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Free Lions Fans’ Embassy statement: Serious issues in Gelsenkirchen

Following the issues experienced by supporters at England’s opening Euro 2024 game against Serbia last night, our Free Lions Fans’ Embassy team have issued the following statement:

We would like to place on record our thanks to fans who have reached out to share their experiences yesterday. We are dismayed at what fans have had to go through at yesterday’s game in Gelsenkirchen.

To see fans stranded in Gelsenkirchen Hauptbahnhof three hours after the game has finished due to transport problems at a major tournament is quite simply ridiculous.

Ahead of the tournament we made it clear to UEFA and the authorities that many, many thousands of England fans would be travelling to Gelsenkirchen from the outer towns and cities in North Rhine-Westphalia and that transport back to Gelsenkirchen Hauptbahnhof from Arena AufSchalke had to be the biggest priority.

If UEFA are going to allocate a 9pm kick-off slot on a Sunday evening to any venue then they need to guarantee that transport arrangements are in place that allow all fans, including those going to fan zones, to travel safely, comfortably and conveniently both to, and crucially back from the venue.

If a host city is being used which can’t accommodate the inevitable huge numbers in their city centre public spaces, then the role of a fan zone becomes even more important. Fans need to be able to get to and from any fan zone quickly and safely. In Gelsenkirchen, the FSA raised these issues with all relevant authorities well in advance, and were informed that necessary arrangements had been put in place to satisfy the potential demand. We were therefore extremely disappointed to see that the reality did not match up to the promises made.

The late opening of the fan zone and the delayed start to the shuttle bus service were an early harbinger of the chaotic transport failures that blighted the day for so many England fans. Transport from the Trabrennbahn Gelsenkirchen (the racecourse fan zone) to the stadium was chaotic with insufficient capacity, with trams arriving already full of fans travelling from Essen. Despite the attendance at the racecourse being significantly less than supposedly planned for, it seemed to be too much for the available transport and the management of this was clumsy and poor.

Transport from the city centre to the stadium has demonstrated very similar problems: not enough capacity, poor queue management and communication and severe delays to services.

At and around the stadium itself, logistical arrangements were equally problematic.

We were appalled to learn that despite being told the plans for fans that needed accessible assistance to use the Willy-Brandt-Allee tram stop, which is one stop before the stadium from the city centre, trams didn’t end up stopping here.

Instead, fans who needed assistance were taken direct to the Veltins Arena tram stop, one we were told was not fit for those needing assistance, asked to change platforms and return to Willy-Brandt-Allee. This sort of organisation shows a complete disregard for those with accessibility needs.

Following the game, we also have concerns once again about the lack of signage, lighting and volunteers guiding fans outside the stadium to local transport options. At the Veltins Arena tram stop there were long waits for trams back to the city with no communication from the authorities. Too many England fans found themselves involved in dangerous levels of overcrowding and were confronted with still being in the city three hours after the game finished, still facing travel to surrounding towns and cities to their accommodation.

It is remarkable that, despite facing the consequences of such inadequate provision and negligent crowd management, the thousands of England fans present remained overwhelmingly calm, restrained and compliant, thus helping to avoid more serious consequences. It was those same England fans who were singled out for a supposed ban on public alcohol consumption in certain parts of the city centre, a measure that the FSA had warned was unnecessary and potentially counter-productive. In practice, that ban never materialised without negative consequences.

There is a very real prospect that England could return to this venue for the Round of 16 on June 30th – another Sunday evening fixture. Although kick-off on that occasion would be at 6pm, there would also be the possibility of extra-time and penalties, and another late departure in darkness.

It is clear to us that an urgent and thorough review of arrangements is needed before that event, with lessons learnt and dramatically enhanced provisions put in place. The initial defensive response of authorities locally suggests a complacency out of sync with what was required. The FSA, along with the FA and the UK Police, engaged with local authorities in advance of the first game and it is essential that we are involved in any review of plans. We had many positive experiences engaging with some excellent stakeholders in Gelsenkirchen prior to the first game, and we are more than willing to continue to engage in that process. It is to be hoped that for the next game, what is promised in those discussions is far more accurately reflected in what is actually delivered.

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