Some are angry at the club for giving only 11,000 out of 17,000 tickets to fans, and the allocation arrangements. Some lionise those who conned their way in through bluff or with forgeries, though others wonder if any of them worked out what the consequences would be: either overfilled stands or some of those lucky 11,000 being excluded. But whatever the arguments between Liverpool and their fans, and among the supporters themselves, the central fact to emerge from the Athens ticket fiasco is that UEFA have lost control. They can no longer stage a major event and guarantee entry to legitimate ticket-holders.
For major events ticketless fans turn up in their thousands, partly because they want to feel part of it all, but also in the hope of acquiring a ticket somehow, anyhow. In Athens, at a ground that met the requirements of UEFA’s hospitality army but lacked something as basic as turnstiles, the security processes were overwhelmed by a determined travelling support that has created a precedent the ticketless will long remember.
The authorities should not be surprised by this. Nor should UEFA spokesman William Gaillard have turned the blame back on to the fans en masse. Citing a UEFA report, he said Liverpool fans have been involved in 23 separate “incidents” at away matches in Europe since 2003. “What other fans steal tickets from fellow fans or from the hands of children?” Gaillard concluded hysterically, in the process losing any grip on what might have been a serious analysis of the problems Liverpool fans, travelling abroad in unrivalled numbers, might have experienced or caused, and how these might be addressed. Michel Platini, asked a couple of days later if his organisation’s spokesman was right to describe Liverpool supporters as “the worst fans in Europe”, replied: “No.”
There is an unhealthy atmosphere around such occasions. Television beats the drum for major events pretty much to the order of UEFA and FIFA. They evoke and exaggerate the “passion”. They frame a match as the most transcendental experience available to man; just count the mentions of dreams, nightmares, fantasies, end-of-the-days. Clive Tyldesley even opened his commentary stint on ITV’s coverage with a riff along the lines of “well, they might not have had tickets, but we knew they’d get here”, over a shot of the massed Liverpool support. In the era of cheap flights, everywhere in Europe is within easy reach – you almost need a reason not to go.
You could have been to a dozen of Liverpool’s 14 games on the way to Athens, via Kiev, Istanbul and Eindhoven, and still found that you had fewer rights to a ticket than six members of Mastercard’s website fulfilment team, two of whom wouldn’t show up anyway. If sponsors want to show their support for football they should do it the easy way – by not taking huge allocations of tickets from supporters. There will be unhappy fans from all across the continent in Austria and Switzerland next summer, as those on freebies take sizeable slices of Euro 2008 tickets, when only two stadiums will hold more than 32,000.
At England’s rebuilt national stadium, too, the squeeze is being felt by genuine supporters and is diminishing the atmosphere. Look at the play-off finals, when Club Wembley members deemed the matches to be beneath them and the authorities couldn’t agree on how to sell the empty seats.
It is the regular supporter who makes the occasion, of course. A corporate trip wouldn’t be half so appealing if the rest of the crowd were just as disinterested in the outcome. There is a growing tension between the different kinds of attendee and UEFA and FIFA, though not alone, are getting the balance more wrong than anyone else. Yet the slice of football’s income from the corporate sector is ever-increasing. The Football Supporters’ Federation published its latest report on safe standing at the end of May. Though they received some backing, such as from Kate Hoey MP in the Daily Telegraph, it was met with predictable silence from the game’s authorities. This is in part because standing doesn’t fit in with what the clubs and the Premier League see as their high-growth income area.
Platini has made some of the right noises on such subjects as the allocation of Champions League places and calling on the G‑14 to disband. The man who scored the winning penalty at Heysel swiftly dismissed the blatherings of UEFA’s spokesman about Liverpool fans. So far it has largely been the right noises rather than the right actions, but it is still refreshing to find one football administrator who not only understands the sport but also, it seems, what it is like to be a fan. Demonstrating to his colleagues and counterparts that some things in football matter more than money, and that supporters are among them, could turn a cautious welcome for him into a warm embrace.
From WSC 245 July 2007