PARIS — French authorities faced a firestorm of criticism on Monday following the chaotic scenes of confusion and violence at the Champions league final between Real Madrid and Liverpool near Paris over the weekend, tarnishing France’s image as a capable host ahead of major sporting events like the 2024 Summer Olympics.
But the French government has acknowledged few failings, doubling down instead on its assertion that the chaos had been caused primarily by tens of thousands of Liverpool fans who converged on the Stade de France, the stadium north of Paris where the game was held, with fake tickets or no tickets at all.
Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said at a news conference on Monday that the “root cause” of the chaos was a “massive, industrial and organized fraud of fake tickets” — roughly 30,000 to 40,000, by his account, a figure he said was supported by UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.
“Obviously there is nothing to be proud of with what we saw Saturday evening,” Mr. Darmanin said, but he praised French police for preventing people from being injured or crushed to death.
Mr. Darmanin dismissed questions over France’s preparedness for the Summer Games and the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which the country is also hosting, as “disproportionate,” laying the blame for Saturday’s events squarely at British feet.
“Clearly there is only in soccer — and in particular, within soccer, with certain British clubs — that this kind of situation occurs,” he said — even though French soccer has faced rising violence itself, including on Sunday, when angry fans invaded the field of a game between Auxerre and Saint-Étienne.
Politicians in Britain and France have assailed French authorities for their handling of the situation and called for an investigation into crowd control and security failings at the stadium.
Many supporters complained about the aggressive use of tear gas and pepper spray by French police ahead of the game, and then over being targeted by pickpockets near the Stade de France after the game ended.
For France, the optics were not good.
“Yesterday, 400 million people watched live on television what I consider to be a humiliation for our country,” Michel Savin, a right-wing senator who chairs a parliamentary committee on sporting events, said in a statement on Sunday.
Stéphane Troussel, the head of the local council in Seine-Saint-Denis, where the Stade de France is located and where many Olympic events will be held in 2024, said Monday that he was “very angry.”
“It isn’t the first time that there are big events in this stadium, because the Stade de France has been in Saint-Denis for 24 years,” Mr. Troussel told Franceinfo. “It’s the third Champions League final that is organized there. I’ve never seen such disorganization.”
The final, which was supposed to be played in St. Petersburg but was moved to Paris after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is the biggest annual event on the European sports calendar — the continent’s equivalent of the Super Bowl — and was an opportunity for France to showcase its organizational skills for large-scale sporting events.
But it was clear several hours before the game started on Saturday that something had gone wrong.
Crowds surrounding the area outside the part of the stadium reserved for Liverpool fans, a crush of bodies in the club’s signature red, quickly overwhelmed staff responsible for checking tickets. But inside the Stade de France, thousands of seats in the Liverpool section were still empty as kickoff approached.
The start of the game was repeatedly delayed, and eventually kicked off 36 minutes late, and French riot police deployed outside the stadium were faced with a buildup of largely peaceful but increasingly frustrated crowds, many of whom said they had tickets to enter.
Making matters worse was the presence of local youths trying to make it into the stadium without tickets. Hundreds tried to scale fences — with many succeeding, as seen in social media posts. The police’s response appeared to have been to spray tear gas into the crowd, angering and scaring the waiting Liverpool fans.
The police then took the unprecedented step of locking down the Stade de France, with a UEFA official telling people trying to leave the stadium at halftime that it was safer to remain inside. That advice was not offered when the game ended, however, and several fans of both teams spoke of being harassed and mugged in the areas surrounding the stadium.
The scene prompted a barrage of attacks against the French government from the French far-right, which jumped on the chaos with its usual talking points on immigration and crime. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, said at a news conference that “hordes of criminals had descended on the Stade de France to rob and loot supporters.”
Across the English Channel, French authorities’ attempts to deflect blame onto Liverpool supporters only added to a long list of contentious issues in the rocky Franco-British relationship of recent years. Through a spokesman, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “hugely disappointed” by the treatment of Liverpool fans, who are especially marked by the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, when 96 fans were crushed to death in a stadium.
Joanne Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, writing on Twitter Sunday, said she was “disgusted by appalling management” and “brutal treatment” of the Liverpool fans by French police. She added that she had sent a letter to several officials, including Mr. Macron, for an explanation.
“Shameful to pin blame on fans,” Ms. Anderson said.
Liam Byrne, a British lawmaker who was in Paris to support Liverpool, expressed concern for what he described as the “narrative of lies” that fans were to blame for the problems.
“I’ve never ever seen a more hostile environment,” Mr. Byrne told the broadcaster Sky Sports. “From the outset the police, the security, everything about it was absolutely awful.”
The Merseyside Police, which serves Liverpool and which had deployed officers in France “in an observatory and advisory capacity,” said in a statement that “the vast majority of fans behaved in an exemplary manner, arriving at turnstiles early and queuing as directed.”
After a crisis meeting at the French sports ministry that included local officials, UEFA and police authorities, Mr. Darmanin, the interior minister, and Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, the sports minister, expressed regrets that an estimated 2,700 ticket-bearing fans had not been able to enter the stadium to watch the game.
They also acknowledged that the flow of Liverpool fans approaching the stadium could have been better handled, and that a handful of police officers had not used proper guidelines when using tear gas.
But they said that ticket fraud by Liverpool supporters was mostly to blame. According to Mr. Darmanin, 70 percent of tickets checked by stadium staff at initial checkpoints were fake.
“We had prepared a lot for hooliganism,” Mr. Darmanin said, but “a little less” for the confusion that occurred on Saturday.
It is not uncommon for fake tickets to circulate before major sporting events, and organizers typically have a plan to deal with those, including setting up checkpoints further away from the stadium. But many critics of France’s response say that the number of fakes alleged by French authorities was implausible.
Ronan Evain, the executive director of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organization of fan groups, who attended the game, said there were some supporters who had tried to enter with fake tickets or fake accreditation but that those numbers were “marginal.”
“They are trying to deflect the blame on Liverpool fans,” he said. “I think they are choosing between a domestic political crisis and a diplomatic crisis with the UK and they have chosen the second option.”
Source: NY Times