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.

UEFA Champions League: A Real mess for Liverpool

REAL MADRID attract major trophies just as Liverpool seem to court drama and controversy. There’s no denying the French police handled the event abysmally, clumsily responding to an incident that was partly their own making and treating Liverpool’s fans with disdain and strong-arm aggression. In the circumstances, it’s no surprise that these events overshadowed the triumph of the Spanish champions.

Likewise, if the problem was also caused by fake tickets, and there were allegedly ticket touts roaming around London St. Pancras, then greater control has to be exerted. I spoke to Liverpool fans at the station who were going to Paris without a ticket just to be there. Who can blame them?

Denis, Denis…

If UEFA had any teeth, they would not consider the Stade de France for future finals, even though Paris is the spiritual home of the European Cup. Saint-Denis is not an ideal place to welcome 75,000 people, if only because the crime rate is far higher than the national average in France. Perhaps that’s why the local police were quick to introduce a chemical response.

The truth will emerge in the weeks ahead, but it was obvious that, given the easy accessibility of Paris, there was always going to be a mass movement of Liverpool fans for this game. Some people believe we are still in the 1980s, that all British football fans are violent. Unfortunately, the anarchy at the European Championship final undid a lot of the fine work over the previous two decades and once more, continental Europe perceived the English as feral hooligans. How much of that sentiment drove the behaviour of the French authorities?

There have been attempts to simply blame Liverpool fans for the debacle, but at St. Pancras the lengthy queues included the very old and very young, expectant, hopeful supporters waiting to board their train. Given the huge numbers, it was inevitable that some would be unruly, no matter which club they followed. I was in Stockholm in 2017 for the Europa Final and I witnessed some bad behaviour from Manchester United fans and in Paris a few years ago, Chelsea fans were filmed abusing locals. Big crowds have a higher percentage of those willing to step over the line.

Criticism of Liverpool fans invariably gets interpreted as criticism of Liverpool the city. Football is so vital to the city for its escapism and source of local pride, but the rest of the country doesn’t really understand so this intensity is often used as a stick to beat Liverpool on the head.

Skysportsism

Did Liverpool really think the quadruple was on? Did they truly target four trophies? It would seem unlikely anyone was seriously contemplating winning the lot, mostly because to win everything, you have to beat teams who are similarly focused on those prizes, namely, Manchester City and Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp is too professional to do anything but adopt the age-old cliché: “We take each game as it comes”. The pursuit of four cups made for a good “skysportsism” and helped the bookies cash-in on the run-in to the end of the campaign, and that was it.

Liverpool had a great season, but their margin of success was as narrow as any margin of defeat. Their two cup victories were achieved on penalties, that most unsatisfactory method of success. Two 0-0 draws against Chelsea that could so easily have gone the other way. They lost the league by one point and the Champions League by a single goal. Liverpool played with a flamboyance that has, arguably, exhausted them, but City still topped the table. Real Madrid, a team nobody really considered as potential champions, managed by a coach that was supposed to be past his best, controlled Liverpool like no other opponent in 2021-22. For all their pressure and possession, it never looked as though Klopp’s men would ever equalise.

Twin peaks?

Klopp was understandably distraught, the peak of his trademark cap pulled down to shield his eyes, but predicted Liverpool would be back, joking that fans should book their hotels for Istanbul in 2023. But was this season the peak of this Liverpool, indeed both teams? For Real this is more understandable as they have a host of key players at the veteran stage of their careers. For Liverpool, they have pushed Manchester City for four years, closing the gap between the two clubs, but with City already reinforcing their squad, the task will arguably get even harder. Between them, they have won over 70% of their league games over five years. They have scored over 900 league goals in that time.

Liverpool’s dynamic forward line of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané has arguably played its last game for the club. This trio have scored 58% of Liverpool’s Premier League goals over five years, although the ratio dropped significantly in 2021-22.

Salah has said he’s staying at Anfield for next season, but his contract expires in June 2023. In other words, unless he signs a new deal, Salah will be running-off his contract and Liverpool will not get a handsome fee. Firmino is also looking to leave and Mané seems bound for Bayern Munich. All three players are either 30 or a fortnight off that landmark. Admittedly, Liverpool have options in Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, but can they cope with losing Salah?

Real have been putting off their rebuilding, although there have been changes in recent years. But surely, this time, the team has achieved all that it can? Real have won five Champions Leagues since 2014 with teams that were not exactly trendsetters or great innovators. Some of their five victories, such as 2022 and 2016, were not especially convincing and generally, sceptics consider Real have come through the competition because of their wealth and size. It’s hard to be critical, because five is five after all, and Champions League winners come in different shapes and sizes and not always representative of the current hierarchy. It is, in its final stages, a knockout tournament.

