Unreasonable force

Adam Brown describes how the policing of Manchester United fans' visit to Porto descended into chaos

“I’m fucking sick of this. Everywhere we go we’re treated like shit.” I was inclined to agree with the bloke holding his head as another wave of batons came down on Manchester United fans entering Estádio Das Antas. To return home to tales of a fan with 17 stitches in his head, another laid up with baton wounds and another with three metal pellets still lodged in his body wasn’t exactly the celebration we had hoped for in reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League.

At least this time the message seemed to get through to the press back home that this wasn’t an English fan riot. But what worries me is that nothing ever changes in the preparation and execution of trips for English fans to European matches, despite the appalling treatment we have to put up with and the repeated warnings from fans’ organisations.

Manchester United’s trip to Porto – with over 30 fans hospitalized, several shot, many batoned, many more tear gassed, and a near-Hillsborough crush at the stadium gates – must be the most serious incident involving English fans for many years. But it is nothing really new, just more extreme.

Since English clubs returned to Europe we have had Liverpool supporters crushed into terracing in Auxerre; Manchester Untied fans beaten, imprisoned and deported from Turkey; Norwich supporters arbitrarily arrested in Milan; diabolical ticket distribution to Manchester United fans at Barcelona and elsewhere; Leeds fans deported without justification from Eindhoven; Chelsea fans detained at Bruges; and the batoning and tear gassing of Manchester United supporters in Turin last year.

The FSA, along with independent supporters associations and sometimes with the backing of luminaries such as Labour’s sports spokesperson, Tom Pendry, have issued reports on all of the above incidents calling for action to be taken. The response to this by the FA, UEFA, the clubs concerned and a government seemingly so keen to “defend Britain in Europe” has been close to zero in its impact. Is it any wonder we’re treated like fair game by any police force with itchy fingers and over-active conspiracy theories?

Porto was a classic example of how the cocktail of suspicion, prejudice, incompetence and apathy can pro-duce a near-disaster. Both the FSA and the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association were warning the FA and UEFA that at least 10,000 United fans were likely to travel to Porto. The chronic shortfall in available tickets (only 4,800 were available through United, most tied to their own trips) was partly offset by tickets bought in Portugal, and the four-nil thrashing in the first leg meant that demand in Porto itself evaporat-ed. Also, 1,400 extra tickets were miraculously made available through United the week before the game, even though we had all been told that it was sold out.

However, there seems to have been no attempt whatever to prepare Porto, its police or the club for what impact 10-12,000 visiting fans would have. In comparison to the the preparations in Manchester for 10,000 Germans at Euro 96, it was a different world.

Of course, responsibility for the complete chaos on the night of the game lies largely in Porto. There were no extra facilities in the city centre, no adequate travel to the stadium, no signs as to where different sections of the ground were, no-one communicating with fans via megaphone or PA. The redirection of all United supporters with tickets for other sections of the ground to the area behind one goal, the predictable rejection of these tickets by turnstile computers, and the inexplicable conclusion of the Portuguese police that the tickets must be forgeries – and therefore that turnstiles had to be closed – was the catalyst for a major crush.

The complete lack of knowledge about the numbers of fans getting hurt, the lack of communication between police and fans, and the decision then to open Gate 5 and herd everyone into a tunnel which led straight onto a packed and crumbling stairway was bordering on the criminally negligent. Of course, all this was done without checking tickets but with plenty of time to beat fans over their heads with batons, exacerbating the threat to those supporters already falling like dominoes down the un-stewarded concrete shelving.

Having only let fans in once a crush outside reached crisis proportions, the police, naturally, decided to close the gates and not let anyone out again. This did fray tempers on the inside, but that can surely be no excuse for the opening of the sliding gate to send volleys of tear gas and fire rounds of plastic-coated ball bearings into a completely enclosed space with no possibility of dispersal, save pushing everyone else down the staircase.

The knowledge of what had happened before the game – the overwhelmingly good-natured partying in the city centre, the swapping of scarves, the banter, as well as events such as the fans’ match on the Tuesday evening (organised by Porto fans, the FSA and United We Stand fanzine) – made it all seem so sad. The applause which rang out from the FC Porto stands for the tremendous United support, just as the first tear gas cannister exploded, was the ultimate in poignancy.

But what an abdication of responsibility on this side of the water! The FA’s security advisor, Adrian Titcombe, whose contribution to proceedings was to tell thousands of fans who had already spent hundreds of pounds on travel arrangements to watch it on television in England, is only the most negligent example. From the top to the bottom, despite all we’re told about the brave new football world, supporters are not listened to, are not involved in preparations for European travel, and are treated in much the same way as we were here before Hillsborough.

What is most frightening of all is that, as with stadium conditions in England, it will probably take a death, or deaths, before anything changes. That is a price which we shouldn’t have to pay for a bit of recognition and respect.

From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month