Terror attack at Belgium match raises security questions for major sports events

Rugby World Cup, Euro 2024 and Paris Olympics all potential targets after two Sweden fans killed on Monday

People lay flowers at the spot where two football supporters from Sweden were shot dead in a terror attack in Brussels, Belgium, on October 17, 2023. EPA
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By half-time, the news had reached a majority of those inside the Stade Roi Baudouin. They learnt that two of the spectators who had been making their way to Brussels’s main stadium for Monday night’s Euro 2024 qualifier between Belgium and Sweden never made it to their seats.

They had been shot, fatally, some 90 minutes before the scheduled kick-off. It is believed they were targeted for being Swedish.

The gunman, killed by police bullets the following morning, knew their nationality by their clothes, Sweden colours, worn with enthusiasm to a fixture that should have been about shared, patriotic pride – and only about that.

The Sweden national team was already very unlikely to reach next summer’s Euros. At 1-1 after 45 minutes in Brussels, their hopes were hanging on the sliver of a slim chance of somehow making it into the March play-offs.

It was during half-time that the Swedish players learnt of the deaths of their compatriots. In the grandstands, meanwhile, spectators scrolled phones for updates on the breaking story.

A loud bang from a firework caused unusual, jittery alarm because of the circumstances, memories being stirred of similar incidents, where terrorism has impacted on a sporting event.

Eight years ago, three bombs were detonated outside the Stade de France, just north of Paris, while France were playing Germany in a friendly designed as preparation for the following summer’s European championships.

Then, the reaction from some of the crowd to the noise of the first bomb, exploding 16 minutes into the first half, was to assume it was just a firework. The next explosion was louder. By the time the third bomb went off, four people in the area outside the stadium, including the three bombers, had died.

Police investigators later came to the conclusion the intention had been to detonate the bombs inside the Stade de France, where the attendance was more than 60,000.

That night in and around Paris, the bombings at the football were just one episode among several and the death toll, after co-ordinated shootings and bombings at restaurants and cafés and at the Bataclan theatre, where there was a packed crowd for a concert, would reach 130.

As central Paris reeled, the Stade de France turned from vulnerable target to place of refuge. The decision was taken not to abandon the France-Germany match for fear of panic as the crowd left the stadium. The German and French players slept overnight in the arena, deeming it safer than being outside.

Some of the same instinct informed Monday’s security operation at the Roi-Baudouin. The gunman – later identified as a Tunisian living in Belgium, linked to Islamic State and, the Swedish authorities believe, targeting Swedes because of the Quran-burning incidents in Sweden this year – was still at large long into the night.

It was thought safer for the crowd to be inside the stadium than on the streets of Brussels. The gates were eventually opened to let the 30,000 fans out at 15 minutes to midnight. Belgian fans passed some of the time cheering for Sweden, a gesture of solidarity in grief.

They filed out two hours after the last ball was kicked. Sweden’s players, told of the horrific shootings during half-time, had decided they would not continue with the match.

The captain, Victor Lindelof of Manchester United, canvassed opinion around his dressing-room and then consulted with the Belgium team.

“I tried to talk to all the players about how they felt,” he said. “Then I felt I needed to speak to Belgian players. I explained we felt very clearly we didn’t want to carry on. They understood.

“We wanted to look after our fans. There are players who had family and friends present and they wanted to make contact to see if they were okay. People were worried.”

Lindelof is against replaying or finishing the game at a later date. “I don’t think there is any point,” he said.

The repercussions will be felt most of all by the families of the dead, and by the taxi driver who sustained injuries during the shootings.

As with the Paris attacks of November 2015, the security of major sporting events, of fans from different nations travelling together in conspicuous groups and big numbers comes under urgent focus.

France stepped up its police and military presence around stadiums during its hosting of Euro 2016, staged seven months after the Paris attacks.

Just over Belgium’s borders, there are major, mass-attendance events taking place over the next nine days – the conclusion of the Rugby World Cup in France – and in eight months time, the Euro 2024 tournament in Germany.

In July, the Olympic Games go to Paris.

“Europe has been shaken,” said French president, Emmanuel Macron, of the shootings in Brussels.

Updated: October 17, 2023, 3:57 PM