It was 30 minutes after the scheduled kick-off time for the Champions League final when the seat to my left at the Stade de France was occupied by a teenager. He arrived crying and bent over, comforted by his father - former Liverpool player Dirk Kuyt.
“I was pepper sprayed outside,” he replied.
Three hours earlier, I’d seen the family mingling with Liverpool fans close to the Real Madrid end of the stadium. They asked their former winger for photos. He obliged. They asked for predictions. He said Liverpool. The weather was warm and sunny, the atmosphere fitting the big occasion.
I had arrived in Paris late on purpose. I had to cover the game as a journalist and to talk about Real Madrid. But their opponents were Liverpool and I’m from Manchester. Being surrounded by tens of thousands of happy, expectant Scousers isn’t my idea of fun.
Fans were still arriving at Charles de Gaulle at 4pm. European airports regularly register their busiest days when they stage European football’s biggest game, but the largest airport in Paris appeared to be coping fine.
At a tourist information point I asked the following question: “What time is the metro running until tonight?” It was a simple, straightforward enquiry.
The woman was friendly but she didn’t know the answer, and nor did her male colleague.
The first thing I saw coming through arrivals was six soldiers holding large guns. Nothing unusual in that, a show of strength and force from the host.
There was a man in a suit holding up a sign which read ‘Roberto Martinez’. Belgium’s manager, previously with Liverpool’s rivals Everton, would doubtless have a seamless transfer to the Stade de France, a 25-minute drive.
At a Champions League information point, I asked the same question about the metro. The game would finish later and I would need to get to my hotel. Again, the man providing information was friendly, again, he didn’t know the answer. He pointed me towards the airport’s RER metro station but warned he had heard there was a strike on.
At the metro station, a woman helped fans buy tickets into central Paris. She didn’t speak English but used her phone to translate. The information board said the next direct train to Stade de France was on platform 11, so I boarded it.
A guard came on the train and told everyone to get off and change to the next platform, which we did. Ten minutes later, the same guard came on the train and told everyone to board the train on platform 11. So everyone moved back, some more exasperated than others. Most of the passengers spoke French, but I sat next to Liverpool fan John Kinsella, 59. His son Tom had to stand.
They had paid £850 for return flights from Liverpool on airlines known as "budget" on days when it’s not the Champions League final. Their flight was delayed by two hours but they would still make the 2022 Champions League final in good time.
Kinsella, a former car worker from west Derby, near Anfield, applied for tickets in the Uefa ballot two weeks ago and got lucky – if you can call £350 per ticket lucky. Plenty of his friends did not.
“I’m quietly confident but don’t know why,” he said ahead of the final. “I felt this way before the final in Madrid three years ago but not before the final in Kiev in 2018.” This was to be Liverpool’s third final in five years – not quite matching Madrid’s five in five in the 1950s or four out of five between 2014-18 (and four wins too).
Kinsella has a season ticket in Anfield’s main stand and plays football with the Red Neighbours team which is funded by Liverpool FC. “They say it’s walking football but none of us walk,” he states. “It’s good for us physically and mentally. We have a cup of tea and a chat after.”
I enjoyed talking to him, but couldn’t believe the costs involved; the £350 face value ticket and the £850 flights. They were flying back early the following morning and saw no point in a hotel.
I left the RER B station 600 metres south of the 80,000-seater stadium with the Kinsellas. There were no crowds and no issues. Indeed, the station area was quiet for such a huge occasion. Liverpool fans reported trying to get from central Paris on line B, but police directing them to line D – which was far busier than usual.
I was a little envious of the Kinsellas; I remembered walking to a European Cup final with my own late father. There were photocopied adverts for tickets for the game posted on lampposts. One showed a ticket with the words "Your dream has a price!" underneath and a French email address. Another said: "Ticket wanted" in English and had a French mobile number. Tickets were selling for around €2,000 on the street, not that there were many to sell.
Liverpool fans were in the area, the mood was positive. They posed for pictures by flags. One said: "Unbearably Relentless. Paris 22." It was surprising how few the number of signages were; fans moved forward following other fans.