You only need look at their path to glory and the opponents they have beaten: PSG, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. If a team beats rivals of these quality, they are deserved winners. Ultimately, the reason there has been a collective shrug of the shoulder is because it feels like the same old song. Real Madrid, champions of Europe. It has happened 14 times.

Liverpool v Real Madrid – royalty at play

PEP GUARDIOLA believes everyone loves Liverpool, that they have the neutrals’ vote when it comes to the confrontation between his club and the Reds. He’s very wrong, because over the years, Liverpool have certainly been respected for their football, their consistency and innovation, but for a number of reasons, they are the club opposition fans love to see beaten.

In Spain it is probably a similar story for Real Madrid, they are the most popular and the most unpopular of clubs. Likewise, in other countries, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Ferencvaros, Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain will have as much hatred poured their way as they do love and affection. Success breeds jealousy and contempt and the green-eyed monster is a well-established resident in the game of football.

However, respect is due to both Liverpool and Real Madrid for their record in European football and there are no more popular coaches in the modern game than Jürgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti.

It promises to be a stunning match to end what has been a riveting Champions League season. While we can easily criticise the structure that has created huge imbalances in football, the quality of the competition never disappoints. But it is a rich man’s play thing, a society of wealthy, blingy clubs and players, prima-donnas and starlets. At the end of the final, the winners are showered in gold ticket-tape like wedding confetti, but it might be more appropriate to send kilos of cotton wool into the sky.

 LiverpoolReal Madrid
League Titles1935
Cup wins7 (+9 Lge Cup)19
Champions League wins613
Other European titles34
Average Attendance 2021-2253,09641,228
Total income 2020-21£ 487.4m
(-1% on 2020)
€ 653m
(-9% on 2020)
P&L 2020-21(£4.8m)€ 1.7m
Wage bill£ 314.4m (65% of income)€ 371.8m (57% of income)
Social Media followers118 million300 million
UEFA Ranking25

It is hard to predict a winner, but over the past decade, the richest club have invariably lifted the trophy. In fact, since 2005, the poorer (and that word is used loosely) club has won just four times: Liverpool in 2005, Barcelona in 2009, Inter Milan in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012 and 2021. The roll-call of finalists tells you everything: the club with the lowest level of income has been Atlético Madrid in 2014 and 2016 (source: Deloitte). Using this as a guide, then Real should be favourites (second richest versus seventh), but it is hard to look beyond Liverpool for the quality of their team and coach.

Yet Real Madrid have made a habit of winning this competition without necessarily being the best team around. They are certainly not the only club to do this, there were arguably better teams than Chelsea in 2012 and 2021 and Liverpool in 2019. Real Madrid’s record in the competition carries an awful lot of weight, but so, too, does Liverpool’s rich history. A Liverpool win in Paris will be their seventh in the European Cup/Champions League, putting them level with AC Milan. In short, both Real Madrid and Liverpool can rightly be considered “European royalty”. The banners held by Liverpool fans may irritate their opponents, but it is true.

The path to Paris

Liverpool had a very attractive and challenging first phase group, including AC Milan, Porto and Atlético Madrid, their average UEFA ranking was 25. Real, by comparison, had a weaker group comprising Inter Milan, Sheriff of Moldova and Shakhtar Donetsk. The average ranking was 51. While Liverpool won all six of their group fixtures, Real slipped-up at home to Sheriff, but were successful in every other game.

The knockout stage really showed Real Madrid’s resilience and also underlined the brilliance of often underrated striker, Karim Benzema. Real lost a game in each of the round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals, but emerged triumphant each time. Benzema has scored 15 goals in the competition, including 10 in the knockout games with hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.

Real’s ability to turn around a tie was seen against PSG, Chelsea and – quite dramatically – in the semi-final with Manchester City. On the way to Paris, they beat three of the last four finalists in the Champions League.

Liverpool’s group might have been tougher, but they had a slightly more comfortable time from the round of 16 onwards. Inter were beaten far more convincingly than the 2-1 aggregate suggested and Benfica and Villareal gave them a challenge, but it wasn’t Manchester City or even Chelsea. In 12 games, Liverpool lost once, compared to Real’s four defeats. The UEFA rankings at present favour Liverpool in second position to Real Madrid’s fifth.

