The moment UEFA announced that the Champions League final was going to be delayed due to “late fan entry” it was clear something was amiss. Maybe you were watching from home, or with friends, or at your local bar with your supporters club, or even in the fan park at the Cours de Vincennes when the news comes down.
You might then have done what many Liverpool fans and neutrals did and checked social media, searching for more information than UEFA’s brief statement provided. If you did, you would have found something rather more unsettling.
“Fans feeling unsafe.”
“Crushes and bottlenecks.”
“Not letting us in.”
That was the story from the people on the ground, fans outside the stadium as well as journalists in Paris for the match. It was a story few on television bar former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher sought to share, but in the days since the final and despite every effort by the French government, that the story told on the day by the people on the ground is the true story has become clear.
Event organization, for both Liverpool and Real Madrid supporters at the Stade de France, was abysmal and at times negligent. Unlike in the past when organizers and the police have failed fans at football games, thankfully there were phones and cameras and social media there to record the events and counter talk of fake tickets and fans arriving late and trying to force their way in.
I was one of those in Paris that day. One of those who had the privilege of being in the French capital for the final. I was lucky to be able to make the trip, to have a friend in the city that spoke the language.
I was also lucky to escape most of the trauma that occurred throughout the city that night. Lucky to not be put in a position to have to worry about my safety or the safety of those around me due to the actions of the authorities.
I count myself very lucky for that.
Being in Paris for the final meant I also had the privilege of hearing firsthand stories of friends who experiences problems at the Stade de France, who witnessed the actions of stewards and police and locals. And I have the privilege of a platform to share those stories when they might have otherwise not been recorded.
Stade de France
Following the game, another American fan reached out to me to share his story of the night, allowing me to share it for others to read and perhaps learn from. Unfortunately it is not an uncommon story, joining thousands of others from peaceful fans who made the trek from around the globe and spent thousands to see their favorite club play only to be met with aggression.
Brian Gurka is a fan from Oregon lucky enough to get tickets to the match. He traveled to Paris and arrived on Friday, 24 hours before kickoff. It wasn’t his first European final, as he’d been able to attend the final in Madrid in 2019. He traveled with friends and knew what to expect, or thought he did.
Gurka and his friends arrived at the Fan Park on the Cours de Vincennes late on Saturday afternoon to watch Jamie Webster. Webster was the last act of the Boss Night programming at the Fan Park, and Gurka’s group joined other fans who had tickets to the match in making their way to the stadium as he finished. The kick off wasn’t until 9pm Paris local time, and Webster’s set finished at roughly 5:30pm, giving fans more than three hours to make the journey 10km north to the Stade de France and gain entry.
Gurka and his group were able to get an Uber, and had brought their tickets with them to avoid having to return to their hotel. They were dropped off at a cafe less than a block away from the stadium and stayed until about 7:15pm, giving them more than 90 minutes to make it that final block, enter the stadium, and find their seats.
In Madrid, there had been a first security checkpoint where your ticket would get marked by a steward or other official. The mark would label the ticket as authentic as the paper used for the ticket - and how it would react to the ink when marked - couldn’t be replicated by forgers.
In theory the same system was set up Paris, but Gurka’s experience on the ground was that the reality was not nearly as secure or widespread as in Madrid. From the direction that they approached the Stade de France, coming from just 100 yards or so away to the south, there were only around four UEFA officials visible and tasked with marking tickets of thousands of fans. Still, he and his group managed to get their tickets marked and moved on.
The space between the first checkpoint and stadium seemed lively and good natured. Fans were milling about, buying beer and food and enjoying a generally laid back atmosphere, while Liverpool songs were played over a sound system. The group mixed with others in the area until just after 8pm and then decided it was time to head to their seats. The group split up, Gurka and two more heading for their assigned Gate Z entry and two others heading to the Gate B entry.
Approaching gate Z is when Gurka began to feel something was wrong.
“The way the crowd was situated near the gate, I thought something must’ve happened or that something was wrong,” he told me. “There were no clear markers or directions, and as we approached it was clear it was just a crowd standing by locked gates. Multiple doors, multiple turnstiles, but none were open. No one knew why, and when we asked the police officers that were present the responses were shrugs and indifference.”
Gurka and his friends stood with the crowd for around 45 minutes, waiting for instructions or for the doors and turnstiles to be opened. He said that his experience of the crowd was one of the fans remaining calm even as their anxiety built with kick-off nearing. Meanwhile, they could see fans inside the barriers - fans who had been able to enter via another entry point - approach police and stewards and ask why the gates he and others were waiting outside hadn’t opened for these yet.
As kick-off approached, Gurka and his friends finally decided to give up on Gate Z and left in search of a gate that would let them in. This was right about when UEFA first announced that kick-off would be delayed. Having heard from the crowd that Gate A had an open door, they headed there but found the crowd to be similarly unmoving. Eventually they ended up at Gate B.
There, one door was open and behind it one turnstile, forcing a bottleneck of fans trying to get in. At this point, tear gas and pepper spray could be smelled in the air - something was happening, not at Gate B but nearby and likely not good.
“That’s when shit got really crazy,” he said. It appeared police from the outer checkpoints were being called in to deal with the “unrest,” leaving the outer perimeter vulnerable, and the crowds quickly started growing larger at their gate. Gurka could see people who didn’t have any signs of being Liverpool fans - no shirts or scarves or club colors - climbing the fences and pushing through the patient if frustrated Liverpool fans to try to force their way through the one turnstile and open door.
This activity caused a jam at Gate B, and police slammed its one open door shut as soon as they could clear it. One of Gurka’s friends was caught in-between the doors. As a result he was able to enter without his ticket being scanned - one of many pushed through and into the stadium like bubbles from an agitated soda bottle.