I walked around the perimeter of the stadium and down some back street towards the accreditation centre. It was a little edgy away from the main thoroughfares and as I passed through a motorway underpass, I was conscious of my surroundings and that I was carrying the tools of my trade – a computer, a mobile phone.
Nothing untoward happened. I smiled at the "Pep City" signs on several coaches parked by the side of the road. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were not there, but these coaches carried sponsors.
The mood was jovial again by the canal on the eastern side of the stadium. There were more Real Madrid fans in that area but Liverpool fans were present too and there was no tension. Fans sang, with Liverpool fans belting out their latest Beatles number.
It was busy around the accreditation centre. Two lads with Liverpudlian accents were trying to get in past staff who didn’t want to let them in. They didn’t look like journalists.
It was busy behind the Real Madrid end three hours before kick-off. A man in an Arsenal shirt stood out because he wasn’t wearing white. Too many fans who are not from the finalists get tickets, too many fans who go to games miss out on tickets. I spoke to several Real Madrid fans about their trip. They were as confident as the Liverpool fans. There were no issues between rival fans but it was getting busy.
I went into the stadium to do my work pitch side and it was a Liverpool who’s who there by the television cameras. I worked with former goalkeeper David James. He said Liverpool would win, I said the opposite. Steven Gerrard walked past and David hugged him. Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Peter Crouch. You heard "Stevie lad!" or "Smile, Robbie lad!" in Scouse accents from fans in the nearby seats.
I walked away from the pitch and out towards the perimeter of the stadium. It was getting busy, but the Liverpool fans I saw were queuing patiently. Inside the stadium, the Madrid end was already full and the Liverpool end only a quarter occupied.
This didn’t surprise me. I’d seen exactly the same in Stockholm before the 2017 Europa League final when the Manchester United sections was three-quarters empty. I joked then that the cultural difference was that English fans liked to stay in the pub as long as possible. The Ajax fans had roared their team through their warm ups – but then they’d also lost the game.
But it was different in Paris. At 19:57, a series of messages began to come through ahead of the 21:00 start: “Absolute carnage outside. So dangerous. Police have not got a clue. Pushing people one way and then refusing entry. Queues are enormous.” He sent photographic evidence. Further messages followed:
20:17: “Not moving. Not even gates.”
20:24: “They’ve closed the gates. No idea what’s going on.”
20:36: “Stuck. Enormous queues at every gate.”
20:42: “All closed. Locked all the gates.”
These were from Nick Kelly who works in crowd management in Manchester and meets the police and services on a regular basis. He’s also that extremely rare breed of Mancunian who goes to every single Liverpool game, home and away.
He supports Liverpool because his parents, who are from Merseyside, support Liverpool. He was with his father Steve, 75 and a Liverpool fan since 1960 and author of a dozen Liverpool books. Steve told me he arrived at the stadium two hours before kick-off.
By 20:30 I was struggling to get reception on my mobile, despite having 5G. Rumours have long proliferated on European away trips among football fans. Some Liverpool fans searched in vain for a mythical ‘Adidas centre’ before the 1981 European Cup final in Paris between Liverpool and Real Madrid, but they’ve calmed since the access to instant information via phones. But when the phones went down, so did the information.
At 20:45, the stadium’s giant screen showed the following message: “Due to the late arrival of fans at the stadium, the match has been delayed. Further information will follow in 15 minutes.”
That didn’t seem right. Steve and Nick told me they arrived two hours earlier and I believed them. More messages from Nick – these were the times they were received rather than sent since the coverage was dropping in and out.
21:14: “Managed to get in through another gate. They didn’t even check our ticket. Absolute joke.”
I asked him how his father was.
21:21: “He’s OK. A bit shook up. As you can imagine everyone is stressed outside.”
21.23: “And the ‘late arrival of fans’ line from Uefa is utter rubbish. I do this for my job. I know about crowd control and it’s incredible how incompetent the stewarding and planning has been.”
I spoke to two Liverpool fans on the concourse outside the stadium. We moved because of the smell of tear gas.
