Who is to blame for the chaos outside the Stade de France in Paris on 28 May that caused the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool to be delayed by over half an hour – and may have come close to ending in the serious injury of fans?
The French government and Uefa, the European football federation, have placed responsibility with tens of thousands of Liverpool fans allegedly attempting to enter the grounds without tickets. Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, tweeted – minutes after the end of the match – that: “Thousands of British ‘fans,’ without tickets or holding counterfeit tickets, forced their way in and sometimes assaulted the stewards.”
A statement from the Paris police also blamed fans who did not have valid tickets. Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, the sports minister, put the number as high as 30,000 to 40,000. In a televised briefing on 30 May, Darmanin doubled down on the official line, claiming that “such events” happen “only with… certain English clubs”, while also apologising for how the match unfolded.
The French press was quick to cast doubt on this version of events. Journalists held a combination of factors to blame: Liverpool fans used an unexpected route to the stadium because of a train strike; and stewards were not prepared for the number of fans turning up at gates unsuited for admitting that many people. As tensions rose, the police responded by tear gassing a largely peaceful crowd, compounding fans' frustration and adding to the risks of a crush, witnesses told me.[See also: For France's ethnic minorities, police brutality is all too familiar]
Some problems can be ascribed to a strike on the B line of the RER suburban network, which would typically be used by the bulk of fans to reach the stadium, on the day of the final. Liverpool fans were reportedly advised at the Châtelet hub to instead take the D line. Exiting from the RER D station, however, thousands headed to the stadium via a route with a far lower capacity than required. About 37,000 fans used the RER D station around the time of the match, over three times more than at previous comparable events. There was a bottleneck close to the stadium, with fans not being admitted while more arrived behind them.
A number of fans trying to make their way in without valid tickets was also a factor, though most observers are sceptical that their numbers approach the tens of thousands the French authorities are claiming. Nor were all of them Liverpool supporters, with reports from the scene indicating that at least some were locals from the surrounding Seine-Saint-Denis area trying to enter illicitly.
Thousands of fans were not allowed entry to the stadium, despite some holding valid tickets. “There was no recourse for people who the stewards decided didn’t have a valid ticket,” Matt Pearson, a reporter who attended the match, told me. This led to a build-up of fans – including some who knew they had a right to be there – at the gate as kick-off approached.
Police stationed at the match used harsh crowd-control methods as a first resort against the increasingly frustrated fans, according to witnesses. “The police’s main methods seemed to be to employ tear gas or pepper spray to try and disperse the area – before they had worked out exactly what was happening,” Pearson said.
Andrew, a Liverpool fan, told me that “from the station onwards, police refused to communicate with anyone unless it was via gas, baton or shield”.
Sebastian Roché, a sociologist, told Le Monde that French police are trained to see all crowds as a homogeneous group, even if the majority are peaceful and only a minority are troublemakers. “Officers are trained to use [methods such as tear gas and batons] in contexts of so-called ‘maintenance of order’… Police are taught to employ superior force to what they perceive to be facing them.”
The tear gas caused fans to retreat from the gates even as more continued to arrive, according to Andrew. “People fled what we learned later were tear gas attacks behind us, while people returned from Gate A, which was also shut, creating a crush from both sides,” he said.
It is possible that the culture of Liverpool fans, the history of whose club has been marked above all by the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 97 people died, may in fact have helped to prevent the crush turning fatal. “People were sensitive of what causes crowds to get worse and took every step to mitigate that. I’ve never felt more supported by so many people in such a dangerous situation,” Andrew said.
The French government and Uefa’s line that the problems were entirely caused by tens of thousands of British fans trying to enter the stadium without tickets is viewed as implausible by observers I spoke to. There is little or no precedent for a large European football match being disrupted by fraud in the tens of thousands, representing up to half of the Stade de France’s capacity.
A refusal to accept, against most evidence, that serious organisational problems contributed to the dangerous chaos in addition to a number of ticketless fans raises questions about future large-scale events France is hosting, including the Rugby World Cup next year and the 2024 Olympics.[See also: Jürgen Klopp and the mystique of the team]