The truly shocking revelation about the disastrous approach of the French police at the Champions League final in Paris appeared in plain sight in the first, flawed official report into the near-disaster released last Friday. Perhaps unwittingly from the report’s author, Michel Cadot, an official working in France’s sports ministry, it illuminated most clearly so far why European football’s showpiece evening descended into brutality and chaos.
The single sentence about police “intelligence” before the match has provided the first glimpse of an explanation as to why the officers were so tooled-up, and acted like self-appointed last-ditch defenders of civilisation rather than guardians of safety for fans attending a glittering final with hope in their hearts.
It appears to confirm the worst suspicions of Liverpool and their supporters: a note that the Paris police had prepared for the 2022 Champions League final by referring to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. At Hillsborough, 97 people were unlawfully killed in horrific circumstances due to police gross negligence in managing the match, and Liverpool supporters behaved well and heroically. But the French police concluded from that historic disaster that although safety failures had been responsible for the deaths, they needed “a firm policing arrangement, to maintain order in riot gear, in order to be able to respond to a risk of collective phenomena of hooliganism and havoc”.
There are two broad ways in which this was catastrophically misconceived. The first and most obvious, the stinging ignorance, has caused renewed offence and despair to bereaved Hillsborough families and survivors, who established the truth through a 27-year justice campaign against South Yorkshire police lies. The second points to an even blunter failure of intelligence and planning: why on earth were the Paris police thinking about Hillsborough at all? To prepare for this final in these modern, moneyed, technological, safety‑regulated football times, at which top ticket prices were €690, why did the police muddle themselves up with some ignoramus view of something that happened 33 years earlier?
Liverpool have continued to play football every season since; they played in the French capital against Paris Saint-Germain as recently as 2018. As Cadot’s report even acknowledges, they do not generally cause trouble, but somehow the police steeled themselves for a riot because of a disaster in 1989?
Cadot is a delegate in the sports ministry reporting to the sports minister, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, who while accepting the need to “improve on the organisation of these tricky matches”, has doubled down on the official claims – not retracted by Uefa either – that thousands of Liverpool supporters with fake tickets were a substantial part of the problem. His report supports her allegations, with a confusing mishmash of figures and purported evidence, although he acknowledges the mess of organisation at the Stade de France. But he mentions that Hillsborough “intelligence” in passing only, as if it were valid, and not indicative of gross negligence in the Paris police preparations.
This is the element of the near-catastrophe on 28 May that most needs thorough, independent, transparent investigation, as Liverpool and Real Madrid are seeking, so far to no avail. The shambolic organisation raises urgent questions about Uefa’s own competence but the dreadful policing and the French government’s indulgence of it have broadcast an alarming picture of France itself. So far its ministers seem to accept this only dimly, having to recognise that their efforts to blame Liverpool supporters have not succeeded, and acknowledge grudgingly that the chaos was an embarrassment for the country’s image. It is far more serious than that: the scenes have shocked the world.
To be clear, advance intelligence is of course a routine and necessary part of planning for any football match. But it is vanishingly unlikely that the French police would have received such nonsense about Hillsborough from any other organisation involved in the planning.
Geoff Pearson, professor of law at the University of Manchester, an expert on football fan behaviour and safety regulation, explains that French police have been deploying riot officers at football matches quite routinely for many years.
“This happens regardless of intelligence, so there is a major question, yet to be answered, about why the French police deploy in riot gear, but I don’t see it changing any time soon.”
Real intelligence would presumably have informed the police that the Liverpool supporters who would pay those prices and travel to Paris would be people like those who have since expressed horror about how their dream trip turned out. A dad who bought a prized ticket as a present for his 11-year-old son, who was then teargassed at the turnstiles. Many middle-aged people who were held in those static queues for hours, then officially accused by Uefa of being late, then of being part of mass ticket fraud, then violently attacked and robbed in the night of Saint-Denis on the way back.
The stony-faced cops wielding pepper spray will not have given a thought in their Hillsborough “intelligence” to the reality that 24,000 Liverpool supporters were at that 1989 disaster. Many, including many of the 97 who died, were young at the time because football was more affordable then; tickets for the Leppings Lane terraces cost £6. So, very many survivors of that terrible day are still Liverpool supporters, now in their 50s and 60s, and they were at the match in Paris. Many experts have observed that the trauma and collective memory of Hillsborough contributed to the supporters’ “exemplary” behaviour, as Merseyside police described it, and prevented the appalling bottlenecks bodged by the French police descending into another fatal crush.
But it should never have come to anything like that: real intelligence about Hillsborough should inform police and stewards that they are entrusted with the safety of people who have been disastrously let down in the past, and still suffer trauma.
Just as there remains calamitously flawed understanding of the truth about Hillsborough, so there is insufficient appreciation about the complete overhaul in safety since, regulated by law, to guard against it happening again. The terrible twist is that the French police’s ignorance of Hillsborough contributed to them nearly precipitating another disaster, as they tooled up for a riot and failed to focus on safe flows of visitors, to a flawed stadium in a rough area on a day further complicated by a rail strike.
Neither Liverpool nor Real Madrid are yet satisfied by the terms of the “independent review” Uefa hastily set up two days later, nor by the expertise or suitability of its appointed chairman, the Portuguese MP Dr Tiago Brandão Rodrigues. Liverpool’s executives also have serious reservations about the Cadot report, given that neither club contributed and there is scant sign of the evidence it is based on.
Real intelligence about Hillsborough would incorporate an institutional understanding that an independent inquiry did follow, by a robust judge, Lord Justice Taylor. He established the essential truth and also identified many unsafe factors that made it a disaster waiting to happen for years. It is unforgivable that 33 years later, eight people were killed in a stadium disaster at the Africa Cup of Nations, and European football now finds itself in a state of danger. Yet the thorough, independent, transparent investigations that are clearly required are still a far‑off prospect, while the instant official impulse to blame the victims has clearly stood the test of time.