UEFA Champions League final: Chaos in Paris deepens French soccer’s security struggles

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PARIS — The dust has yet to settle on Saturday’s events in Paris, but the dominant talking point remains the chaotic scenes outside the Stade de France in the build-up to Real Madrid’s 14th UEFA Champions League title, beating Liverpool 1-0. As CBS Sports reported in the French capital this weekend, thousands of supporters were stuck in queues ahead of the delayed kickoff due to bottlenecks caused by police vehicles in and around Gates U, X and Y at the 81,000-seat venue.

Tear gas was later used on crowds and individuals as the situation worsened and consequently pushed the match back by more than 30 minutes with Liverpool expressing their dissatisfaction mid-game and UEFA vowing to investigate the shocking scenes. The French interior ministry said 105 people have been detained. Thirty-nine were arrested and are in custody to face potential charges.

French reaction has varied drastically with the political line focusing the blame on ticket-less Liverpool fans overwhelming security.

“We closed Gate Z for at least an hour because the Liverpool guys without tickets were in front of those who did,” a police officer told L’Equipe on Saturday. “We could not push them back because those behind were pushing forward, nor could we let them in. We waited for the authorities (riot police) to arrive to help us filter them, but the order did not arrive from the command post. Nothing was happening. We were lucky that the Liverpool guys were patient and calm.”

According to a statement from the local police authorities Le Parisien ahead of the event, an 18-month preparation period had to be crammed into three, but Stade de France is no stranger to major sporting events, and yet Saturday’s mayhem was unprecedented. The final was moved to France from Saint Petersburg, Russia due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

One Parisian Liverpool fan was shocked at the state of the organization for one of the biggest games on the global sporting calendar.

“I live here and I come here multiple times a year for the rugby,” he told CBS Sports. “I’ve never seen anything like that, because of the strikes of [train line] REF B everyone comes through REF D, and it’s not meant to have that many people.”

Nor for the timing, it could not possibly have been any worse after a domestic season affected by an uptick in fan-related problems impacting French soccer across multiple levels with a post-COVID-19 boom in clashes and hooligan-like behavior. This is not something limited to France and the Paris region given the ugly scenes witnessed at UEFA Euro 2020 last summer when Wembley Stadium was stormed by ticketless supporters for the final between hosts England and ultimate victors Italy. However, the Stade de France scenes are particularly concerning given that the French capital will host the 2024 Olympics with the venue due to house rugby and athletics as one of several multi-sport locations, which will be required to hold events simultaneously to others.

Liverpool, their supporters and Merseyside police were in no doubt as to where responsibility lay. UEFA had initially blamed the late arrival of Reds supporters for the delay in kickoff before stating that many supporters had attempted to get into the grounds with fake tickets. Several individuals who attended the match said there had been problems with the scanning of QR codes that would allow them into the ground, including media members and a friend of Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson.

The suggestion from French interior minister Gerald Darmanin that “thousands” of British visitors had attempted to enter the ground with counterfeit tickets or by leaping over the fence was given short shrift by Merseyside police, whose representative in Paris tweeted, “Can only describe it as the worst European match I’ve ever worked or experienced. I thought the behavior of the fans at the turnstiles was exemplary in shocking circumstances. You were not late 100 percent.”

Of those who attempted to clear the Stade de France’s barriers around Gates U, X, Y and Z in the hour before the game began, most appeared to be local individuals. Liverpool supporters outside the ground pleaded with those who did vault over not to do so.

Those who made it in were relieved to have avoided the worst of possible outcomes.

“The only thing worse is Hillsborough,” said Ron Irvine, an 82-year-old supporter. “I know you shouldn’t use those words lightly but it could have been that bad.”

Speaking after getting into the ground following a three-hour wait, Malik Alam echoed that assessment.

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“If they surge now it’ll be another Hillsborough,” he said.

Ninety-seven people died due to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, a crush in the Leppings Lane end of the Sheffield Wednesday stadium ahead of the FA Cup semifinal.

Meanwhile, Liverpool are calling for UEFA to commission an independent investigation into events on Saturday.

“What happened outside the stadium completely overshadowed [the match],” said club chief executive Billy Horgan. “The stadium entry and the breakdown in security was absolutely unacceptable, and frankly, the treatment of our fans as well. As we discussed last night with UEFA, we are asking for a full and transparent investigation, an independent investigation that can help to establish the facts. It’s absolutely imperative that we understand what happened and how we got into that situation, where people’s safety was put at risk. It’s important that we understand what happened last night, but it’s also important that we take whatever the lessons are and ensure it never happens again.”

That demand was picked up by British politicians. Ian Byrne, the member of parliament for Liverpool West Derby who had attended the game, said supporters had been treated like animals.

“I’ve never witnessed anything so bad since 1989,” he told Sky Sports. “It was absolutely horrible.”

Culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who was born in Liverpool, has demanded “a formal investigation into what went wrong and why.”

Saturday’s goings-on were part of a sadly inevitable culmination of years of unfair treatment towards French soccer supporters with away teams regularly banned from bringing their fans with them by local authorities. There is no shortage of colorful and passionate rivalries in Ligue 1 and beyond, but those outside of France might not know that given how heavy-handed policing of soccer matches has all but erased these important fixtures from the calendar, which has in turn bred massive animosity from fans.

Le Classique between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille is arguably the French game’s most prestigious fixture yet has been unable to feature both sets of fans for a decade, which has not only diluted the rivalry but also reduced the domestic product’s attractiveness. Blanket bans on spectators from the visiting region and even wearing the shirt of an opposing team in the vicinity of the stadium are part of France’s outdated approach.

French President Emmanuel Macron was credited with playing a significant role in the game being moved from Saint Petersburg to Paris, and now he and his government will likely have to answer questions as to what went wrong.

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