Champions League Final: What Went Wrong?

Lina Kolesnikova, security and crisis management expert looks into the 2022 Stade de France incident including its crowd management, policing, and event management

France is one of the longest established and most reliable hosts of major sporting events. However, the security of future events and the country’s way of dealing with big sporting events was challenged on 28th of May 2022 during the UEFA Men’s Champions League Final between English team Liverpool and Spanish team Real Madrid. The event took place at the Stade de France (Saint-Denis), the biggest stadium in France. The high-profile incident involved legitimate ticket holders not managing to get into the match; people without tickets managing to get in, bypassing the controls; and legitimate visitors being confronted by the police or by local gangs (depriving visitors of their tickets and valuable belongings on their way to and from the match). The official reactions, and especially, the early comments on causes and circumstances, were disastrous and led to a loss of confidence.

There are many questions to be raised on the incident itself, as well as legitimate concerns on how France will deal with the upcoming men’s Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympic Games of 2024. The observed approach saw supporters regarded and treated as a threat to urban security, no organisation with a clear leadership role in the event management, flaws in coordination, crowd control, basic street security, crisis response and communication and left many people in a profound state of shock.

The aim of this article is to look at the sequence of failures at pre- and post-event periods, in the hope that lessons will be drawn and forthcoming events in France will employ different approach(es).

Pre-event (before the match):
Most but not all issues making up this Paris incident started well before the match. There were even issues which originated far away from the match venue. The following talking points could be listed in no particular order: not-as-intended information and guidance for the route from the RER station to the stadium; access denied to spectators with tickets; re-sale of stolen tickets by personnel; access of ticketless opportunists to the match and access to the stadium by a ticketless mob (what about the terrorist threat?). Other talking points include: slow pre-screening; understaffing and unexperienced staff; no crowd management initiatives from police; excessive use of police force oppressing supporters; delay of the match for 36 minutes and no drinking water for people stuck waiting for three hours.

Two fan zones were set up: close to the venue, in Saint-Denis for supporters of Real Madrid (capacity 6,000 people) and, much farther way, for Liverpool supporters in more central Paris (capacity 44,000). At 5pm, fans started to move to the Stade de France.

For people from the first fan zone, it was a 15 minute walk to the stadium. This went reasonably well, though there were some attacks by criminal groups on Spanish supporters already reported around that time.

Those who were in the centre, many of whom were Brits, had three options for public transport: line 13 of the metro (not as convenient as the RER), RER D, and RER B (“RER” is an acronym for Réseau Express Régional, or Regional Express Network, and refers to the rapid transit system which serves Paris and its surrounding suburbs).

Coincidentally, and revealing a lack of control and monitoring, the most convenient and the would be most-used line, RER B, went on strike that day. Assumingly, it still provided a limited service as 6,200 people still used RER B. Meanwhile c.37,000 used RER D to get to the venue.

The high-level logistics planned for users of line RER D to use the same route (from the station to the stadium) as passengers of line RER B. This route goes along the rue Stade de France, which is 20 m wide and designed for a crowd. The ticket pre-filtering was also set up on this street.

Translation from high-level planning to the actual ground did not go well though, as planners probably did not walk the route to see how it looked and did not ensure the correct guidance and communication. Fans who left the RER D station ended up following a different route. First, they took the presumed correct direction. But 200 m down the road, they “naturally” followed a road sign, which indicated to turn left and had Stade de France marked on it. The law enforcement personnel present at the site did not correct them as they did not consider “providing guidance” to be part of their responsibility, or, possibly, they were not aware they may need to insist on fans taking a certain route. Then the crowd crossed the underbridge passage and arrived at a location that was not the one planned for the main crowd. A bottleneck quickly formed, as fans arrived at the limited throughput pre-filtering location and subsequent controls, equipped with only up to 10 lines maximum. This is where the main troubles began.

First of all, the facility was heavily understaffed and those who were hired for the match were rather inexperienced. As people continued to arrive, the lines were not followed. People then dispersed onto the adjacent national road, which was partly blocked by police vehicles. The instructions were very controversial: people at the head of the line were told to push back but people at the rear were instructed to push forward in order to get out of the road. Pre-screening was handled by Stade de France and there were many issues with the technical side of the equipment. A struggling mass of people and chaos… This moment saw the arrival of locals and migrants who provoked fighting, and took the opportunity to mug people with tickets and the use of these stolen tickets to enter the stadium via other entrances, a bit later. The chaos also enabled ticketless opportunists to climb over the fence. There were also reported cases of the re-sale of stolen tickets by stewards. There were also people with disabilities among the spectators, who were robbed. They were left neglected by the organisers.

