The system failed and we were lucky to avoid a major disaster
The bottleneck I was caught in at the Stade de France eight days ago was the one that would eventually trap Liverpool fans outside the ramp by Gate X, meaning by the time they got through the chaos of the random security check, it would be impossible for them to get inside the stadium less than 100 metres away.
In those minutes, my colleagues and I were stuck in a large, anxious crowd and all eyes were fixed on one point. That was the line of security guards who controlled access to the concourses we needed to reach and, in a more figurative way, dictated the mood of the crowd. The truth, as inescapable as the throng of bodies packed together in the evening sun, was that security and the police behind them did not know what they were doing. They were in chaos.
Whatever the Uefa review discovers, the hope is that it will officially acknowledge this above all: the crowd stayed calm. In doing so they saved the day. Informally, the governing body knows that it escaped a much worse outcome.
Watching from the stadium control centre in the build-up to kick-off, its officials could see that the French had fouled it up. On street level, one could see it in the faces of the suited officials who waited helplessly behind the security checks.
The system was broken and so what it came down to was the behaviour of the crowd. A crowd who were not to know that many of them would later be locked out, in parts tear-gassed and even targeted by criminal gangs. That was the second part of the Stade de France catastrophe.
The first part unfolded in the hours before kick-off and I know that because for a time I was there.
It has been some small consolation to see that the truth has been swifter than usual to don its trousers and get out in pursuit of the lie.
The early attempts at a cover-up by French interior minister Gerald Darmanin have gone into reverse. French president Emmanuel Macron’s sympathetic remarks have signalled a more conciliatory approach from the French authorities. They are beginning to realise, as Uefa did on the night, that they got away with one.
The strange part is that it has still been a challenge to convince some people that this was a bad experience only prevented from being much worse by fans: Liverpool fans, Real Madrid fans. The notion of what some people think happened, fuelled by fragments caught on video co-opted into a false narrative, has been striking. The simplest way to explain to the sceptical has been to say: this is what I saw.
First of all, that bottleneck I was caught in was unremarkable in its composition. Which is to say it was mainly people like me: middle-aged men who like football. There were many women, too, and the occasional child. An Irish Liverpool fan crammed in my personal space by dint of pure necessity made conversation in the interests of politeness. He told me he had seen it before at the Stade de France watching rugby. That observation first put the idea in my head that this was not a one-off.
Ahead of me a bemused hospitality guest in a blue blazer waved his laminated pass as if it might magically mean he was plucked out of this anxious throng. People made way for parents with children. There were some accusations that a man leaning on the wall by the ramp was trying to steal tickets, but those who got through were just too worried about friends to make a scene.
There was no designated exit route for removing people judged to have counterfeit tickets. They were just thrust back into the crowd. The security guard closest to me was soaked, with his sweat and that of those whom he allowed to squeeze past.
Just behind my colleague, Jason Burt, I finally reached the security line at about 7.15pm. The official Uefa media accreditation lanyards usually work like magic around a stadium. One glance and you get waved through. But here it seemed just as useless as everyone else’s credentials.
A man in a suit was summoned to approve me. The security guard was so distracted that he kept hold of my lanyard while we waited, distractedly pulling on it while he dealt with others, tipping my head towards him like a reluctant Labrador refusing his walk.
Only in the following hour, as it became clear that the problem was getting worse, did we compile the first story of the night.
Our initial assumption was that we had seen the problems at the worst point and things would improve. Besides, there are whole concertos played on tiny violins for football reporters who complain about hassle getting into big matches. But worse it got.
For those who were locked out, tear-gassed, manhandled, robbed, a very fundamental sense of humiliation. An investment — financial and emotional — in attending an event such as a Champions League final collapsing in the starkest terms. They have my sympathy. My experience was just a fraction of that, but I do know what I saw. The crowd behaved themselves. The system failed.
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