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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Nobody willing to take blame for fiasco with fans in France


LONDON -- Supporters are told they are the most important people in football . . . the sport's biggest sponsors . . . yet when they are randomly batoned and bloodied by French policemen, as around 500 Manchester United fans were at the Champions League tie against Lille, nobody seems responsible.

Christopher Davies

I have seen video pictures taken on mobile phones and they looked like scenes from a Tarantino movie.

A 12-year-old girl and a 65-year-old man were among the traveling support who were sprayed with tear gas and hit by gendarmes who seemed to be on some sort of sick macho mission.

The days of English fans abroad behaving like hooligans have, thankfully, all but gone away, but the reputation from the 1970s and '80s lingers on. French police are stuck in a time-warp.

Eye witnesses say the number of checkpoints the visiting supporters had to go through delayed their arrival at the Stade Felix-Bollaert in Lens (Lille's ground does not meet UEFA requirements).

When they arrived at the stadium 20 minutes before kickoff the "United end" was overcrowded because of undetected counterfeit tickets, so the turnstiles were shut, preventing fans with genuine tickets from entering.

As their numbers grew, the French police forced them toward a wire fence, and with the fans cowering in fear, the gendarmes started lashing out indiscriminately.

The supporters never gained entry into the stadium, and most would have spent around £250 each traveling to France and NOT seeing United's 1-0 win.

Whose fault was it?

Lille blamed United for the chaos, the French club's director general, Xavier Thuilot, claiming their early distribution of tickets for the match allowed high-quality fakes to be produced.

Thuilot said: "We sent their quota of places to Manchester several weeks ago, as is the usual thing to do. But the English club, instead of distributing the tickets to their supporters on their arrival at the stadium (or) on their descent from the bus, sent them out a month ago.

"The result -- some very good forgeries, which have allowed some supporters to enter the stand reserved for them. All the forged tickets on the night were Manchester United tickets."

Can you imagine United officials trying to hand out 3,000 tickets to fans as they arrive at a stadium?

Or M. Thuilot attempting to do the same to the Lille fans outside Old Trafford for the return?

The Manchester police would love that.

And what does it say about Lille's security if 1,500 people can get in a ground with forged tickets?

The police were not to blame either -- so they say.

Though their statements and evidence fly in the face of just about every non-police eye-witness, Damien Vanoise, the chief of security at the Felix-Bollaert, was quick to defend his colleagues.

"I think we responded to what happened," he said. "We didn't intervene by chance. There was not even a problem of communication. From the moment we saw the supporters who were trying to pull on the railings, what is the interpretation we can make from that -- us, as security guards? For me, it is violent behavior."

The fact that the fans were trying to escape the tear gas and batons of the police is obviously irrelevant to Vanoise.

UEFA's control and disciplinary body will discuss the safety and security issues on March 22, and Lille can expect a minimum sanction of playing five or six European ties behind closed doors.

The real losers are the fans who were treated as target practice by the French police and, through no fault of their own, did not see the game.

UEFA cannot order Lille to compensate the supporters.

United will sympathize with their loyal fans and say there is nothing they can do.

The French police apparently did nothing wrong, so why should they take any responsibility?

The most important people in football have once again been treated like third-class citizens.

One seasoned United traveler, Kerry, told his chilling story.

He said, "Lille are responsible because they are incapable of hosting a football match. In England, the club are responsible for paying the police -- I expect the same is true in France.

"The buck HAS to stop with Lille. No two ways about it. I bought a ticket for Lille and was unable to get in because the facilities provided (and the police are part of that) did not permit me to do so. Me and hundreds of others.

"What good is a home ban? The tie should never have been played there, anyway. It was woeful four or five years ago, and it was even worse this time around.

"Our basic human rights were violated by the police, and they should not be allowed to get away with it. One lad returned to England with a broken leg needing 35 stitches.

"However, nothing will be done. It never is. We are only football fans. Mark my words, someone WILL be killed, and then we'll see action.

"Too little, too late, and nothing that we've not been saying for years has been listened to.

"But I guarantee you there will be a fatality."

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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