Champions League Member Insights UEFA

Member Insights: Lessons must be learnt from the 2022 Champions League Final

March 1, 2023

In this Member Insights piece, David Alexander the Managing Director of Calacus PR, looks into the shambles that was the 2022 Champions League final and what we need to learn from it.

The events in Paris for the UEFA Champions League Final last season brought back horrible memories of past footballing tragedies.

Liverpool played Juventus in the European Cup Final of 1985 at the Heysel Stadium in Belgium, with disorder leading to 39 fans dying and English clubs being banned from European football for five years.

Four years later, disaster struck again when 97 Liverpool fans died ahead of the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground.

More than 700 fans were injured and have fought for years to get justice after initially being blamed for the crush which led to the fatalities.

As recently as the end of January this year, police chiefs have apologised for their handling of the situation and the ‘deflection and denial’ which has led to court cases, tribunals and finally a recognition that Liverpool fans were entirely blameless.

History may have repeated itself in Paris last season, though, with the final against Real Madrid delayed after problems for fans getting into the Stade de France.

Witnesses described seeing fans scared for their lives, being pushed and assaulted by the French police, who fired teargas into crowds outside the stadium.

Broadcast coverage then reported that UEFA had blamed the delays to the start of the game on the late arrival of Liverpool fans.

The European governing body later suggested that fake tickets were the cause of the overcrowding and delays and issues a statement saying: “In the lead-up to the game, the turnstiles at the Liverpool end became blocked by thousands of fans who had purchased fake tickets which did not work in the turnstiles.

“This created a build-up of fans trying to get in. As a result, the kick-off was delayed by 35 minutes to allow as many fans as possible with genuine tickets to gain access.

“As numbers outside the stadium continued to build up after kick-off, the police dispersed them with tear gas and forced them away from the stadium.

“UEFA is sympathetic to those affected by these events and will further review these matters urgently together with the French police and authorities, and with the French Football Federation.”

That version of events was questioned by Merseyside police, which said the “vast majority of fans behaved in an exemplary manner” in “shocking circumstances”.

And the French Senate backed up Liverpool’s claims, with a report which identified French police failings, having misjudged Liverpool fans’ conduct and dated in its approach.

The report also found “major shortcomings on intelligence” – noting that there had been “an absence of hooligans” and instead, at a local French level, a “presence of delinquents in large numbers.” 

The senate found there had been a failure to anticipate transport flows of supporters on the night, with pre-screening security points near the stadium leading to checkpoints becoming bottlenecks. 

It was revealed that two French police officers were being investigated for disproportionate use of teargas against Liverpool supporters with the report adding that it “had contributed to a feeling among supporters that excessive force, or even police violence, had been used against them.”

Eight months after the final, UEFA have finally had to admit that the buck stops with them after an Independent Review Panel they had commissioned found that they had ‘marginalised’ their own safety and security unit.

The panel rejected ‘reprehensible’ claims made persistently by UEFA, the French police and government ministers, that thousands of Liverpool fans without valid tickets had caused the problems. 

The report added: “It is remarkable that no one lost their life. All the stakeholders interviewed by the panel have agreed that this situation was a near-miss: a term used when an event almost turns into a mass fatality catastrophe.

“The parallels between Hillsborough 1989 and Paris 2022 are palpable. The similarities include the fact that both events were preventable and both were caused by the failures of those responsible for public safety. Neither was a ‘black swan’ event, or the result of a ‘perfect storm’. Both events were foreseeable.

“In the judgement of the panel, the different outcomes were a matter of chance. In one, nearly a hundred died, the other none — but through no merit of those in charge.”

It was particularly damning for UEFA that UEFA’s safety and security unit played no part in planning for the match, nor in dealing with the crisis as it happened.

The decision to delay kick-off was made by UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin and the Panel added: “The panel has concluded that UEFA, as event owner, bears primary responsibility for failures which almost led to disaster.

“Subsequently, UEFA has not recognised its own role or that of other stakeholders in the problems on the night. The panel is left with a sense of real concern at the lack of insight into what occurred on 28th May and the failure to recognise the role of the authorities. The panel is also troubled by a number of stark differences as to the facts of what happened, and a general default position of blaming the Liverpool supporters, without any proper evidential basis.”

The report makes 21 recommendations for to improve , including for safety and security to be put at the centre of match planning with calls for UEFA to publish an action plan and regular updates on its progress towards implementing all the recommendations.

It was certainly damning and leaves question marks over UEFA’s leadership.

Liverpool posted a statement which said: “We implore UEFA to fully enact the recommendations as outlined by the Panel – no matter how difficult – to ensure supporter safety is the number one priority at the heart of every UEFA football fixture.

“We were determined to make sure a robust investigation was conducted in order that lessons are learned to ensure the safety of football supporters in Europe is never compromised again.

“Shocking false narratives were peddled in the immediate aftermath of that night in Paris; narratives that have since been totally disproven.

“As a football club with proud history in Europe, we call on UEFA to do the right thing and implement the 21 recommendations to ensure the safety of all football supporters attending any future UEFA football match.”

More than two and a half thousand fans were caught up in the drama with lawyers reported to be planning to bring legal action against UEFA, backed by the Review.

The Football Supporters’ Association’s head of policing and casework, Amanda Jacks, said: “This is a total exoneration of Liverpool fans who were smeared by those responsible for this fiasco in an attempt to cover up their own failings.

“The panel has made clear to UEFA that this report has to be taken seriously and cannot be allowed to sit in a drawer gathering dust. Subsequently, the panel recommended that UEFA publish an action plan detailing how they will ensure the recommendations are acted upon.

“Supporter groups across Europe have long called for a higher standard of policing, stewarding and fan experience across all European club fixtures. Fans can continue to play a part by ensuring their own clubs read this report and take note. Lasting, positive change has to come from this.”

UEFA General Secretary Theodore Theodoridis, did at least apologise, but it shouldn’t have needed an independent review for the governing body to show contrition: ”On behalf of UEFA, I would like to apologise most sincerely once again to all those who were affected by the events that unfolded on what should have been a celebration at the pinnacle of the club season. 

“In particular, I would like to apologise to the supporters of Liverpool FC for the experiences many of them had when attending the game and for the messages released prior to and during the game which had the effect of unjustly blaming them for the situation leading to the delayed kick-off.

“UEFA is committed to learning from the events of 28 May, and will cooperate closely with supporters’ groups, the finalist clubs, the host associations and local authorities in order to deliver outstanding finals where everyone can enjoy the game in a safe, secure and welcoming environment.”

When Liverpool and Madrid met again in the Champions League at Anfield last month, it was no surprise that their fans held up banners taking aim at UEFA and accusing them of being liars.

Notably, Ceferin did not make a public comment about the findings of the Panel, a rare communications error from the leader of European football who hasn’t been shy to make statements in the past.

We can only hope that UEFA learns from its failures in Paris and heeds the lessons learnt so that there is no such repeat in future.

As the report concluded: “Institutional defensiveness, putting reputation and self-interest above truth and responsibility, prevents progressive change. 

“A healthy organisation welcomes scrutiny and criticism based on evidence, an unhealthy one hides behind prejudice and baseless assertions and contributes to a carousel of blame, where it is everyone else’s fault. 

“That is why independent investigations based on evidence are so important, because otherwise the same will happen next week or next year with devastating consequences.”

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