It is frequently said that the game of football has undergone a revolution in recent years. This alludes to the influx of money into the game, but also the composition of the crowds that turn up to watch matches – from largely working class to increasingly middle class.
Football has simultaneously undergone a public relations revolution. Not so long ago football fans were viewed by the authorities with barely concealed contempt. As described in a 1989, post-Hillsborough edition of the magazine When Saturday Comes, the authorities in Britain viewed football fans as “a mass entity, fuelled by drink and a single-minded resolve to wreak havoc by destroying property and attacking one another with murderous intent”.
Nowadays you are more likely to hear complaints about the middle class “prawn sandwich brigade” filling up stadiums. “Ordinary fans” – a synonym for working class supporters – are being “priced out” of attendance at games by tickets that only the middle classes can afford, so the argument goes.
Scratch beneath the surface and much of the old class antagonism remains. This was evident from the way – eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster – in which Uefa, the governing body of football in Europe, reflexively sought to blame Liverpool fans for the chaotic scenes that unfolded at the Champions League final in Paris on Saturday (28 May). As in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, at which 97 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed in a crush caused by overcrowding, the instinctive reaction of football’s ruling elites was to blame the victims.
Uefa’s fan-blaming began with a reckless announcement projected onto big screens inside the Stade de France, where the game between Liverpool and Real Madrid was scheduled to kick-off at 8pm UK time. As the official kick-off time was pushed back (the match eventually began at 8.36pm) messages appeared on the big screens blaming “the late arrival of fans” for the delay. They were met by boos inside the stadium. Meanwhile, outside the stadium long queues of Liverpool fans were funnelled into dangerous bottlenecks while French security staff unleashed pepper-spray on the crowds.
Many journalists present at the final painted a completely different picture of events to Uefa and the French authorities, as did Merseyside match-day police officers, who travelled with the Liverpool fans. “Can only describe it as the worst European match I’ve ever worked or experienced,” tweeted an account run by the officers. “I thought the behaviour of the fans at the turnstiles was exemplary in shocking circumstances. You were not late 100%.”
This did not stop the French authorities from doubling down on the line peddled by Uefa. Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, tweeted: “Thousands of British ‘supporters’, without tickets, or with counterfeit tickets, forced entry and sometimes assaulted the stewards.” At a press conference on Monday Darmanin echoed the sort of anti-Liverpool sentiment that has long been a feature of sections of the British tabloid press. “Manifestly, this kind of incident only seems to happen with certain English clubs,” Darmanin said.
He claimed that 30,000 to 40,000 Liverpool fans had turned up to the match either with counterfeit tickets or no tickets at all. There has been no evidence for this figure. Not a single piece of footage has emerged of this gigantic crowd of marauding ticketless Liverpool fans. Strange, you might think, in an age of ubiquitous camera-equipped smartphones.
The footage from the Champions League final that does exist appears to show Liverpool fans being arbitrarily hemmed in by French authorities while French youths can be seen climbing over stadium fences. Meanwhile, the Liverpool left-back and captain of the Scottish national team Andy Robertson told the press that a friend’s VIP ticket to the match failed to scan at the turnstiles.
The authorities in France have a long-standing reputation for heavy handedness. Ronan Evain of Football Supporters Europe, which acts as an observer at Uefa matches, described France’s approach to supporter management as “always focused on show of force”.
The scenes that unfolded in Paris on Saturday are symptomatic of a deeper malaise at the heart of the modern game. As football has leaned into capitalism, it has inevitably been infected by the values of modern corporate culture. Supporters might have paid a small fortune to watch their team on Saturday night (tickets cost up to €690) but once fans had parted with their cash they were treated with contempt. As television cameras zoomed in on football royalty and Camila Cabello sang one of her instantly forgettable pop songs during the carefully choreographed opening ceremony, hundreds of black-clad riot police made sure that those actually paying for the glitzy spectacle were kept firmly in their place.
Perhaps most depressing of all was the speed with which a minority of fans of rival clubs echoed Uefa’s line about disruptive Liverpool supporters. “Liverpool fans embarrass England once again in Paris” ran the headline of a popular Arsenal supporters’ website. Some fans appear to be so blinded by tribalism they are willing to suspend their critical faculties to reinforce prejudices.
Rival fans lining up obsequiously behind Uefa mirrors the way Liverpool and Everton fans have been taunted with revolting, classist slogans by supporters of other clubs. Last month a section of Tottenham Hotspur fans sang “sign on” (to unemployment benefits) to the tune of the Liverpool anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” during a game between the two clubs. Everton fans were abused with chants of “feed the Scousers” during a home game against Arsenal in December last year. The irony, as pointed out by the football writer Alan Smith, is that Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium – its name an ode to the relentless corporate takeover of football – is a short walk from the Islington food bank, which provided essential items to 2,710 people between August 2020 and March 2021.
It suits footballing and political elites to have fans turn on each other like this. And it suits Uefa and the French authorities to have the fans of rival clubs – themselves the fellow victims of football’s corporate misrule – rehashing tired classist tropes about Liverpudlian troublemaking and perpetual victimhood. It suits football’s governing bodies because it removes the spotlight from their own questionable conduct.
Fans of every club should grow up and put the health of the game ahead of petty tribalism. Until that happens, the beautiful game will continue to be marred by the sort of ugly scenes we saw on Saturday in Paris.