The curious incident of the Scousers in the stadium

Did Liverpool fans really steal tickets from children at the Champions League Final? Unlikely, says Duleep Allirajah.

Duleep Allirajah

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Liverpool fans stole tickets ‘out of the hands of children’, claimed UEFA spokesman William Gaillard. ‘The UEFA man is a clown’ who ‘doesn’t know what he’s talking about’, retorted Liverpool’s co-owner Tom Hicks.

The Punch and Judy trading of blows between UEFA and Liverpool FC over the ticketing fiasco at last month’s Champions League Final is a damn sight more entertaining than any of the football you’ll witness at Anfield, that’s for sure. When a war of words breaks out between Scousers and UEFA bureaucrats, it’s tempting not to take sides but to just sit back and enjoy the mudslinging. Regular readers of this column may have detected a Johnson-esque (Boris, that is) tendency to poke fun at the Scouse propensity for whining, self-pity, sentimentalism, and wearing the cap of victimhood rather too readily. I’ll be the first to laugh at pictures of weeping Scousers in Athens or the unused open-top bus sitting in a Bootle depot with the slogan ‘We’ve won it six times’ painted on the back. But on this occasion, I’m inclined to agree with the Scousers that UEFA is rather disingenuously attempting to blame Liverpool fans for their own inability to organise a proverbial gang-bang in a brothel.

The row was sparked by leaked details of a confidential UEFA report supposedly containing damning evidence about the conduct of Liverpool fans abroad. The dossier, which was compiled by undercover police, apparently shows that travelling Liverpool fans have been involved in more trouble than supporters of any other European club. ‘There have been 25 incidents involving Liverpool fans away from home since 2003 and these are in the report – most teams’ supporters do not cause any trouble at all’, claimed William Gaillard.

English fans travel in larger numbers to European away fixtures than their Continental counterparts, so any sort of league table of crowd trouble is bound to be misleading. And what exactly constitutes an ‘incident’ anyway? The heavy-handed tactics of some European police forces are often the main cause of crowd trouble – as we saw with the trouble involving Manchester United and Spurs fans last season. The precise nature of the ‘incidents’ to which Gaillard refers is unclear because the UEFA report has not been published. Intriguingly, a spokesman for sports minister Richard Caborn now claims that the report contains no such list of incidents. ‘UEFA gave us the report in confidence and we are going to respect that, but there is certainly no list of incidents in this report,’ his spokesman said. Curiouser and curiouser!

What has really infuriated Liverpool supporters is that William Gaillard has pre-empted UEFA’s ongoing investigation into the problems in Athens and made up his mind that Liverpool fans were guilty. ‘We know what happened in Athens, and Liverpool fans were the cause of most of the trouble there’, said Gaillard. ‘What other set of fans steal tickets from their fellow supporters or out of the hands of children?’ The sensationalist allegation that fans stole from children has certainly achieved its desired effect, with newspapers and media organisations throughout the world faithfully reproducing the story. But does this allegation have any foundation?

You can’t really accuse the Scousers of colluding in a Merseyside omerta and refusing to betray their own. Many Liverpool fans, while complaining vociferously about UEFA, have also been very critical of the behaviour of some ticketless fans. In radio phone-ins and on fan message boards there have been numerous first-hand accounts of fans getting into the stadium with ‘blag tickets’ (forgeries), of ticketless scallies charging the entrance gates, and the odd tale of ticket snatching. But I’ve yet to come across one single eyewitness account of a ticket being stolen from a child. Odd that, isn’t it? What are the odds that this tale of ticket thievery will turn out to be apocryphal?

Liverpool fans certainly aren’t all angels. The behaviour of a small minority was, by all accounts, anti-social. Liverpool FC hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory either by distributing only 11,000 of the club’s 17,000 official ticket allocation to fans; the rest going to former shareholders, corporate season ticket holders, players, former players, staff and sponsors. But, in my view, UEFA must take ultimate responsibility for the dangerous overcrowding in the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry warned UEFA in advance that up to 40,000 fans would get into the game ‘by hook or by crook’. The absence of turnstiles, moreover, made it easier for ticketless fans to get in. UEFA should have been better prepared but they cocked it up.

UEFA president Michel Platini has attempted to defuse the row by denying that Liverpool fans are the worst behaved in Europe. ‘No they are not, it’s official’, said Platini. ‘They are not the worst behaved in Europe.’ So, that’s alright then. Well, perhaps not. William Gaillard’s ill-chosen remarks have fuelled the infamous Scouse persecution complex. Today’s Kopites seem to be born with the ‘taking offence’ gene and won’t be easily placated. On the Red and White Kop website there is talk about boycotting the products of UEFA’s sponsors unless Gaillard is sacked. Oh dear, whatever next? Red and white ribbons to commemorate the genuine ticket holders who couldn’t get into the stadium? Floral tributes to the 150 fans stranded at John Lennon Airport?

Now, while I sympathise with Liverpool fans in their spat with UEFA, there is no need to turn this issue into another orgy of victim-mongering. While Gaillard’s allegation that fans snatched tickets from children has echoes of the Sun’s fabricated claims that Liverpool fans picked the pockets of Hillsborough victims, we need to retain a sense of perspective. This wasn’t a repeat of Hillsborough. Nobody died. Gaillard’s remarks were crass but you hear worse things on the terraces on a Saturday afternoon. UEFA officials tend to talk rubbish. It’s part of the job description. Liverpool have made their point. UEFA have backed down. Now it’s time to move on.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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