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Unpacking the Emotional Toll of Losing the Champions League Final

Following Liverpool’s loss to Real Madrid, I try to make sense of the emotional impact of a loss that was also a disaster off the pitch due to the failings of the authorities.

Liverpool FC v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final 2021/22 Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Over the past 24 hours, I’ve felt nearly the full range of human emotion, with the exception of joy. A day removed from the final whistle, I’m still having trouble processing and working through the emotional impact of Liverpool’s Saturday night Champions League final defeat.

I laid in bed last afterwards, thinking about writing this article to try and make sense of what happened, but even having finished it now I’m not sure I’ve really been able to unpack the jumble of thoughts and feelings in my head. And I don’t know if this is all therapeutic or maddening. But I feel like I have to try and talk through it.

From the moment I woke up on Saturday morning, I was excited. There was a Champions League final to get ready for. As soon as I got out of bed I started listening to an LFC playlist on Spotify, followed by a healthy mix of Jamie Webster and Dua Lipa. When I took my dog out for an early evening walk I was singing every Liverpool song I know the entire time we were outside. I was convinced Liverpool would make up for a disappointing Premier League finale and lift silverware. I was ready.

After what felt like an eternity, kickoff was finally close enough that I could flip on the pre-match coverage. My excitement turned into anticipation, then quickly into worry hearing about Thiago being a doubt to start after the warmups. By the time it was confirmed the Spaniard would in fact start, it felt like the last thing I cared about.

What had come next was a whirlwind of shock, worry, and most of all, anger. On the broadcast, the pundits had noted the Liverpool end of Stade de France still wasn’t full 20 minutes before kickoff. Right as news started filtering in that there were delays getting LFC fans into the ground, UEFA announced kickoff would be delayed for 15 minutes due to “late-arriving fans.”

It was fairly obvious to anyone paying attention to updates from journalists on the ground that that was the first bit of utter bullshit UEFA would announce in regards to the chaos happening outside. Those journalists as well as the firsthand accounts from fans on social media platforms painted a very different picture.

Fans had been queueing for hours. Thousands of people were being herded into a series of bottlenecks that meant the lines were moving at a snail’s pace. Reports emerged of people who had arrived three hours before the match still not able to get into the stadium in time for the originally scheduled kickoff.

There were competing stories of Liverpool fans trying to get in with fake tickets or even trying to push through without tickets (another lie UEFA would eventually turn to as they grasped for reasons for the disastrous attempt to get fans inside that wouldn’t implicate them or local organizers), though the accounts of fans and journalists stuck in the crowd outside showed such narratives to be patently untrue.

By all reliable accounts, the fans were not to blame. The UEFA and police planning was shambolic. Despite that, in the early going few pundits other than Jamie Carragher—in contact with family and friends experiencing the situation outside firsthand—were keen to push that side of the story on the broadcasts.

The reality outside the stadium was of unnecessary and inexplicable bottlenecks. Of gates either closed or unmanned. Of the French police, who have a reputation for being heavy-handed and aggressive with large crowds, showing exactly why it is they have earned that reputation.

People were beaten, pepper-sprayed, and teargassed, often for simply trying to get answers. Videos of fans being pepper-sprayed through fences and while standing at the turnstiles and showing no signs of aggression are numerous. The pepper spray and tear gas were being used so liberally that there were even videos of the police and stadium stewards getting attention after being inadvertently caught in the crossfire.

The families and friends of Liverpool players were not spared. Joël Matip’s brother and his pregnant wife had to flee from tear gas. A friend of Andy Robertson, who received his ticket from Robertson himself, was told his ticket was fake and denied entry. According to one journalist, a senior staff member of the club was also denied entry because the QR code on his ticket wouldn’t work.

While all this was happening, UEFA delayed the kickoff another 15 minutes. This time, they abandoned the obviously false “late-arriving fans” excuse and pivoted to blaming security concerns due to fans without tickets. They made no mention of the fact the delay was entirely down to their incredibly poor planning, a lack of open entry points, and the heavy-handed tactics of the police.

As if it wasn’t infuriating enough to see the firsthand accounts on Twitter while hearing UEFA blame the fans for their own poor planning and incompetence, personally I struggled having to listen to the pundits on the broadcasts repeating UEFA’s talking points. The one notable exception, of course, being Carragher, who eventually had to say, point-blank, that the UEFA excuses did not match what he was hearing from those in the crowd and it was irresponsible to accept and repeat what they were being told without question.

It was at this point that the former Red really tugged at the heartstrings by pointing to the many similarities between what was happening outside and what happened in the lead-up to the horrific 1989 disaster at Hillsborough Stadium. It was quite clear that, given his long history with Liverpool FC, he was struggling with what he was seeing and hearing from outside. Hearing UEFA blame the fans for what were clearly their own failings, while seeing firsthand proof that they were blatantly lying to cover it up, was hard to bear.

Social media may have many faults, and the tribalist way some fans of rival clubs continue to react to events outside the Stade de France last night certainly highlight some of them, but we also saw one of the major perks of it last night. It took decades for the truth of Hillsborough to truly come to light because the police were able to control the narrative afterward, a narrative many in the media were happy to amplify with no questions asked.

It’s not hard to imagine the exact same thing would have happened on Saturday if not for social media and the omnipresence of cell phones with cameras. UEFA clearly tried to control that narrative, first talking about late fans and then trying to focus on fake tickets, but thousands of people taking to Twitter to show evidence directly disputing the false narrative has already ensured the UEFA messaging won’t be blindly accepted as fact by most.

