Jurgen Klopp grinned at the end, applauding and hugging the Real Madrid players as he went through to lift a losers’ medal. He waited in the cordoned off area for the Liverpool players to corral his troops. He then put his hand to his heart, which was adorned with a Liverpool badge, and raised his arm and then a fist at the handful of remaining Liverpool fans. He pounded on his heart and at that moment, behind the smile, you knew the pain of defeat cut deep but that he would use it to shake this team back up.
There would be no highs. No seventh European Cup. Real Madrid, who probably should have been beaten by Paris St Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City and who ended up holding on here, was thanks to the sheer immensity of Thibaut Courtois’ refusal to back down.
And yet, as the confetti cannons exploded, the fireworks began and the madristas party was in full swing, you thought back to hours before that finale. How close we have once again come to a total collapse of order, how the good and the glorious have become almost dark and tragic.
Vinicius Junior’s goal secured Real Madrid their 14th Champions League title
Approaching the Stade de France two hours before kick-off, a veteran football fan felt a terrible foreboding. What had been a delightful and happy scene on the way to the stadium and during the day in Paris turned tense and nasty. And as football fans we have been here before. Too much time.
I’ve been going to football games since 1978. You have often sensed that a situation is getting out of control. As teenage fans we watched and agonized over what Liverpool fans went through at Hillsborough and we mourned the 97 deaths.
All those years before 1989 you had thought that someone was in charge, that someone was in control of all those crowds and feeling like dangerous gourds going up and down. And then Lord Justice Taylor’s report came and it was clear the police and football authorities had no idea. They invented it as they went along.
Liverpool fans reported heavy-handed tactics by French police, including the use of tear gas
Saturday night felt a bit like that. After taking part in last summer’s Euro 2020 final, it was amazing that UEFA’s next flagship event also descended into chaos. It also comes that five months ago people lost their lives in the Africa Cup of Nations game between Cameroon and Comoros.
Pepper spray and tear gas ended up here as the police lost control of a situation they had entirely created themselves. There were crying children, blind fans trying to navigate the crush, and guides desperately trying to help them through. And at no point did there seem to be anyone with the authority to take control.
When it became clear the game could not start on time, the PA announcer at the stadium shamefacedly said the game had been postponed “due to the late arrival of fans”. Not the inability of the police, not their own utter failure to organize security. No, the fans were to blame again.
Perhaps this was an overreaction to the night ticketless fans stormed the gates of Wembley last July. But this was different. The mood was benign, not toxic like at Wembley. The fans mingled with the people, their respective songs were sung good-naturedly. But as you approached the stadium, the situation was dangerously chaotic for anyone experienced with crowds. And that was 7 p.m., two hours before the 9 p.m. kick-off.
A French police officer sprays tear gas through a fence at Liverpool fans who are not allowed to pass
As you approached within 50m of the Stade de France, the bottlenecks started. Incredibly, the police had parked three police cars to block a sidewalk, leaving only a narrow gap of ten or four feet to walk through. The reason was unclear. It was obvious what would make it happen. The fan base grew.
At 7:05 p.m. I first spoke to the police in French and told them that it is dangerous to move the vans. Most just shrugged. Some tried to help. Then I saw the blind fans trying to fight their way through a narrow gap. As I got more and more frustrated – it seemed clear that the problem would get much worse as more and more fans came – a police officer agreed to call his boss.
I explained that behind us were thousands of fans who needed to unblock. But without a commander to take control, the junior officers could do nothing. But again, why was nobody in charge here, at the danger points?
This is an important detail. The UEFA statement later said: In the run-up to the match, the turnstiles at the Liverpool end were blocked by thousands of fans who had bought fake tickets that didn’t work in the turnstiles. This led to a gathering of fans trying to get inside.
But that’s not entirely true. The initial build-up was caused by the sheer stupidity of the police cars, the authorities’ inability to adapt to the circumstances, and a horrible plan.
Fans were photographed climbing over railings at the Stade de France
The crowd was now uncomfortable. People were trying to navigate the dual carriageway, which was toll but had to climb over barriers. But the police blocked that.
Here, too, the reasons seem unclear. Meanwhile, people were scrambling over the barriers, either to get free or to find a way through. There were no public service announcements. As the predicted thousands more fans arrived, police lined up and stopped people in the street, but the line looked fragile. They could not hold back the rush of the growing number. You sensed they wouldn’t be in control for long.
Meanwhile, we slowly crept through the gap, the situation has incredibly deteriorated. Instead of going straight up a wide walkway to the Liverpool end, the police blocked that path. Liverpool fans were ushered onto a pavement no wider than two people. The queue slowed again.
Then, to compound the problem, riot police burst in and pushed people aside, presumably to deal with the situation behind us, which seemed to be spiraling out of control. Familiar scenes were later seen, riot police pushing fans back, children being tear gassed, fans climbing onto vans. To a dangerous, awkwardly handled situation, they added batons and shields and pepper gas.
A Liverpool fan appears to have been pushed away by a brutal French police officer outside the Stade de France
Extraordinarily, even back then, as we drove down the sidewalk, road works were blocking the footpath, meaning you had to navigate 90-degree angles almost in single file around them. Each point brought the thousands of fans to a standstill. A police officer, watching from a portakabin, taunted fans.
At that point, I protested to the police. You could feel the situation spiraling out of control: it had terrible echoes of past tragedies. The police with proper powers were not there to handle the situation. It was left to the juniors and they had no power to make the obvious changes to remove bottlenecks.
Nobody allowed us to enter the stadium via the many corridors. As we continued walking and now moving away from our destination it took us 20 minutes to reach the Real Madrid end of the stadium but now there was no way out, a huge crowd in front of us coming from the opposite direction.
All streamed towards a tiny, about 3-4m wide entry point for ticket holders. Stewards struggled to contain the crowd. There was no ticket control up to that point, so it was impossible to know who had tickets and who didn’t. There was no chance of reaching the front.
Liverpool fans appeared extremely distressed off the ground as the atmosphere in Paris turned sour
Only my media pass got me through a police checkpoint and into the ground. It had taken an hour to cover about 100 m. But even then, at 8pm, an hour before kick-off, I suspected those I had left behind would not make it to the 9pm kick-off. The queue wasn’t moving and obviously wouldn’t be for some time. Fans whistled in frustration. Police, stewards and UEFA officials look helpless.
I navigated through the media entrance and by the time I got inside the stadium the Liverpool end was less than a third full. Anyone in their right mind would have known there was a dangerous problem. Then came the delays, this blatant announcement from UEFA that it was caused by late fans, which was deceptive. And if fake tickets were going around, you know how did fans get to the turnstiles? They should have been sorted out long before then. Some would have risked it, but many would have been innocent and believed their tickets were real.
And we ended up crying, not because of the tear gas and pepper spray in the air, but because, 33 years after Hillsborough, the football authorities seem incapable of learning.