The wagons are circling again, as the French government and police start blaming Liverpool supporters in a manner reminiscent of 32 years ago.
Surveying the wreckage of the 2022 Champions League final, it’s difficult not to feel dispirited. Familiar issues, familiar attitudes and familiar prejudices, all manifesting themselves in bold new ways for the 21st century. Furthermore, there is a troubling theme emerging of blind deference to authorities that look very much as though they’re telling lies to cover their own backs following a day of policing that seems to have been equal parts incompetence and savagery, and of very online fans who are so bound up in their stupid, childish tribalism that they will go out to bat for any organisation that will confirm their worst prejudices.
‘Why does this always happen to Liverpool?’, some will ask. Well, it wasn’t them at Wembley last summer, it wasn’t them in Sevilla or Tirana, and it hadn’t been them in the previous 30-odd years of Liverpool playing European football. ‘What about their ticketless fans?’, they ask, as though the issue of thousands of people turning up ticketless to cities hosting big matches has never been an issue at matches before. ‘What about HEYSEL?’, they cry triumphantly, overlooking the fact that, setting aside everything about that equally dreadful day (and it really is a whole other story), that was 37 years ago.
Of course, most of these questions are being asked in bad faith, because the attitudes that blamed Liverpool supporters for Hillsborough – which similarly began almost the moment things started to go wrong – haven’t really gone anywhere, really, have they? It’s hardly even as though those behind them and those questions are really even interested in answers. For them, the question itself is the answer.
One of the things that we know most assuredly about the Hillsborough disaster is that warning signs had been there for years before it happened. It could have happened to Spurs fans during their FA Cup semi-final there against Wolves in 1981. It could have happened to Leeds fans during their FA Cup semi-final there against Coventry in 1987. It could have happened to Liverpool fans during their FA Cup semi-final there against Nottingham Forest in 1988.
But in 1989 the crush was greater, a barrier buckled, and 97 people lost their lives. That was the difference, the specific failure point that led directly to so many deaths. But the events of that day were also an inevitable endpoint for policies of containment that had been treating football supporters as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ for more than a decade. Fences had started to go up in the early 1970s, but while they limited pitch invasions (though far from entirely), they did nothing to stop violence elsewhere. It’s almost as though those in charge of what passed for ‘safety’ didn’t care about that; they didn’t want it ruining their spectacle by taking place on the pitch.
The Sun, the South Yorkshire Police, a certain number of other news outlets and even some MPs knew what the reflex reaction would be to what happened at Hillsborough, and they knew that there was a group of people who could be scapegoated for their own shortcomings. And a sizeable proportion of the football community was happy to lap it up, too. Even now, in the face of absolutely overwhelming evidence, there remains a core of people who choose to believe instead that the victims of that tragedy only had themselves to blame for having the life literally squeezed out of them. The inhumanity of humanity can be staggering.
That very problem, those very policies, and exactly the same attitudes have been back on display in Paris and elsewhere since Saturday. It seems remarkable that anyone could have thought that spraying tear gas anywhere near a situation involving overcrowding, which would surely only make mass panic more likely, could be a good idea. Considering all the talk of crushing, overcrowding and bottlenecks, it feels as though we may have come close to a major disaster.
It seems that the plan was to set up checkpoints to try and weed out ticketless fans two or three hours before kick-off, but that this was carried out in an inept manner, in an environment which seemed completely unsuitable, and in a way that didn’t even seem to take into account that more people would be arriving, which could only lead to a greater and greater crush building. But this raises further questions. If this was the case, why were there gates inside this supposed security ‘cordon’? And why were there so many empty seats inside until right up to the (extremely delayed) kick-off?
Furthermore, what happened in Paris was part of a broader pattern. At the final of Euro 2020, thousands of ticketless fans rushed the turnstiles at Wembley. There were reports of mistreatment of fans in Seville before, during and after the Europa League final, and there were considerable disturbances between Feyenoord and Roma fans before the Europa Conference League final, too. There has seemingly been some sort of behaviour breakdown which we’d been moving slowly towards before the lockdowns but which has accelerated since.
