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Stade de France: Patience before provocation “a testament” to Liverpool supporters

Following on from the weekend’s chaotic scenes at the Champions League final, UEFA have said an independent investigation will be taking place – but supporters remain adamant that serious change is needed to prevent a repeat.

Despite what the authorities have been saying, thousands of supporters have produced evidence that the crowd management, security and ticketing systems at the final were woefully unprepared.

One of those supporters caught up in the over-crowding in St Denis was Spirit of Shankly’s management committee member Anna Burgess who, a seasoned traveller of many European away trips with Liverpool, recalled her experiences of the final with us.

Problems building

Sadly, Anna says the experience was the worst ever experienced on a European away trip in her lifetime and soured what has been an exceptional season for the Reds.

“We’ve been to many European venues over the years,” Anna says. “We’re experienced travellers – we know the pitfalls of European aways, what problems you can encounter so we’re especially prepared.

“A few years ago in Seville we were faced with extraordinary hostility from the police and stewards, who were extremely aggressive but it pales in comparison to what we experienced in Paris.

“In my lifetime we’ve never seen any on this scale.”

Comparisons to Hillsborough have sadly already been drawn. On Monday Liverpool MP and Hillsborough survivor Ian Byrne said the final in Paris was his worst experience at a football match since that awful day in 1989.

“It was a horrendous crush,” Anna told us. “That’s particularly harrowing for our friends who survived Hillsborough – it brought all that trauma back.

“That’s all I’ve been thinking about.”

Like thousands of other supporters, Anna arrived at the ground with plenty of time to spare – at around 7.50pm but already there was significant congestion building at key choke points around the ground.

It took more than ten minutes to get through the first filter point alone, but after that things came to a standstill.

“Everything looked really slow, we could see the ground but needed to go beyond the big crowd that had formed to get to our section.

“As we got further on we realised no-one was getting through and that we couldn’t really move.

“There was a great convergence of people, but no one was saying to us when we arrived that the gates ahead were shut – that’s when we began to feel something really bad was happening.”

The lack of crowd management and crucial communication was evident to everyone trying to get into the Stade de France last weekend. Problems with UEFA’s entry system were also reported by spectators in the neutral section and corporate seats.

On the ground though, Anna says Liverpool fans were left to speculate. With things at a standstill, many fearing for their personal safety opted to leave by the only means available – scaling the perimeter fencing.

“There were no stewards,” Anna said. “No one could speak English. We know a bit of French so we asked a police officer what was going on – he said I don’t know.

“No-one was there to give us any information.”

The lack of communication meant fans stuck outside only learned about the delay to kick-off by overhearing the in-stadium announcement over the public address.

“We were all so calm,” Anna says. “The vast majority were so patient – we knew we needed to look after each other here.

“I genuinely think it’s down to the fans behaving in that exemplary way that avoided a major incident.”

Policing

Reports and videos on social media have shone a terrible light on how the fixture was handled by the French police.

Particularly shocking videos shared on social media showed French police pepper spraying compliant Liverpool fans indiscriminately.

Liverpool’s disabled supporter group reported its own members, including wheelchair users and children, being tear gassed and pepper-sprayed by the French police.

“When we were stuck, from nowhere police came through,” Anna says. “Riot shields up, barging people out of the way.

“Their actions obviously caused panic, the police had no control of the perimeter. There were altercations with local gangs, locals scaling fences completely unopposed.

“No doubt the police caused injuries. Their behaviour could have caused deaths. It’s absolutely outrageous, we’re still in shock about it.”

Post-game narrative

Rather than own up to or reflect on their failures in the face of overwhelming evidence, the French authorities dusted off the tried and tested “blame the fans” playbook from years past.

As soon as the game had to be delayed to get thousands of supporters into the ground, organisers blamed “late arriving fans” for the disorder.

After the match, this would then be revised to thousands trying to gain entry without tickets or using one of the 40,000 fake tickets alleged to have been produced.

“We knew the narrative wasn’t true,” Anna said. “We weren’t late – and the thousands around us weren’t late. We immediately knew they were lying to absolve themselves.

“Given our history you think ‘here we go again’. The fact they’re changing their story makes it even worse. Why are they making these things up when there hasn’t even been an investigation yet?”

Since the weekend, UEFA has announced that a formal investigation into the final’s operation will be taking place and it will include supporter representatives from Football Supporters Europe and Liverpool supporter groups.

Despite that, no public apology to supporters caught up in the chaos has been forthcoming and the line from French ministers in the media remains unchanged.

Anna said: “And at the end of the game riot police lined up on the track in front of our end.

“Shields up, it set a tone – we thought ‘what the hell is this?’. There had been no trouble from us inside the ground. It was like they were trying to antagonise us.

“We’re so proud of the team, we always stay and watch them get their medals. But not on Saturday, we just wanted to get out of there.”

Change needed

The debacle at the Stade de France has highlighted how – despite progress being made in crowd management, policing and stewarding over the decades – English fans are still far too often policed based on history rather than present-day behaviour.

French police prepared themselves for a 1980-style battle with English hooligans that largely don’t exist amongst Liverpool’s support. Coupled with a breakdown in basic crowd management this was a recipe for disaster, this left law-abiding fans to deal with the consequences.

“Our friends are saying they won’t be going to another European final if we’re lucky enough to get to one,” Anna told us. “It’s a prestigious event, with people paying hundreds of Euros to attend and they’re being treated appallingly.

“It’s a shame to finish the season on such a sour note.”

Football Supporters Europe (FSE), who represent fans across the continent, will be compiling fans’ experiences and gathering evidence to take to UEFA. Anna has been working with FSE and Liverpool’s supporter union Spirit of Shankly (SoS) to offer support to those affected by the weekend’s events.

“We’re working with SoS to make sure our stories are told,” she said. “And to make sure what we experienced is out there.

“We were policed on the outdated reputation of English fans but the way we conducted ourselves is a testament to our support.”

Aswell as highlighting serious failures of policing and crowd management, Anna says the incident presents an opportunity to push for more supporter-focused cup finals.

“Part of the problem is that out of a huge 75,000-capacity stadium, only 20,000 went to our club.

“There simply aren’t enough tickets going to normal supporters.

“The whole thing needs reform – FSE, fan groups, all supporters need to push to try and change that.”

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