shuttered entry points without explanation for hours as the crowd gathered and swelled, and who then locked down the stadium during the game to pen fans inside — but their champions: the country’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, and to his counterpart for sports, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra.

For almost a week now, Darmanin and Oudéa-Castéra have blamed Liverpool’s fans on Twitter, in comments to the news media and in front of a rapidly-convened Senate hearing.

Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

They have blamed Liverpool fans despite all of those pictures of large, patient crowds. They have blamed Liverpool fans despite seeing videos of children being lifted from the ground to prevent them from being crushed. They have blamed Liverpool fans despite seeing footage of their own police officers squirting pepper spray and firing tear gas at people trying, quietly, to scan tickets.

They have continued to blame Liverpool fans even as their own story keeps changing, even as the number of “fake tickets” presented at the Stade de France that evening has diminished from “30,000 to 40,000” to a fraction of that. They have stuck with their line even when it veered into baseless slurs, when it involved Oudéa-Castéra saying that Liverpool fans — maybe just English fans — posed a “very specific risk” to public safety.

They have done so even though it does not take into account the problems that Real Madrid’s fans faced, or the footage and photographs of local residents forcing their way in, or the corroborated accounts of large-scale gang activity both before and after the game.

They have done so even when it leaves more questions than answers: Where, precisely, did the 40,000 bearers of pretend tickets go, and why were they not captured wandering the streets of Saint-Denis? Were they ghosts? Other excuses have drifted into the realm of dystopian fantasy: Darmanin, at one point, claimed the police had to act because of the risk of a “pitch invasion.”

This might all have the ring of a cover-up — and not even an especially good one, given how often the French authorities have had to contradict themselves — but there exists the possibility that it is not. Maybe it is not a series of outrageous and egregious lies. Maybe they have not seen all of those images, heard all of that testimony. Maybe it is just two politicians relying in good faith on poor, premature information. Maybe.

It is hard, though, not to read into the persistence with which Darmanin and Oudéa-Castéra have peddled their accusations a certain calculation.

Despite the fact that their interpretation of last Saturday evening is demonstrably, provably untrue, they have stood by it because the alternative is unpalatable: Admitting that the French security services got this one wrong would mean admitting that they have also got their approach to policing French domestic soccer wrong and that they are probably going to get next year’s Rugby World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics wrong, too.

Most of all, they have stood by it because, deep down, they know it will work. They know, at least, that it might create the illusion of an alternative set of facts. They know, too, that much of the heavy lifting will be done by prejudice, by those who would point out, archly, that this does seem to happen to Liverpool fans or England fans or just soccer fans as a whole an awful lot.

They know that while social media allowed all of those images and videos and firsthand accounts to be surfaced and to be spread, citizen journalism is a much less potent force online than deep-rooted partisanship. They know that the latter will overpower the former at some point, at least enough to muddy the waters, to obscure not only this specific truth but also the idea of truth, to ensure that some blame is apportioned elsewhere.

Plenty, certainly, have seized on the opportunity to assume that Liverpool fans, or English fans, or even a certain stripe of soccer fans as a whole must be at fault. Plenty have decided that this must be the first time that anyone has ever tried to gain access to an event by using a fake ticket, without wondering whether perhaps some of those people were victims, rather than perpetrators, of a crime, without asking if perhaps that is the sort of thing the authorities should be prepared to encounter.

And yet the temptation to side with the authorities, in the aftermath of an event like this, rather than those who are different from you only in terms of the team they support is a dangerous one.

Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What was proved at the Stade de France on Saturday evening was that soccer — in France, at least — is still an industry content with having tear gas fired on its customers, on families and on children. That it finds it acceptable to put them in a position where they have reason to fear for their lives, to risk them being crushed to death, to assume all of them are equally guilty and then, rather than to ask how this might have been avoided, to have the temerity, in the face of all available evidence, to blame them for it.

And that has ramifications for everyone. For any soccer fan, for any sports fan, for any participant in French democracy. The Stade de France is not the first time a UEFA final has descended into chaos. Last summer’s European Championship final, in London, prompted a governmental review. Last month’s Europa League final, in Seville, drew a letter of complaint from both clubs about the way their fans were treated.

Increasingly, it appears that UEFA is no longer capable of staging these games. More troublingly, in France in particular, it would seem that nobody in any position of power is interested in discovering how to police events of this scale to make sure they are not only safe and secure but enjoyable, too. Nobody wants to accept responsibility. Nobody wants to learn lessons.

What happened at the Stade de France, and the smear campaign unleashed in its aftermath, has ramifications far beyond the reputation of Liverpool’s fans. Allowing the allegations of Darmanin and Oudéa-Castéra to take root is to allow this to happen again, to guarantee that there is a repeat, that another set of fans will be funneled and kettled and trapped and gassed and told — by those in power, by those responsible, by those who are supposed to have them in their care — that it is their fault.

At times like this, it should not be hard to choose which side to believe, to know who is very obviously telling the truth.

Dan Himbrechts/EPA, via Shutterstock

There was a time, a little while ago, when it was possible to feel quite encouraged by Barcelona. Xavi Hernández had made a bright start as manager, steering the club back into the Champions League. In Gavi and Pedri and Ansu Fati and Ronald Áraujo, the young and gifted core of a new team was starting to emerge.

