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Champions League final 2022: Fans cleared but scars remain

Matt Pearson in Liverpool
February 20, 2023

Liverpool play Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday for the first time since last year's final. Organizers UEFA have now taken responsibility for the lawless scenes, but that can't be enough for Liverpool fans.

Liverpool fans queue at the gate ahead of the 2022 Champions League final
Many Liverpool fans with valid tickets were denied entry due to technical securities and a lack of assistanceImage: Thomas Coex/AFP

Liverpool vs. Real Madrid raises painful memories

There are a series of snapshots that bounce around Ted Morris's mind when he thinks of last year's Champions League final. None of them are of the saves Thibault Courtois made to deny Liverpool or of Vinicius Junior's winner for Real Madrid. He can barely remember anything that happened on the pitch.

Instead, the chair of the Liverpool Disabled Supporters Association remembers a young girl at a train station with her eyes streaming from an unprovoked tear gas attack, the panic he felt for his daughters sat in a different section of the ground and his own fear of dying on the streets of Saint Denis, on the outskirts of Paris.

"I was terrified. I didn't know who they were until we saw them coming in and then it was obviously the locals attacking us." Morris told DW of the scenes after the match. "We were thinking we would be safe when we got to the station but we weren't. We were in as much danger from the police as we were from them."

"When you're in a wheelchair all day, your battery isn't that good. My wheelchair was on red. I said to my wife: 'If this goes off, just run with them and get to that station.'"

Morris was also worried that if his wheelchair was immobile, it would cause an obstruction at a crowded entrance to a busy underpass resulting in a crush. "I carried that for a while, I thought: 'I could've killed people.' And I'd have just died. It would have been catastrophic."

Authorities fail in duty of care

That was close to the end of a day that remains traumatic for thousands of supporters despite UEFA admitting "primary responsibility" for the chaotic scenes before, after and during the match last May. The report, commissioned by European football's governing body and released last Tuesday, also found that French police "adopted a model aimed at a nonexistent threat from football hooligans" and that the French Football Association "failed to establish effective interoperability with multiple partners, including the transport networks, Prefecture de Police, SDF and UEFA."

It also completely exonerated fans of any responsibility for the widespread scenes of tear gassing, violence and crushes at gates and perimeter checkpoints. For Morris and Joe Blott, the chair of Liverpool Supporters Union 'Spirit of Shankly', the report's findings were no great surprise. The pair had represented the fans in the French senate shortly after the final and worked since then to try and ensure Liverpool fans were not wrongly implicated, as they had been in the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989.

Blott told DW he was "delighted" when the report cleared the fans of any wrongdoing but that vindication quickly turned to anger at how the situation came to this in the first place.

On the night, UEFA initially publicly blamed fans for a delayed kickoff. Then, when they realized that reports from journalists and fans using social media clearly proved that to be false, they blamed security issues. Furthermore, they doubled down on their lies by claiming up to 40,000 Liverpool fans tried to gain access to the ground without tickets. Again, this had been proven to be a baseless claim. So far, no one at UEFA has resigned or been fired.

Hillsborough echoes for Liverpool fans

The instant blaming of fans from authorities without any proof is all too familiar for Liverpool fans like Blott and Morris. Hillsborough followed a similar narrative. For Blott, an apology is fine but mud sticks, as proved by the reaction of other football fans in England to Liverpool. Since Paris, he says, rival fans have increasingly sung songs like 'Always the victims/Never your fault' that suggest the initial lies were swallowed by many and the subsequent climbdowns ignored.

"People think it's banter. It's not. It's actually hurtful. It has consequences. We know, through talking to colleagues at the Hillsborough Survivors Association, that May last year was a huge trigger for survivors of Hillsborough. And that doesn't even necessarily mean that they went to Paris. Just seeing the photographs of people crushed, the tear gas, the noise. All of that brings back horrendous memories. I just hope that anyone who has any intention of singing that song again, really takes a long, hard look at themselves and says ‘that could have been me'."

Police and stewards try to stop fans gaining entrance to the Stade de France
Some Liverpool fans queued for several hours in crushed conditions before facing further issues at the gatesImage: Thomas Coex/AFP

The report also points out that UEFA knew there were issues with security more than five hours before kickoff but failed to act. Blott believes that fan safety was nowhere near the top of UEFA's list of priorities that night. It's a charge that was also levelled at them after last year's Europa League final and the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

"I think that they prioritized the event itself over safety because they wanted it to be seen as a showpiece event for their dignitaries, VIPs and corporate hospitality. It's shocking."

Disabled fans treated terribly

Morris, who lost a 15-year-old cousin at Hillsborough, says that disabled fans in general were treated appallingly throughout. His members reported being "crowdsurfed in wheelchairs" to get to safety, being separated from those there to assist them and Morris himself was told he had to use his phone torch in the bathroom as there were no lights. This meant he had to ask his wife to come in with him.

As Liverpool prepare to face Real Madrid again for the first time since that final, it is clear this report does not put an end to the story. There is justifiable skepticism among many fans that UEFA can actually enact the recommendations of their own report, despite an admission that "a mass fatality catastrophe," for which they accept "primary responsibility" was narrowly avoided. Should they succeed in doing so, it will be a significant consolation for Blott, Morris and other Liverpool fans. But it will not turn back the clock.

"Those scars are deep and the trauma is deep, and that will stay a long time," adds Morris. "People have told me that, that's it. They're done. They'll never ever go again. You can't go to a game of football and expect your life to be in danger."

Liverpool vs. Real Madrid raises painful memories

Edited by: J. Wingard