France has apologised for the chaos that marred the Champions League final in Paris on Saturday but sharp differences over who was to blame risked turning into a diplomatic row after Downing Street called the scenes “deeply upsetting and concerning”.
French ministers admitted that the way British football fans were handled at the game between Liverpool and Real Madrid went badly wrong.
But they blamed distribution of fake tickets “on an industrial scale” for crowd control issues that resulted in women and children being tear-gassed by police outside the Stade de France. The game, won by Real Madrid, was delayed while thousands of Liverpool fans struggled to gain entry.
At a press conference after an emergency meeting of sporting and law enforcement officials on Monday, interior minister Gérald Darmanin and sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra both said they regretted what happened to Liverpool fans massed outside the gates. “We have nothing to be proud of about what happened on Saturday night,” said Darmanin. “Sports should be a celebration and this one was in part ruined,” he added.
But he defended police action, saying the root of the problem stemmed from as many as 40,000 fans who attended without tickets or with fake tickets, leading an initial set of check points to be overwhelmed and crowds to build up dangerously at the gates.
Darmanin said this “massive fraud on an industrial scale” came about because nearly all of the Liverpool fans were using paper tickets and not digital ones, in contrast with the 22,000 Real Madrid fans, three-quarters of whom were issued digital tickets. French prosecutors are now investigating the alleged ticket fraud, and have also asked Uefa to look into the matter.
But Liverpool mayor Joanne Anderson said the French claim that fake tickets had caused the crowding was “deeply irresponsible and contrary to the video and witness accounts from multiple Liverpool fans on the ground”.
A spokesman for UK prime minister Boris Johnson said: “The footage from the Stade de France this weekend was deeply upsetting and concerning. We know many Liverpool fans travelled to Paris in good time. We’re hugely disappointed by how they were treated.”
Others, including journalists and fans who were on site, cast doubt on the French version of events. Ronan Evian, who heads a fans group called Football Supporters Europe, said the 40,000 figure was “a fantasy” that the French authorities were using to blame Liverpool supporters for the behaviour of the 7,000 or so police on duty that night.
On Monday, a meeting to analyse what went wrong was attended by representatives from Uefa, European football’s governing body, the French football federation, the police, the interior ministry and the district of Seine-Saint-Denis, where the stadium is located.
Problems were also aggravated by a strike that affected one of the train lines that serves the stadium, which forced fans on to other modes of transport that concentrated the crowds on a small number of roads and entrances to the stadium. Nor was there sufficient signage or enough stewards to help funnel the British supporters to the right places.
At the scheduled kick-off time of 9pm, 97 per cent of Real Madrid supporters were in the stadium but only half of the Liverpool fans, the officials said.
Uefa said later on Monday that it had commissioned an independent report into the issues at the final. “The comprehensive review will examine decision making, responsibility and behaviours of all entities involved in the final,” it added.
Ian Byrne, the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, who was at the match, said he had not seen anything like the scenes since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. He wrote to Liz Truss, foreign secretary, calling for a formal probe into the behaviour of the French authorities and Uefa.
“I can honestly say that the situation outside the ground was one of the most horrendous experiences of my life — and as a Hillsborough survivor, I do not make this comment lightly,” he said in the letter.
“I have honestly never witnessed such a hostile environment for a football match. It was truly horrific. Many elderly people, children, disabled people, asthma sufferers and families out for a day to remember were among those pepper sprayed.”
Some fans also reported being mugged by locals on the way out of the stadium and blamed police for not securing the zone around the Stade de France. Police officials declined to comment on the reports on Sunday.
The incidents are politically sensitive, not only for the negative image they projected of France at a high-profile event, but also because the country is preparing to host the Rugby World Cup next year and the summer Olympics in 2024.
Uefa and Liverpool did not respond to requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Williams