Editor’s note: On 18 May, Liverpool took on Madrid in the 2022 Champions League final in the Stade de France in St Denis on the outskirts of Paris. Originally planned to take place in St Petersburg, the game was moved to Paris at short notice following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. This may be the reason why on the evening of the game, many fans who were waiting to gain entrance on the ‘Liverpool’ side of the stadium experienced the nightmare of getting crushed in a crowd with very little chance of escape. Liverpool fan Peter Rafferty got caught up in the chaos. This is his account of what happened.
Liverpool v Madrid in Paris
I should have seen it. It was there right in front of me, and I missed it. Like one of those clues in the early scenes of a film that, if you watch ever so carefully, turns out to be an incident, a very small incident that gives the ending away.
For me, it was the queue for the train ticket machines at Charles de Gaulle airport on Saturday morning of the Champions League final. This should have given me a discrete clue about the chaotically disorganised preparations for the world’s biggest club football event being held that night at France’s national sporting stadium, the Stade de France in the Parisienne suburb of St Denis.
It is the most dangerous match I have ever attended.
Chaotic transport planning
This queue at Charles de Gaulle involved everyone. General travellers visiting the city, and all the football supporters arriving that day from both Liverpool and Madrid. Unlike the events just a few hours later there was no fuss or impatience, just long quiet and patient lines of people.
It is worth saying that three years earlier, the Champions League final host city Madrid made public transport free to the arriving supporters of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It made a difference to everyone. On that day, it took only minutes to travel from the airport to the city centre on the Metro.
In Paris, despite this ticket machine delay, we made our way along with thousands of others to the Place de Nation where our group enjoyed a meal at a small and very friendly local restaurant, bought some beers at a supermarket, and then for an hour or so enjoyed the sun in the Parisienne spring. Joyful.
Positive mood of Liverpool fans
We moved a short distance to the Cours de Vincennes and joined in with Jamie Webster’s amazing set, in front of an estimated exuberant 50,000 Liverpool fans. When this was finished we headed to the Stade de France giving us, and many, many others, about three and a half hours to complete the 13km journey… which should have been a 30 minute walk or ten minutes by train.
The train journey was fine, we arrived at the designated station and headed to the ground – a further 1.2km. We stopped for a beer at a busy restaurant with both Liverpool and Real Madrid supporters enjoying the relaxed setting. Not a single hint of trouble, no suspicion of the darkness that lay ahead. Just optimism and excitement.
With kick-off time still some two and a half hours away, we headed towards the ground, a journey of just 600m. We reckoned that even taking into account security checks we would be sitting in our seats maybe 45 minutes later.
Remember those train ticket machines at Charles de Gaulle Airport?
Some 50m into this part of our journey we turned right into Rue Jean-Philippe Rameau, only to be met by a line of police preventing any further progress. No indication why, but with an increasingly big group of fans behind us, pressure was starting to build.
About 15 minutes later the crowd was released and moved forwards and then down into the pedestrian underpass beneath the N1 and A13 motorway. Here the massive crowd, squashed together, completely filling the length and breadth of the tunnel – no room to move or to get out, just slowly moving forward underneath the main roads above. The mood of the crowd was still cheerful, with songs, chants and anticipation, completely unaware of the serious problems that were already developing just a short distance ahead.
Panic and anger start to set in
Another 30 to 45 minutes later we were out of this underpass and onto the pavement – running alongside the gridlocked N13 – back in the sun. By now the atmosphere had significantly changed. Anger, frustration, the start of a sense of panic… thousands of people, young, old… everyone crammed together with no room to move and no understanding as to why this was happening.
We found ourselves crammed on one side against the concrete wall of the stadium rampway and on the other side were crammed cars on the slip road. Beyond that was the motorway. Unable to move forwards or backwards, we were all caught in this horrific logjam.
Above us on the rampway were stewards, gendarmeries and riot police. We shouted up to them to help. Attempts were made to scramble up and over the wall, only for those who were successful to be forced back into the crowd by the baton-wielding riot police.
Other than keeping the rampway clear, the crowd control had descended into chaos and panic… and then the police left, leaving behind the bewildered and unprepared stewards. Without the threat of violence, we could now get people up and over the high wall. Those agile enough could clamber up, some had to be lifted and then physically pulled over.
“We’ve been here before, we know what to do”
Amongst this chaos was help and support for each other, staying calm, an almost ingrained sixth sense of “we’ve been here before, we know what to do”. And we did.
I was going to write that “I’ve never been so scared at a football match” but this is wrong. The correct sentence reads, “I’ve never been so scared”.
We regrouped. Found a place to meet up at the end of the match and then headed to the entrance gates and into the ground. Meanwhile, the chaos got worse.
My ticket took me to Gate B.
The surreal journey there took me around the perimeter fence and to the long queue of about 20–30m and about five people wide. As I arrived the gate had just been locked with no information as to why. An announcement was made in the stadium that the match had been delayed, but I only found this out via a phone call home back to my wife. The consensus of the conversation around us was that the game would go ahead with the crowd who were currently locked out dispersed and sent away.
Chaos and police brutality at the gates
Meanwhile, visible through the iron perimeter fence, the riot police were in place and ready for action. Supporters inside the fence were protesting to the stewards, while the riot police contributed nothing other than offering a threatening presence and chasing (unsuccessfully) the locals who knew very well which parts of the perimeter fence were easiest to climb over.
Then Gate B opened, people tumbled in, with no tickets asked for and no turnstiles in operation. And almost immediately the gates were slammed shut. I found myself in the outer concourse and discovered my son and his friend, who should have been inside the ground via Gate Z, there in front of me still outside the ground, their gate closed… what do you do?
Many people were affected by the indiscriminate use of batons, tear gas and pepper spray.
Perhaps the only thing I am certain of from everything we witnessed and experienced was that despite all of the confusion and mayhem, the Liverpool supporters did not contribute to any of it; not one single bit. The behaviour of the Liverpool fans was exemplary.
The match got played and Liverpool lost, but it really didn’t matter.
We all met up afterwards, tear gas in the air, eyes stinging. Somehow we avoided the muggings and the robberies. We travelled back to Charles de Gaulle, flew back to Liverpool John Lennon, and waiting there for us were queues for taxis.
Editor’s note:There is something noteworthy about the chain of events as reported in the media. Whereas fans of both teams were at risk of being mugged, the congestion and police action only happened at the Liverpool entrances. And the organisers and local authorities were quick to suggest that the British Hooligans were to blame.
Two days later there was a hint of an apology as the French authorities voiced their “regret” over how the situation at the “Liverpool fan gates” was handled, but not without claiming that the chaos was due to 30,000 Liverpool fans who turned up either without tickets or with fake ones. Although this version was strongly contested by journalists and other voices, it did not deter some from blaming the Liverpool fans for what happened to them.
UEFA has now commissioned a full inquiry into all incidents in connection to the 2022 Champions League Final.
The other thing of note is the difference between the responses of the Madrid and Liverpool fans. While Madrid fans were confident in blaming the French authorities for what happened, in stark contrast Liverpool fans found themselves instinctively having to defend their actions from unfounded allegations. The official narrative was that somehow they were to blame for being put through an ordeal that made many fear for their lives.
As Peter pointed out, Liverpool fans have been here before. To this day, the families of Hillsborough victims await a formal apology from the authorities.
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