Even the club’s transfer activity seemed quite smart. Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had given the team a lift in January. Franck Kessié, the Ivorian midfielder at A.C. Milan, had been secured on a free transfer for the summer, giving the team a dynamism it has missed for some time.

True, the debts are still enormous, but the club seemed to have acquiesced to cold reality. It was cutting its cloth, balancing its books, adapting to its new strictures. It was even trying to rehabilitate its relationship with Ousmane Dembélé, an admirable but somewhat quixotic attempt to recognize that salvaging a distressed asset is cheaper than acquiring a new one.

And then it emerged that it might be considering the idea of selling Frenkie De Jong to Manchester United. Now, on the surface, that felt like an unfortunate necessity: At 25, De Jong is the sort of player who might generate a fee with which to rebuild a team. Sometimes, those kinds of difficult decisions have to be made.

But then it turned out that Barcelona was planning on using at least a portion of the money it might receive — most likely from Manchester United — for De Jong to buy Marcos Alonso and César Azpilicueta.

Both are fine players, of course. Azpilicueta, certainly, would be an asset both on and off the field to Barcelona. But they are hardly spring chickens: Alonso is 31 and Azpilicueta 32. Alonso excels in a position, wing back, that Barcelona does not even use. This is not the work of a club that has learned its lessons. Not in the slightest.

All will be revealed, then, on June 17. In less than two weeks, humanity will finally discover the answer to the most burning question of the age: Which team will get to have endless, heated discussions about whether Paul Pogba is playing sufficiently well next season? And it will do so in the most apposite medium imaginable: through watching his own, personal documentary.

Just a little of the sting from The Pogmentary — no, really — was drawn earlier this week, when Manchester United confirmed that Pogba would be leaving the club, six years on from his $100 million arrival, at the end of his contract. The “huge decision” that sits at the center of much of the promotional spiel of the documentary, it turns out, was not entirely his.

Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pogba is not the first player to go down this road, of course. His French teammate, Antoine Griezmann, announced his move to Barcelona in the form of what might as well broadly be called a documentary, too. That Griezmann, like Pogba, is a devoted N.B.A. fan is probably not irrelevant here. These are both transparent homages to The Decision, LeBron James’s great gift to the documentarian’s art.

The problem, of course, is that LeBron James is one of the greatest players ever to grace a basketball court, a status that is probably just a little beyond both Pogba and Griezmann. If James’s announcement was full of hubris and self-importance — the phrase “I’ll be taking my talents” should always, always be laced with irony — then it is easy to feel there is something just a little more tawdry about soccer’s ersatz versions, something slightly, well, desperate.

To the players, though, that is a price worth paying. Pogba’s time at Manchester United has, by almost any measure, been anti-climactic. The peak years of his career, at least at club level, have been spent seeing his status slowly fade, leaving a player once regarded as one of the finest midfielders in the world now widely regarded as an expensive luxury.

The bombast and the faint pomposity of a glossy documentary, an announcement about his future — spoiler alert: He will probably return to Juventus — is, at its heart, a way of asserting that he is still a star, that he can still command attention, that he can still dictate his own terms. It is a message tailored, in part, to whichever club (again: Juventus) he joins. More than that, though, it has the air of a message to himself.

A couple of thoughts from readers on the final day of the Premier League season, which as far as I can tell happened several years ago. “Seeing how Serie A settles a points tie by looking at a comparable win/loss, why can’t the Premier League do something similar?” asked Erich Almasy. “Watching Manchester City run up the scores to get a higher goal difference is embarrassing and clearly hurts clubs fighting relegation.”

(A brief translation for readers unfamiliar with league table math: Serie A separates teams that are level on points by head-to-head record. The Premier League does it on goal difference.)

I will confess to being slightly torn on this one. Head-to-head seems slightly fairer to me — though not in this Premier League season, when it would have been no use at all if Liverpool and Manchester City had finished level on points, given both games between the two of them ended 2-2 — and I do believe that seeing teams run up the score is not especially compelling sporting entertainment.

But what is the alternative? That City (and Liverpool) just take the last 30 minutes of games off? Goal difference is also, to my eye, more dramatic. A.C. Milan’s better head-to-head record against Inter Milan this year meant it effectively had an extra point; in England, there is at least the possibility of a team overturning a disadvantage in goal difference on the final day.

Hannah Mckay/Reuters

I am more inclined to agree with Chuck Massoud-Tastor. “How does the Premier League defend the idea of starting all games simultaneously on the final day? Would they not garner more viewership and excitement with staggered starts? Am I just being a provincial American?”

Yes, Chuck, you are, but that doesn’t mean you’re not right. It would be possible to stagger at least some of the games on the final day, at least in some scenarios, as long as all of the games pertaining to relegation or Europe or the title happened simultaneously.

I’m not sure any drama would be lost. In a way, it might even serve to allow each story line a little time to breathe. That said, the issue is in the logistics. You do not know which games will be significant for which prize until relatively late, and rearranging games on short notice would only inconvenience fans.

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