Gurka managed to make it back to Gate A, which seemed to have avoided the worst of the chaos taking place at its neighbor, and he was finally able to get in - ticket scanned - with minimal trauma and despite his ticket saying he was meant to enter through Gate Z.
“The atmosphere that night was so weird I don’t know how else to describe it,” he said of his experience of the final when he finally did make it to his seat. “We sang, but it didn’t feel the same. Everyone’s nerves were shot. I didn’t care about the result. The night was ruined well before the final whistle.”
Unlike some others, they were able to avoid serious problems leaving the stadium following the match, but he added that “it felt like after the match the police didn’t want to help us.”
Paris and Cour de Vincennes
Looking back, my own experiences of the Champions League final, while not entirely pleasant, feel mild compared to many of I’ve heard and read about. Our group arrived in Paris on Thursday afternoon - my partner and I arriving from London, three others from Los Angeles - connecting with a Parisian friend for dinner later in the evening and looking forward to 48 hours of buildup before the match.
We kicked off Friday with breakfast and a visit to a local Liverpool bar, the rather obviously named Kop Bar. Liverpool fans were already mingling on the sidewalks, drinking and singing and enjoying each other’s company. This would be our first experience with the French police, who arrived in full riot gear a few hours after we did.
Some fans had spilled into the streets, but none were blocking traffic on the one lane road and a few had even begun to gather rubbish bags from the other bars and shops on the block to make sure we cleaned up after ourselves as best we could. They stood around for hours, watching us have fun, before realizing the obvious - namely, that we weren’t a threat - and moving on. At the time, we didn’t think much of their disproportionate response.
With no tickets to the match amongst us, when Saturday arrived we made plans to meet at the Fan Park in the 12th, where it had been confirmed they would be screening the match. My partner and I met up with his brother and the aforementioned Parisian friend and made the trek.
The Fan Park had been advertised as opening at 1pm, with entertainment beginning by A Boss Night. We arrived around 1:45pm Paris time. The Cour de Vincennes and Place de la Nation were full with Liverpool fans - we left the Nation metro station and only had to follow the red smoke and choruses of songs to figure out where to go.
Once we arrived, though, it became less clear how to actually get into the fan park. There were no signs and no clear entrances, and the one line we did encounter snaked the whole perimeter of the Place de la Nation with no apparent end or beginning. We were able to find a break in the fences where some police were posted, checking bags slowly and forcing fans to dispose of their own drinks or smoke or flares. We felt lucky, having gotten in when it appeared many others weren’t.
Around 2:30pm the police began to let more people in and we made our way further into the Fan Zone and through a second security checkpoint - I received a very thorough pat down from a woman security officer - and were allowed into the Cour de Vincennes. With a stage set up and at least four giant screens, there was plenty of room for the thousands of fans that began to fill the fanzone. John Power had already begun his set, and people were happy. Our group found a spot nearby a screen, were able to procure beers, and settled in for the long wait until kick off.
As the day went on, there was very little tension within the crowd. Jamie Webster finished his set, and many of the fans left around 5:30pm - those lucky enough to have tickets starting to make their way towards the stadium. We were able to keep our spot near the screen, knowing we had nothing to do but wait.
Then news came in that kick off had been delayed. We had been watching the warm ups, seen the squads come out and return to the dressing rooms. Mutterings filtered through the crowd as people tried to figure out what all the talk of late fan entry was about - as well as what the status of Thiago was given questions about his fitness during the warm-ups.
Social media quickly confirmed that all was not well at the stadium, and as we tried to watch the pre-match ceremonies it was hard not to notice the empty seats in the Stade de France. That Madrid fans were in full color and Liverpool fans were missing. But eventually, after the delay, the match went on. We did our best to support, but the atmosphere from the stadium and knowledge that there had been problems seemed to infect us. People felt more nervous than celebratory.
When the game ended and despite the loss and generally somber feeling, there were no fights, no violence that we could see. We gathered ourselves together and got back on the train, heading elsewhere in search of emotional support crepes. After we started our journey we heard reports of tear gas deployed near the fan park.
Given the mood when we left, I didn’t believe it at first, but subsequent reports confirmed it and as with at the Stade de France those on the ground seemed able to come up with no good reason why the use of tear gas would have been necessary.
For me personally, it was everything I had expected out of my first European final. Traveling to a city far from home to experience even a sliver of one of the biggest matches in world football. We drank, we sang, we ate, stacked plastic cups as tall as myself, and watched fans climb on street lights waving smoke flares.
Why then was I receiving concerned messages from friends asking about my status? Why was I hearing that not all was okay in Paris for Liverpool fans. As more stories began to come out, I almost felt guilty. I certainly felt fortunate. For the most part, my experience of the Champions League final was the sort you would hope for. For many others, it was anything but.
As the French government doubles down on stories of fraudulent tickets and forceful fans and cites stereotypes of 80s hooliganism to justify their poor treatment of Liverpool fans who have in recent years been to finals in Madrid and Kyiv and London without incident, it is these stories of the experiences of fans on the ground that need to be heard, documented, and presented.
These stories need to be told - especially those of people like Brian Gurka and his friends, who did nothing wrong except to buy a ticket to the biggest match in the world and travel to see his team play. We followed our hearts for the club we love, and were met with a lack or organization and then policing that treated us like the enemy even while we remained calm and patient.
The handling of the Champions League final by French authorities was a disgrace. Their handling of the aftermath has been a disgrace. UEFA’s role and potential culpability is unclear. What is clear is Liverpool fans behaved themselves despite the challenges put in front of them - and what seems likely is that it is Liverpool fans who deserve any credit for things not ending up far worse.