for once it’s the stills that capture the scene better than the videos. If you were to base your impression of the hellscape in Paris on Saturday night solely on the grainy, shaky moving footage, you’d probably conclude it was a lawless, seething moshpit of disorder: youths scaling barbed fences, gates rattling and clatter, a ceaseless stream of tear gas and batons. But the overwhelming feeling conveyed by the thousands of fans outside the Stade de France was stagnation: the silent, simmering frustration that nothing moved, nothing changed, nothing happened, a sea of frustrated humanity patiently waiting hour after hour waited as if queuing for bread.
So much for what. The multiple humiliations and inconveniences faced by fans at Saturday’s Champions League final – long lines, denied entry, lack of stewards and security personnel, police brutality – were well documented in the days that followed. What’s missing from all of this is a sense of why. Why did Uefa and French authorities allow this flagship event to turn so disastrous? Was it simply a large-scale outburst of bureaucratic incompetence? Or was something more sinister at work?
Perhaps the most puzzling element of Saturday’s anger was its randomness. Some Liverpool fans immediately yelled revenge for the establishment, but in fact Real Madrid fans have also been caught up in the chaos. VIPs and corporate guests complained about unbearable queues and rough treatment. The Spanish sports minister reported that he had to wait an hour to gain entry to the stadium. Even commentator Jim Beglin – no, not Jim Beglin – recounted being ambushed by armed gangs outside the Stade de France.
None of the traditional models of football governance offer a satisfactory explanation for this. For years we have been told that football is selling its soul for profit, that fans have been turned into customers, that the sport itself is run like a business and the corporate euro is king. But tickets for the final have sold for as much as £600. In which vision of consumer capitalism are the premium customers penned up like animals? What clear-thinking industry unloads tear gas on children? Among many other things, Saturday’s events in Paris should force us to reconsider our knowledge of how power works in football.
One of the great misconceptions about modern football is that it is a creature of pure market forces. In fact, the game has never been a free market in the truest sense of the word: access is limited, choice is limited, fans don’t switch teams or sports on a whim. In many ways they are not empowered consumers but captive subjects, and over time the relationship increasingly reflected this dynamic: a small and unaccountable ruling class obsessed not just with profit but with power, not just enrichment , but of exploitation.
“Whoever says organization says oligarchy,” wrote the sociologist Robert Michels in 1911. Michels posited that all complex organizations—however democratic—inevitably tend toward inefficiency, tyranny, and the minority rule of a privileged few. The levers of power inevitably create opportunities to consolidate that power. Those with wealth increasingly base their priorities on protecting it.
Do you remember anything special? Football has not turned into a consumer utopia in the last 30 years. She became an oligarchy: cynical, greedy, secretive and inherently hostile to those below her. Rules and laws can be twisted and subverted. Public space must be strictly demarcated and guarded. Disinformation is not only rife, it’s necessary: Witness the haste with which authorities laid the line that late unticketed comers were to blame for the problems, the systematic attempts to paint fans as subversive rabble.
The idea that modern fans – even well-heeled fans, even Jim Beglin – could somehow acquire a stake in the game through their season tickets has been exposed as brutal fiction. As it turned out, Uefa didn’t need any of you. It had Camila Cabello, a bulging portfolio of blue-chip sponsors and a bank of television cameras showing the event to a global audience. As far as the crowds outside the gates mattered, they did so not as participants, let alone customers, but as a potential threat.
Michels, who incidentally later joined Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, offered some glimmers of hope. The first was that oligarchies are by definition bellicose in character and will compete just as fiercely with one another. The unsatisfactory power struggle between Uefa, Fifa and the big clubs may be at the root of much of football’s dysfunction, but it’s also probably the closest thing to a system of checks and balances. The second is that as societies mature, they develop the tools for criticism and resistance. For many fans and pundits, breaking out of the Super League was a step in that process: a realization that those in power didn’t have their best interests at heart and never did.
But the bottom line is that millions of people need football in their lives just as they need food and water, and as long as demand remains insatiable, those with their fingers on supply will keep squeezing. And so we have the tableau that unfolded on Saturday: The world’s most lavish club game takes place just off one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods, while thousands of men, women and children queue for hours outside. They struggle at the gates, they choke on exhaust fumes, some curse and scream and some are quietly desperate. But everyone asks to be let in.