Champions League: Witnesses raise new questions about chaos of Paris final

The chaos at the Champions League final in Paris was due to a catalogue of failures that put fans’ lives at risk, according to information gathered during a BBC investigation. It heard evidence of software glitches on Uefa’s digital tickets and poorly trained stewards; both of which contradict claims made by French authorities.

Government ministers and match officials have so far blamed the chaos on fake paper tickets among Liverpool fans, a transport strike, and local troublemakers who broke into the Stade de France.

But there are deeper questions for them to answer: about why valid tickets didn’t work; about the profile of stewards who faced unmanageable crowds; and about the engagement of politicians well before troublemakers arrived at the ground.

Steve Golley, an experienced IT engineer, was in the crowd outside the stadium’s Gate G on 28 May with his partner, Selina.

He said the hold-up there was caused, not by fake paper tickets, but by problems with the QR codes for digital tickets on Uefa’s mobile app.

“The area was full of people, shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “I could see lots of people holding their phones up, trying to get their QR codes on the app. My partner’s QR code did activate, and it was the only one I saw in dozens around me. Mine didn’t.”

French ministers and match officials have rowed back from their estimate of 30,000 fake tickets at the game, saying last month that some 2,500 were detected at turnstiles. But they maintain that these were still very high by normal standards, and played a key role in the confusion.

Match organisers told a Senate inquiry that any problems with allegedly “un-fakeable” digital tickets were caused by fans not switching on their Bluetooth as instructed.

Steve, who has programmed several apps himself, said he followed instructions to the letter, but the QR code needed to scan the ticket through the turnstiles didn’t appear.

“I think there’s a problem within the application itself,” he told me. “Its latest update, a few days before the match, resolved connectivity issues. And when we got to the match, we had connectivity issues.”

Ronan Evain, head of the fan association Football Supporters Europe, agrees that there was a problem scanning valid tickets through the turnstiles, on both sides of the stadium.

“At 6.30pm on the Real Madrid side, there were already massive queues,” Ronan told me. “I witnessed a lot of people having to scan tickets three, four, five times. So my interpretation is that there was an issue with the turnstiles, and a specific issue with [scanning] the app.”

But the intense bottlenecks at turnstiles on the Liverpool side, he said, were largely triggered by a decision to suspend preliminary ticket checks further back, to relieve crowd pressure on the ramp at the southern entrance to the concourse.

At these initial checkpoints, Ronan explained, stewards were supposed to activate digital tickets with a swipe-card.

“The moment this check was lifted on the Liverpool side, a lot of fans arrived at the turnstiles without an activated ticket,” he continued, “and the ticket had to be activated manually by stewards which takes 10-15 seconds [each time].”

The situation around the turnstiles was “already extremely messy” at that point, he said, and the long wait to activate tickets made things worse.

We asked Uefa about connectivity issues in their technology, and about contingency plans to activate tickets in the event of problems on the ground, but they declined to comment while their own investigation into events at the Stade de France was ongoing.

Match officials and train companies have blamed each other for mismanaging a rail strike on the day of the match, sending crowds to an access point too small to handle them, and causing the bottleneck that made preliminary checks impossible.

Ronan Evain was at the affected entry point that day, observing the stewards.

"I think what was striking was their age. Extremely young students, even just out of high school, not very well trained. Some were reacting, feeling a bit of panic probably; pushing back the crowd in ways that were really not helpful."

Ronan Evain, head of the fan association Football Supporters Europe

These were often some of the first officials fans encountered.

“There were serious flaws in the whole set-up,” Ronan said. “[Stewarding] requires not only a licence and training, it requires the ability to read a crowd, the ability to assess risks. This whole narrative that everything went fine on the stewarding, it’s not helpful, because clearly it didn’t go well.”

Ronan’s assessment, after observing more than 20 football matches at the Stade de France, is that there was a lack of trained personnel on the night of the Champions League final, and a lack of personnel in general.

We’ve put his allegations to the French Football Federation (FFF).

The FFF’s head of security, Didier Pinteax, told a Senate inquiry last month that it hired almost 1,700 “security agents” from private security companies to work as stewards for the match, including for initial ticket checks. It said that every one of them had a professional certificate, and on-site training with equipment.

Stéphane Boudon is head of the National Union for Security Staff (Sneps). Several of its members worked as stewards that night.

“There’s no specific training for stewards; the job’s not recognised in France’s security code,” he explained. “[But] to be a security agent, you need a professional card verified by the Interior Ministry. Were there enough checks to really know if they all had their cards? I can’t judge that.”

Almost no one who worked as a steward that night wanted to speak to us on the record, but one man did. He asked that we call him Sam to hide his identity. We have verified that he worked at the Stade de France on the night of the match.

“From hours before the match, there were riots everywhere,” Sam remembered. “There was damage, injured colleagues, injured fans. We quickly realised that we were going to be completely overwhelmed.”

Sam was protecting a parking area with access to the stadium, where he said staff were threatened by large groups of “hostile individuals” and where he witnessed an English supporter being violently mugged by local troublemakers. He also said he intervened on two separate occasions to prevent sexual assaults on fans.

“I know a lot of people who have been stewards or VIP security guards at the Stade de France, who have no certification or security training,” he said.

The day of the Champions League final, he added, some of his colleagues were on their first ever assignment, and had been recruited just 24 hours before.

Many firms report problems recruiting trained security personnel in France as a result of the Covid pandemic. Guards often rely on extra jobs at sporting events to make ends meet, and when those activities stopped in lockdown, they switched to other work.

“Companies automatically have fewer people available to them,” Stéphane Boudon said. “And the fact that France had not originally planned to hold the Champions League final caused more recruitment issues, with security companies asking for workers very late.”

“If it had been a normal period, we would have been completely prepared,” Senator Patrick Kanner told me. “But it was an election period, and perhaps the Interior Minister had other worries than investing himself in the organisation of this event.”

Senator Kanner, a member of the Socialist opposition, said he “lost count” of the number of meetings he chaired as Sports Minister during the 2016 Euro Championships in France, “to make sure every possibility was imagined”.

“I believe in the presence of ministers,” he told me. “I don’t think the Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, presided over any of the meetings and I know the Sports Minster didn’t.”

Later this week, the Senate is due to publish its report into events at the Stade de France. The process of finding out the truth has been made harder, Senator Kanner said, by the loss of video surveillance footage from both the stadium and the train network, because there was no judicial request to preserve it.

“No one requested these images,” he told me. “I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. But nevertheless, it’s curious that images from 220 cameras were deleted when they could have been used to show the truth.”

A definitive narrative around this one night in Paris is beginning to emerge, but even as the answers begin to take shape, there are deeper questions that remain unanswered.

Fourteen months away from the Rugby World Cup and 24 months away from the Olympic Games, some in this country are worried.

Original article published 12.07.2022 on the BBC New website.

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