Champions League chaos proves football is run by authorities hostile to fans | Jonathan Liew
For once it is the still photos that capture the scene better than the videos. Were one to base one’s impression of the hellscape in Paris on Saturday night on the grainy, shaky moving footage alone, one would probably conclude it was a lawless, seething moshpit of disorder: of youths scaling spiked fences, gates being rattled and clattered, a ceaseless stream of teargas and baton charges. But the overwhelming sensation being conveyed by the thousands of fans massed outside the Stade de France was stasis: the quiet, festering frustration of nothing moving, nothing changing, nothing happening, a sea of thwarted humanity waiting patiently for hour upon hour, as if queueing for bread.
So much for the what. The manifold indignities and inconveniences visited upon fans at the Champions League final on Saturday – long lines, denial of entry, a lack of stewarding and security, police brutality – have been well documented in the subsequent days. What is missing from all this is any sense of the why. Why did Uefa and the French authorities allow this showpiece occasion to degenerate so catastrophically? Was it simply a large-scale outbreak of bureaucratic incompetence? Or was something more sinister at work?
Perhaps the most confusing element of the trouble on Saturday was its randomness. Some Liverpool fans immediately cried establishment vendetta but in fact Real Madrid fans were also caught up in the chaos. VIPs and corporate guests complained of intolerable queues and heavy-handed treatment. The Spanish minister for sport reported having to wait an hour to gain entry to the stadium. Even the commentator Jim Beglin – no, not Jim Beglin – told of being mugged outside the Stade de France by armed gangs.
None of the conventional models of football governance offer a satisfactory explanation for any of this. For years we have been told that football has sold its soul for profit, that fans have been turned into customers, that the sport itself is run like a business and the corporate euro is king. But tickets for the final were being sold for up to £600. In what vision of consumer capitalism are the premium customers penned in like animals? What clear-thinking business unloads teargas on children? Among much else the events in Paris on Saturday should force us to reassess what we think we know about how power functions in football.
One of the great fallacies about modern football is that it is a creature of pure market forces. In fact, the game has never been a free market in the truest sense: access is limited, choice is restricted, fans do not simply switch teams or sports on a whim. In many ways they are not empowered consumers but captive subjects and over time the relationship has increasingly reflected that dynamic: a small and unaccountable ruling class obsessed not simply with profit but with power, not simply with enrichment but with exploitation.
“Who says organisation, says oligarchy,” the sociologist Robert Michels wrote in 1911. Michels posited that all complex organisations – however democratic their origins – inevitably tend towards inefficiency, tyranny and the minority rule of a privileged few. The levers of power invariably generate opportunities to cement that power. Those with wealth increasingly build their priorities around protecting it.
Remind you of anything? Football was not metamorphosing into a consumerist utopia these last 30 years. It was becoming an oligarchy: cynical, acquisitive, secretive and innately hostile to the people under it. Rules and laws can be bent and subverted. Public space is to be strictly demarcated and policed. Disinformation is not simply rife but necessary: witness the haste with which the authorities pushed out the line that late ticketless arrivals were to blame for the trouble, the systematic attempts to paint fans as a subversive rabble.
The idea that modern fans – even well-heeled fans, even Jim Beglin – could somehow purchase a stake in the game via their season tickets has been exposed as a brutal fiction. Uefa, it turned out, did not need any of you. It had Camila Cabello, a bulging portfolio of blue-chip sponsorships and a bank of television cameras beaming the event to a worldwide audience. Insofar as the masses outside the gates mattered, they did so not as participants, or even customers, but as a potential threat.
Michels, who incidentally would later join Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, did offer some glimmers of hope. The first was that oligarchies are by definition belligerent in character and will compete just as fiercely with each other. The unsatisfying power-fight between Uefa, Fifa and the big clubs may be the source of much of football’s dysfunction but also probably the closest thing to a system of checks and balances. The second is that as societies mature they develop the tools for criticism and resistance. For many fans and pundits the Super League breakaway was a step in this process: a realisation that those in power did not have their best interests at heart and never did.
But the bottom line is that millions of people need football in their lives, as much as they need food and water and, as long as the demand remains insatiable, those with their fingers on the supply will carry on squeezing. And so we have the tableau that unfolded on Saturday: the world’s most lavish club game being held within spitting distance of one of Paris’s poorest districts, while thousands of men, women and children queue for hours outside. They are straining at the gates, they are choking on fumes, some are cursing and screaming and some are quietly despairing. But all of them are begging to be let in.