Champions League Overcrowding Was a ‘Near Miss’ for UEFA

A monthslong independent investigation into the dangerous overcrowding that jeopardized the safety of thousands of fans at last year’s Champions League final in Paris has placed the blame squarely on European soccer’s governing body, which organized the game. That no lives were lost in the crushes outside the stadium gates, the investigators’ harshly critical report concluded, was only “a matter of chance.”

The investigation, which included dozens of interviews and the review of hours of video shot by fans, concluded that senior officials of the governing body, UEFA, made numerous mistakes in preparations for the showcase final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, creating a situation in which planning flaws were neither detected nor quickly addressed, and then tried to shift responsibility onto fans for the congestion that had put their safety — and potentially their lives — at risk.

While the report, which runs to more than 200 pages, assigned part of the responsibility for the chaotic scenes outside the Stade de France to various other bodies, including the French police and the French soccer federation, it said the event’s owner, UEFA, “bears primary responsibility for failures which almost led to disaster.”

Liverpool fans bore the brunt of the danger as poor organization, in addition to local transport strikes, led to dangerous crushes in which thousands of fans were left penned inside fencing and with nowhere to go. The report said the danger was exacerbated by the indiscriminate and widespread use of tear gas by police officers before the game, the first Champions League final featuring full crowds after two years of pandemic restrictions.

And the report left little doubt that the day could have turned deadly, drawing a direct comparison to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which policing mistakes produced a crush inside an English stadium that eventually led to the deaths of 97 people.

“In the judgment of the panel,” the investigators wrote in comparing the two incidents, “the different outcomes were a matter of chance.”

Yet, even as the scenes outside the Stade de France were still unfolding, investigators said, efforts were made to blame supporters for the chaos. Aware of the troubling scenes outside, UEFA announced the start of the game would be delayed because of the “late” arrival of supporters. “This claim was objectively untrue,” the report said.

Later, French officials, including the interior minister Gérald Darmanin, blamed English fans for what Darmanin said was a “massive, industrial and organized fraud of fake tickets.” The report, commissioned by UEFA, found there was little evidence to back up the claim.

UEFA and its most senior officials, notably Martin Kallen, the head of events, were singled out for overall responsibility for what one of the report’s main authors described as a “near miss.”

“There was contributory fault from other stakeholders, but UEFA were at the wheel,” the report said.

The publication of the final report came several months after it was anticipated; UEFA officials had first suggested it would be completed by September. The investigation involved hundreds of interviews and the analysis of footage, including many hours of video shot by supporters caught up in the crushes as they tried to enter the stadium. Dangerous bottlenecks, packed entrances and ramps, and tear gas employed by the police — sometimes sprayed indiscriminately at groups of supporters that included children and disabled fans — added to the chaos.

“Unfortunately, the enthusiasm around the game rapidly turned into a real ‘near miss’ which was harmful to a significant number of fans from both clubs,” the report said. “This should never have happened at such an important sporting event, and it is unacceptable that it took place at the heart of the European continent.”

The use of the term “near miss,” the panel said, was deliberate and agreed upon by all stakeholders interviewed to mean “an event almost turns into a mass-fatality catastrophe.”

The report raised new concerns about security preparations for next year’s Summer Olympics in Paris, with its authors describing events around the Champions League final as a “wake-up call” for Olympic organizers. The panel said evidence collected from Michel Cadot, the French government official responsible for major sporting events, suggested there remained “a misconception about what actually happened and a complacency regarding what needs to change.”

An earlier investigation into the Champions League final by two French parliamentary committees had also assigned blame to the authorities, labeling the dangerous overcrowding a “fiasco” caused by a combination of faulty coordination, bad planning and errors by the authorities responsible for organization and safety.

The new report offers a fuller view of how the day unfolded, painting a picture of organizational chaos, with decisions taken by individuals without adequate knowledge of what was happening in real time. It said UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, was asked to make a call on delaying the kickoff even though he had not been in the match control room or in contact with security officials; he had been in a meeting with the King of Spain in a V.I.P. area.

Taken in its totality, the report attempts to show how UEFA delegated or removed itself from any oversight of the security operation at the stadium to such an extent that it “marginalized” its own safety and security unit, headed by Zeljko Pavlica, a confidant of Ceferin’s.

Fans arriving at the stadium were greeted by battalions of French riot police, dressed in protective clothing and with supplies that included batons, shields and pepper spray.

“The police, unchallenged and accepted without question by other stakeholders, adopted a model aimed at a nonexistent threat from football hooligans,” the panel wrote, adding, “Ultimately the failures of this approach culminated in a policing operation that deployed tear gas and pepper spray: weaponry which has no place at a festival of football.”

UEFA had faced criticism about the composition of its panel, with concerns raised about its neutrality after the appointment of a former education and sports minister in Portugal, Tiago Brandão Rodrigues, as chairman. Brandão had previously worked closely with Tiago Craveiro, who was hired last year as a senior adviser to Ceferin.

To counter those claims, UEFA added more members to its panel, including its former security head, Kenny Scott, and fan representatives, including Amanda Jacks, an official at the Britain-based Football Supporters Federation. Jacks informed Brandão on Monday that she had accepted an unspecified position at Liverpool and would be starting her new role in March.

The report will make uncomfortable reading for UEFA, with some of its top officials now under scrutiny for their actions both on the day and in the planning for the biggest game on the European soccer calendar.

“Senior officials at the top of UEFA allowed this to happen, even though the shortcomings of its model were widely known at senior management level,” the report said.

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