At this moment, the police stepped in. As Paris Police chief Didier Lallement explained later, they were scared that the crowd could turn unmanageable and those who were closer to the fences could be crushed. Police closed the gates and started to push people back from the fences. Police gassed people who did not show any hostility, including families with children and people with disabilities.

At least, 2,700 Liverpool fans (with families, kids, etc.) were unable to attend the match even though they had valid tickets and showed up in time.

Post-event (after the match)
Needless to say, that for thousands of those robbed fans and those who were not allowed in, the match was over and their experience of the event was completely ruined. But for those who managed to get into the match, there were bad surprises to come too.

There were reported attacks before the match but there was an avalanche after the match, with criminal attacks on spectators by local gangs and migrants and a lack of police force against criminal groups.

Spectators (British, Spanish and others) were attacked both before and after the match, especially those who had to go to the stations or to the carparks. Many people were beaten, mugged, assaulted physically and verbally. Unfortunately, there was no evidence of active police measures to stop this. It has even been alleged that, more than once, law enforcement personnel ignored attacks that they could have seen.

The situation leaves a large open question on how France will handle larger and longer forthcoming events, if a one-off event took that turn. On a positive note, the French government has promised to increase the number of police force by extra 1000 agents in Paris before the Olympic Games. Whether or not this will be sufficient for securing larger multi-venue and multi-day events, time will tell.

Post-event (reaction)
If the above was not enough on its own to raise eyebrows and concerns, the authorities nailed it by revealing the destruction of surveillance footage, which could otherwise serve as evidence; voicing the blame strategy and publishing a questionnaire for British and Spanish supporters, which ignored the issue of excessive use of police force.

Some of the most severe criticism was levelled at the French authorities – particularly, the French minister of the interior, Gerald Darmanin, and Paris Police chief Didier Lallement – who, the day after the incident, blamed British fans and ticket scammers for the issues. Darmanin claimed that about 30,000 to 40,000 British supporters had showed up for the match, either without tickets or with fake ones. Such high numbers attracted immediate scepticism from security professionals and football clubs alike.

An inquiry was arranged and conducted. On 13 July, the French Senate published its own 14-page investigative report entitled ‘Champions League Final: An Unavoidable Fiasco’. The report says that police used tear gas on the crowd, including children and other innocent bystanders. People had been bitten and pickpocketed, but the police were unable to stop such acts, nor arrest the perpetrators, the report continues. The French Senate went on to say it hopes that the report will help avoid similar incidents at sporting events hosted by France.

In democratic societies, the post-crisis phase is increasingly marked by intense politicization. Even while the crisis is still unfolding, the drama of accountability and blame begins. This situation creates a real challenge with regard to accountability and an attempt to avoid blame by political leadership. We might, therefore, witness another crisis in the aftermath of the original crisis event.

Early statements by the French authorities, issued shortly after the event, can be regarded from the point of view of a blame game in that there were attempts to find excuses or scapegoats. With emerging evidence and the Senate report, the blame management strategy has once again proven to be ineffective and counterproductive. Could the authorities have anticipated such an outcome, and if so, why did they continue to pursue this course?

First, the negative image of British fans could have played a role, even though British organisations have done a lot in recent years to improve fans’ behaviour. That perception legacy could be one of the sources of the early blame, as it is likely that the French authorities did not have their fingers on the pulse of related developments in the football industry preceding the event.
Secondly, underestimation of the impact upon the gathered people might have led to a temporary belief that this was about a ‘voiceless crowd’. In reality, modern information dissemination led to the almost instant ignition of comments on social networks and the topic became viral. The ‘crowd’ included multiple prominent individuals from the world of football and beyond, who are used to high-profile events and are not shy of speaking up.

Thirdly, many fans are not a bunch of isolated individuals, but members of organised football groups that operate with, and are supported by very rich football clubs. Such organisations, certainly the wealthier football clubs, have legal and communication departments, and these did not leave their organised fans defenceless. They raised their voices in defence of the affected fans and joined the loud public outcry.

To draw a line under the blame game, UEFA finally reported only 2,800 fake tickets counted overall, a far cry from the initial claim by French authorities.

Something else to pay attention to, too… When we talk about security of a sport event with mass attendance, securing the venue
is not enough. One should also look at the area where the sport facility is located. Stadium and event operators can no longer consider the space outside the stadium as the responsibility of others. These areas form crucial elements to the safe arrival and departure of spectators and need full and open discussion with all stakeholders to develop coordinated plans for their safe management. The proof of that was seen last May.


View the latest
digital issue