League form

Real Madrid won La Liga for the 35th time in 2021-22. Their margin of victory was 13 points, the second highest in the past 10 years in Spain. In some ways, Real have not received the credit they deserve for their domestic success. Barcelona were in a state of flux and coming to terms with the loss of Lionel Messi and Atlético Madrid seemed hamstrung by injury and a lack of fresh impetus. It wasn’t a title by default by any means, 26 wins from 38 games says it all, but nobody appears to rate Real or their popular coach Carlo Ancelotti highly enough. Regardless, they have won the league and reached the Champions League final, so Ancelotti and his team are doing something right.

Liverpool continued their two-way battle with Manchester City, losing out on the Premier League title by one point. As the media have pointed out, this could have been a year of the quadruple, but Klopp’s side have missed-out after finishing runners-up in the league. They have won the two domestic knockout competitions, both on penalties against Chelsea, and they could still end up with a treble. Liverpool’s league record is very impressive and clearly the mark of a champion club. Two defeats in the Premier, 94 goals scored, 26 conceded would win almost any major league in almost any other season.

Liverpool and Manchester City have dominated the Premier over the past four years and there is no sign of that duopoly ending any time soon. Both clubs adopt a smart approach to team-building with a strong emphasis on data and strategic hiring. When the rest of the league catches up, then Liverpool and City may come under more pressure, but they are currently so far ahead of their rivals the 2022-23 season will surely be more of the same.

How the squads were built

LiverpoolSeasonReal Madrid
Konaté (£ 36m)
Diaz (£ 37.5m)
2021-22Alaba (free)
Camavinga (€ 31m)
Tsimikas (£ 11.7m)
Thiago (£ 20m)
Jota (£ 41m)
2020-21 
Minamino (£ 7.2m)2019-20Militao (€ 50m) Hazard (€ 115m)
Mendy (€ 48m)
Rodrygo (€ 45m)
Jović (€ 60m)
Keita (£ 52.7m)
Fabinho (£ 39m)
Alisson (£ 55.5m)
2018-19Courtois (€ 35m)
Vinicius (€ 45m)

Salah (£ 36.9m)
Robertson (£ 8m)
Van Dijk (£ 70m)

2017-18Ceballos (€ 16.5m)
Matip (free)
Mané (£ 30m)
2016-17Asensio (€ 3.9m)
Valverde (€ 5m)
Gomez (£ 3.5m)
Milner (free)
Firmino (£ 21.3m)
2015-16 
Origi (£ 10m)2014-15Kroos (€ 25m)
 2013-14Carvajal (€ 65m)
Casemiro (€ 6m)
Isco (€ 30m)
Bale (€ 100m)
 2012-13Modrić (€ 30m)
Henderson (£ 16m)2011-12 
 2010-11 
 2009-10Benzema (€ 35m)
 2008-09 
 2007-08 
 2006-07Marcelo (€ 6.5m)

Over the past five years, Liverpool’s transfer market activity has resulted in a net spend of minus £ 200 million, the ninth biggest deficit in English football. This was less than the two Manchester clubs by some distance, but Chelsea (-£ 240m) and Tottenham (- £232m) were not far behind. Since the Klopp era began, Liverpool’s gross outlay has been £ 668 million and net spend totals £ 226 million. What has become obvious is that Liverpool rarely have a poor buy, which says a lot about the process behind their transfer market decision-making.

Real Madrid’s gross expenditure in the same period was the equivalent of £ 634 million and their net is even better, a deficit of £ 59.1 million. Real have generated £ 575 million from player sales since 2015. While Real’s squad is valued at € 816 million by Football Benchmark, Liverpool’s comes in at more than € 988 million. Liverpool’s squad is also slightly younger at 27.2 years compared to Real’s 27.5 years, but the latter has a more urgent need to bring down the age of its regular starting line-up. Liverpool certainly seem to have more valuable players at current market prices. Both clubs are heavily reliant on foreign talent.

The past is no guide

The two clubs have met in the final twice before, in 1981 and 2018. The first clash was in Paris and Liverpool scraped home 1-0 in a somewhat tame game. In 2018, in Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano, Real took advantage of mistakes by Liverpool’s goalkeeper Loris Karius and won 3-1. Liverpool also lost Mo Salah after half an hour to a bad tackle from Sergio Ramos. The two clubs have come face-to-face eight times in the competition overall, with Real winners four times, Liverpool three, and there has been one draw, in 2020-21.

Past results, however, are no pointer to how this final will go. These clubs are Champions League experts and this will be Carlo Ancelotti’s fifth as a coach to Klopp’s four. Finals are often a disappointment, but the way Liverpool and Real play suggests there will be no overbearing caution or reluctance to go in search of the trophy. All clichés aside, this could be a very compelling game.