“We got to the ground at half past six and walked up from the station,” said Tom Ralf. “There was a big crowd of Liverpool fans and we tried to get through but couldn’t. We heard there was a crush at the front. I didn’t see it but people starting panicking. The riot police were running in and causing panic. Because the gates were closed, there was chaos.”
“They shut the Liverpool gates to get into the ground, but the buffer zone before them was still open so fans were coming in at the back,” Jack Ralf added. “We had gone through the first security check when people without tickets were getting turned away. We saw people getting turned away.”
Real Madrid won the game 1-0 to lift a 14th European Cup.
“I’ve been to lots of European final and European games. I’ve followed football around the world,” Steve told me the day after the game. “Outside the ground, it was the worst I’ve ever seen. I went to Madrid in 2019 and had no problems. It was well organised. But not in Paris.” He told me he won’t go again if Liverpool reach another final.
“I’d been to Stade de France before and assumed there would be no problems, but it was chaos. Transport to the ground was excellent. Then we came out of the RER station and up the road to a ramp by the stadium area. The police were stopping people on the ramp and checking them. There were thousands there. We arrived at the ramp at 7pm, two hours before kick-off. It was really dangerous. There were people in wheelchairs.
“The French police didn’t have a handle on it. They were dressed like they were in an invading army – all riot gear with big helmets. They waved batons and riot shields. They were threatening and provocative. It was unnecessary. The Liverpool fans were remarkably patient in the queues. I was surprised it didn’t kick off.
“The police told us to go along the road adjacent to the ramp which people started doing. Fifty yards down that road, we found the police had blocked it and were sending people back leading to further chaos. We got off the ramp after climbing over a wall.”
“Banter” internet accounts shared a video of this, with Steve in it, stating: “Liverpool fans are climbing into the stadium” with emojis. This was factually incorrect. Fans like Steve were trying to get off the ramp to avoid being crushed. Fans believed videos like this, while journalists who were at the game did their jobs trying to relay to the rest of the world what was actually happening. A report by Sky journalist Kaveh Solhekol showed graphic visuals of the crush.
“That’s how we got into the main stadium concourse areas,” said Steve. His son gave more details.
“My dad had to get pulled over the wall,” Nick says. “He says he climbed but I pushed him and someone else pulled him. He’s 75. It was really dangerous. There was a lack of communication between the people on the ground. It wasn’t thirty something males, there were families.
"There were also a lot of young French lads obviously trying to bunk in the Liverpool end and there may have been some Liverpool fans with fake tickets. Sadly, you get fakes for a Champions League final but they should have been filtered out to stop them getting near the stadium. It was obvious who had a ticket and who didn’t. The stewards at the front got overwhelmed by gangs of local lads. I think that’s why they closed the gates.”
“We walked past gates,” said Steve. “We were at Gate Z. Every gate had a huge queue. We joined the queue for Gate Z which was at least 50 yards long and 10 deep. It was not moving. We were in that for 30 minutes and barely moved. People started saying: ‘The gates have been closed, we should try other gates’. We went to another gate but we didn’t have the right ticket for that gate.
"People were being turned back. We didn’t get to the barrier to have our tickets checked. In the end, we found ourselves at Gate X and managed to get in there. The police didn’t know what they were doing. We were now in the inside concourse but the wrong sector. We asked a steward to let us into the sector where we were supposed to be. He said no. There were two Real Madrid fans the other side of the fence and they wanted to swap with us. The steward said ‘no’.
“A Uefa steward showed up and was able to persuade him to open the gate and let us through. We were able to take our own seats. It was after 9pm and the kick-off time. It took us over two hours to get there from the metro. I saw a guy who sits near me at Anfield. He said they finally opened the gates and let everyone in. That’s very, very dangerous. It did feel like there were more people than there should have been in the Liverpool section.
“When the game finished, the riot police were lined up shoulder to shoulder in front of the Liverpool section. I don’t know what they expected us to do.
“I heard of Liverpool fans having problems after the game, being attacked and mugged on the way back to the metro. There were gangs of locals who were threatening.
“It was a horrible, horrible experience. The French are very lucky that nobody was seriously hurt or killed. This wasn’t a game played in a third world country, but a game in one of the biggest and best stadiums in the world in a city which is staging the Olympic Games.”