But there does come a point at which some extremely nagging questions can start to play on your mind; are these HUGE EVENT matches starting to become untenable, and if they are, then what can be done about that? Is it possible that we could even be on the same trajectory that resulted in the losses of life of the mid-to-late-1980s? Where, exactly, *does* this all end? Because history certainly does seem to be repeating itself, and this includes the extremely convenient passing of the buck onto travelling supporters?
A formal police report has claimed that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 attempts to enter the stadium either with no ticket or a fake ticket, a figure already repeated on the television by the French Sports Minister Amelie Oudéa-Castéra. Over a three-hour period, the low end of this estimate would require hundreds of people to be trying to get into the stadium illegally per minute, and that’s assuming that all turnstiles were open, which we know for a fact is untrue. But politicians have continued the scapegoating. The French interior minister Gérald Darmanin tweeted that ‘Thousands of British ‘supporters’, without tickets or with counterfeit tickets, forced entry and sometimes assaulted the stewards’.
The police report goes on to admit that around 300-400 local youths took advantage of the chaos to gain access to the Stade de France. The fake ticket/ticketless number seems grossly exaggerated, while the number of locals breaking into the ground seems, based on reporting of what was happening outside the stadium, suppressed. False allegations of thousands of ticketless fans forcing access to a stadium were one of the backbones of the Hillsborough cover-up and were completely discredited. Held up to the slightest bit of scrutiny, the ‘blame the fans’ mentality of just about everybody connected with this match in France, starts to fall to pieces.
It’s not that there aren’t difficult questions to be posed back in England as well. There was clearly a large number of ticketless Liverpool fans who did travel to Paris, and in a broader sense this idea that thousands of people should be travelling hundreds or thousands of miles on the off-chance that they’ll somehow get someone’s ‘spare’ from somewhere is something that clubs should be making greater efforts to dissuade. And the recent fashion for ‘jibbing’ (breaking into a ground without paying to watch a match) needs to end. It is entirely understandable that all concerned should have jerked their knees in the direction of ‘British football hooligans’. It’s hardly as though the behaviour of the past hasn’t given them an easy and convenient scapegoat.
But the response of all concerned following the events of Saturday have felt like a shambolic mess, contradicted by phone footage, reports from fans who were there, and reputable journalists reporting both in real time on Twitter and after the event in greater detail. A full and completely independent inquiry needs to be held, and if it turns out that they have all been lying to us again, then sincere apologies will be due, not only from French government ministers, the police and stadium manager, but also from UEFA, for the message flashed across the stadium saying that the reason for the delayed kick-off was ‘the late arrival of fans’ and their subsequent statement that ‘The turnstiles at the Liverpool end became blocked by thousands fans who had purchased fake tickets which did not work in the turnstiles.’
And even if we disregard ‘who’s to blame’ – just for a moment – there are various institutions that are responsible for maintaining order at a massive event, and the question of who’s to blame doesn’t absolve them of that responsibility. If, as organisers, you find yourselves in a position in which you are indiscriminately pepper-spraying what seems to be large and mostly peaceful groups of people, then you have already failed at a fundamental level. This applies to UEFA, the Parisian police, the city of Paris and plausibly the French government itself.
It isn’t 1989 anymore, and if they have all been lying or feeding false information, then that truth must out. France has had a fatal stadium disaster before, and it will have been in many people’s minds there recently. Thirty years ago this month, 19 people were killed following the collapse of a temporary stand during a match between Bastia and Marseille. The subsequent inquiry showed multiple levels of administrative incompetence and negligence.
It has been estimated that there were 6,000 tickletless fans at Wembley for the final of Euro 2020. Their suggestion is between five and six times as many people were involved at Stade de France on Saturday. A couple of videos have surfaced of some Liverpool supporters climbing fences, but no-one is pretending that every single person present that day was an angel, and the fact is that the slew of video evidence of something containing this vast number of people that you’d expect to see in the age of smartphones simply does not exist.
If there is a vast body evidence that proves what they’re saying, then let them present it. If the entirety of the Liverpool support have been lying about this, if journalists who were present have also been lying about this, if there is a huge pool of substantive evidence which proves that 30,000 to 40,000 people without tickets stormed the stadium or attempted to do so, we’d expect it to have surfaced by now, but this simply hasn’t happened. Until then, the truth of the matter is that the allegations made are largely false and misleading. It is a considerable disappointment to have to say that yet again.