Grand design stadiums are fine, but what about the neighbours?

THE INFORMATION emerging from the Champions League final debacle becomes more revealing and disturbing by the day. As well as images of extraordinarily bad behaviour from the French police, there are stories of local gangs attacking both Liverpool and Real Madrid fans. So distressed were some Liverpool fans they have vowed never to follow their side abroad, and let’s not forget this is a club of passionate followers. The Stade de France may be a landmark stadium, but its location and surrounding infrastructure surely has to be questioned after such a shambolic evening.

Former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry did actually warn people about Saint-Denis, saying “you don’t want to go there” to a US journalist. It’s not the first time people have remarked on the perils of the neighbourhood, indeed, if you wanted further evidence, in the aftermath of the game, reporters were hassled by groups of young boys live on TV.

But more importantly, and more worrying, was the antics of large groups of youths assaulting Liverpool fans, despite the presence of thousands of people and a large police presence, who seemed unwilling to help.

The ramifications of this disastrous night for UEFA, for France and for the concept of pan-European club competition could be very significant. It also destroyed Emmanuel Macron’s aim of showcasing France’s ability to organise major sports events ahead of the 2024 Olympics.

One would hope UEFA will not use Stade de France for any future major finals and would deem the venue, in its current form, unsuitable for large groups of visiting fans. Why? Because spectator safety goes beyond what happens in the stadium and as hosts, French authorities have a responsibility to ensure visitors are safe. It’s surely a public order issue? The stadium itself may be fine, but clearly Saint-Denis is a place to be avoided.

Before anyone protests that what happens outside the location is not necessarily connected to the event, then think again. If this was a political summit, attended by VIPs, you would assume the police and emergency services would be on red alert. The hordes of “undesirables” would be kept well away from the venue, with an overbearing police presence and surveillance of potential flashpoints. Saint-Denis is renowned for its crime rate – among the highest in Europe, certainly in France – so surely the police were aware that football fans with money, mobile phones and other valuables would be a target of roaming and organised thieves? It is also an area with a high degree of poverty.

UEFA has to be more discerning about the choice of final venues. In the past 20 years, we have seen problems in Moscow where English fans were exploited by hotels and other businesses at the Champions League final and also the ludicrous situation where Arsenal and Chelsea played the Europa League final in, of all places, Baku. UEFA has to realise big cities with big stadiums are not necessarily the optimal sites for every cup final for a number of reasons – ranging from personal safety to logistics and economics.

We have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on?

The problem and the questions should go far deeper about the suitability of certain neighbourhoods for big occasion sport. When new stadiums are being planned, how often do the companies involved, be they architects, town planners, accountants and financiers, consider the suitability of the local environment from the perspective of people?

It’s great placing a shining new structure in an available plot, but does anyone calculate how 30,000 – 40,000 people arriving in the vicinity will affect local people and how will an area of high crime and social problems impact on a mass crowd? There’s a similar comparison in London in the form of Tottenham’s magnificent new ground, which sits in one of London’s poorest boroughs with a crime rate among the 10 highest in the city.

It is a truly remarkable construct, but it is surrounded by poverty, shabby retail outlets and down-trodden estates. It is not difficult to imagine some resentment stirring, although the club and those responsible for the building of the 60,000 stadium hoped its arrival would be the catalyst for regeneration.

There is another aspect to consider. Ever since UEFA (and FIFA) introduced their “fan parks”, the movement of supporters may have increased substantially. According to some reports, there were 150,000 Liverpool fans in Paris for the final, the majority of which has absolutely no chance of getting a ticket. Perhaps the idea of attracting greater numbers to be part of the occasion has created an unintended consequence? UEFA has to dispense with the idea of exploiting the occasion in favour of what is realistically achievable.

Inner city stadiums became very passé in the 1990s and the logical thing for football clubs to do was sell their grounds for a handsome profit to developers and move to an out-of-town or less expensive site. In the UK, this has proven to be quite successful, even though supporters are often dragged out of the ancestral home kicking and screaming. But while transport links are uppermost in the developer’s mind, there surely has to be a discussion around security. Saint-Denis may not be typical of many major stadiums in continental Europe, but it would appear to be unwelcoming for vast crowds of visiting fans. Furthermore, we have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on from the days when supporters were treated with disdain by police?

UEFA has apologised to Liverpool and Real Madrid fans, but the French authorities remain stubbornly in denial, about what happened and also about their own rising crime rate. UEFA’s response should be a [temporary] ban on French football grounds staging finals as a neutral host. The Champions League final has shown they are reluctant to be accountable for what goes on under their jurisdiction. As for stadium builders, there must be some lessons to be learned from May 28 2022.