Champions' League: Return ticket to chaos

President Platini must act firmly over the mayhem in Lens that should never have been
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The Independent Online

On a grim, sombre night for football, the spectacle of crowd panic, perimeter fencing and police aggressively responding, inside and outside the Stade Felix Bollaert, is one that should have had no place in the Champions' League in 2007.

What does it say about a sport - the elite, monied end, with its televised image bounced around the world - when spectators are still penned in? Sadly, that is not uncommon on the Continent, where the priority appears to be crowd control before crowd safety. Before we condemn that approach out of hand, it should be remembered that such a robust approach is the legacy of a hooliganism still prevalent in Europe and the behaviour of followers of England and English teams in the past.

But that does not in any way excuse the scenes we witnessed on Tuesday night. The new Uefa president, Michel Platini, must be thankful that there were no serious casualties. But if the Frenchman believed he could ease himself gently into his post, he was mistaken. The whole affair calls for strong leadership on his part.

Only one aspect of the night has had an inevitable conclusion: Lille's ludicrous objection to Ryan Giggs's winning goal for Manchester United from a swiftly taken free-kick, a strategy borrowed from the Thierry Henry textbook. Their protest has correctly been cast out by Uefa - indeed, there is an argument that they should have been punished for bringing a spurious complaint - and the French club charged over their threat to leave the pitch. That cannot be in any way condoned, and the best they can anticipate is a suspended sentence.

The real horrors occurred well before that goal gave United victory towards the end of a tedious contest played on the wretched surface of Lille's adopted Lens stadium. Both the hosts and United have attempted to claim the higher moral ground of what caused the problems at the "away" end, and the reaction of officials and police to it.

Afterwards there were the ritual laments from United travellers: recollections of brutal policing and poor stewarding. Certainly, any unnecessary over-reaction must be condemned outright, although Lille, their head of security, and the police, in counter-recrimination, have vigorously defended their actions. The truth, or something approaching it, will emerge on 22 March when Uefa's disciplinary committee meet. Though one would not want to pre-empt that, clearly there was a breakdown in crowd control.

Yet, 18 years after Hillsborough and 22 years after Heysel, there should never have been that opportunity for the scene that unfolded; not in an all-seater stadium, and not if the appropriate number of spectators holding authentic tickets had been admitted. That appears to have been the crux of the problem.

There may be those among the MPs and commentators who have called for the reintroduction of so-called "safe standing areas" who will regard Tuesday's events as some kind of vindication for their campaign; the argument being that seated areas can be dangerous, too. If so, those arguments should be resisted firmly.

This pressure for "the right to choose whether to sit or stand" has always been ill-conceived. The game has moved on. The selfish act of standing in seated areas, blocking the view of children and smaller adults, should be firmly discouraged, not regarded as some acceptable act of protest. Significantly, the Hillsborough Family Support Group are opposed to the reintroduction of standing areas at major grounds, and it is difficult to imagine any government or authority reversing the current policy. Whatever problems were caused in Lens were apparently, and that word should be stressed, the consequence of United supporters entering with forgeries or without tickets at all; not the fact that it was a seated area.

It has been reported that there were 5,000 spectators in an area designed for 3,500. That is one aspect that is particularly troubling. United have responded with the defence that the tickets, supplied by Lille, were vulnerable to forgeries. While that may be true, does it absolve United supporters from taking responsibility for their actions?

What was disturbing was to listen to a United follower on Radio Five Live the following day, during a spirited defence of himself and his fellow travellers, insouciantly concede that he had frequently travelled without a ticket, in the hope of buying one once at the venue. He had not borne in mind the possible repercussions of such acts, if carried out on a large scale. At best, it means United fans becoming located among the "home" supporters, with all the implications of such a placement. At worst, it could contribute to the kind of situation United followers found themselves in on Tuesday.

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