As we continued to see blood boiling examples of fans being brutalized by police via social media, UEFA decided to belatedly kick off the match with thousands with legitimate tickets stuck outside, many suffering from the despicable actions of French police. They brought out Camila Cabello to play a brief show nobody in the crowd much wanted, kicking off their festivities, drowning out the horrors happening outside which were then largely ignored for the remainder of the night by broadcasters.

By the time the players finally took the pitch, any excitement I’d felt earlier in the day had long since evaporated. My thoughts were with those who were trapped outside and those who had managed to get in but were traumatized by what they’d seen and experienced. I’m not sure it’s ever been more difficult for me to really get into a Liverpool match than it was last night.

I eventually resolved to try and get some enjoyment out of it, even though the worries about fans at the stadium and the chaos that was likely to ensue after the match were ever-present in my mind. This was supposed to be the exciting culmination of one of the most impressive club seasons in football history, but it had been spoiled.

The atmosphere, understandably, felt off. Liverpool fans could be heard singing at times, but it wasn’t the boisterous traveling Kop we’re used to. The toll taken and what they had experienced simply trying to get into the stadium was clear.

The Liverpool players did an admirable job putting their best foot forward. At this point, I don’t know if they were aware of what happened with fans outside the stadium or if they noticed that the supporters in the stadium didn’t quite have the same impact they typically do. However, seeing them play in a vacuum, absent the knowledge that this final had not gone to plan in any way, you’d never know anything was wrong.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but they played well enough that they should have won that match. They largely controlled the ball and created many more chances than Real Madrid. Unfortunately, Thibaut Courtois simply wouldn’t be beaten. The Reds fell 1-0 in a result that felt wholly undeserved.

After 9 months of playing scintillating football, grinding out results when they weren’t at their best, and winning nearly everything, their best simply wasn’t enough even when their best was better than their opponents. It was hard to accept. It is hard to accept. It felt like there wasn’t much more they could have done. It felt like they weren’t truly beaten, but they lost anyway.

We’ve spent weeks saying that even if the Reds fell short in the Premier League and the Champions League final, we would still be happy with this season and proud of this team because of the remarkable journey to get here, but it’s hard to feel that way after how both competitions were lost.

Liverpool did everything they could to win the Premier League. The match against Wolverhampton on the final day was difficult and they left it late, but they got the win they needed. With Aston Villa leading Manchester City 2-0 well into the second half, that should have been enough. Unfortunately, an epic collapse by Villa saw the title slip away.

Following that up with a loss last night in a match you feel Liverpool win nine times out of 10 given the disparity in chances is brutal. Throw in literally everything else about the disastrous outcome of last night’s final, and it’s hard to feel anything but anger and disappointment. That sucks.

This team was historically good. They deserved to have that remembered with at least one of the Premier League or Champions League trophies capping off a treble. They deserved to be remembered for winning nearly every damn thing they could.

They don’t deserve to have this remarkable season remembered for a disappointing end that felt almost out of their control. They certainly don’t deserve to have it tainted by UEFA and the French police completely failing to properly organize the event and then blaming the fans for what is entirely their fault. It’s hard to really even put into words the sadness, disappointment, and anger at knowing that is the ultimate result.

Professional sports very often lead to disappointment for fans. When only one team can come out on top in a given competition, nearly everyone who doesn’t win always feels some level of disappointment. Of course, that’s what makes the high of the good times so incredible.

That disappointment is something we all know is a real possibility, and we’re always prepared for it. Unfortunately, sometimes that disappointment is manifested in cruel, unimaginable ways, and that is what I’m feeling now. This wasn’t the standard level of disappointment felt after coming up just short. This is an entirely new level that I’ve never experienced.

The way Liverpool lost these last two titles just feels wrong, and the circumstances surrounding last night’s final are undoubtedly wrong. We’re looking at weeks, months, maybe even years of UEFA and French authorities trying to shift blame and cover up their ineptitude despite mountains of first-hand accounts and evidence proving it.

Knowing that plenty of people will accept their word over the pictures, videos, and stories from those who were there and experienced it first-hand, and knowing that those at fault are unlikely to ever really be held accountable is almost too much to handle on top of all of the disappointment, sadness, and anger I’m (and I assume many of you) already feeling.

I said at the beginning that I wasn’t sure if writing all of this out would be therapeutic or maddening. Now, 2000 words later, I realize it was both. It did help to lay out everything I’ve been thinking and feeling in an organized way, but it was infuriating to reflect on the injustice of what happened last night. It may take days, weeks, or months to truly put the emotional toll of yesterday behind us. For those who experienced the worst of it, they may never fully recover from it.

This is not how finals should go, and this is not how this incredible season should have ended. Thousands of fans shouldn’t be coping with the trauma of experiencing crushes and police brutality. Divock Origi and Sadio Mané (if the depressing reports breaking as this is being written are to be believed) shouldn’t be ending their Liverpool careers on these low notes.

I’m not even sure what else to say or how to finish this article. Maybe it’s even poetic and fitting if this long piece ends on an unsatisfying note that mirrors Liverpool’s season.

All I can really think to say is that no matter how dark and depressing things feel at the moment, there will be a golden sky at the end of this storm. The supporters, players, and staff of Liverpool FC have proven, generation after generation, to be a resilient bunch even in the face of bitter disappointment and unspeakable tragedies.

Be good to each other. Do what you can to lift up those who are down. Support those who are battered and broken after what happened yesterday. Listen to those with a story to tell and amplify that story when you can to ensure those at fault are held accountable.

The darkness of these feelings of sadness, disappointment, and anger is temporary. There are sure to be many good times and moments to celebrate in the years ahead. Walk on, with hope in your heart.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

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