The European Championship quarter-final between Iceland and France was not the only notable event held at the Stade de France on 3 July 2016. The Council of Europe also staged an opening ceremony that day for signatories to a new convention designed to provide “a safe, secure and welcoming environment at football matches and other sports events”.
France was one of the member states who signed up and the legally binding international treaty took its name from the location of the ceremony. The Saint-Denis convention was born. The irony of France’s public commitment and the convention’s name will not be lost on anyone affected by the chaos outside the Stade de France before, during and after Saturday’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.
Liverpool fans were forced into bottlenecks by French police on their approach to the stadium and teargassed while trapped outside closed turnstiles. Many were attacked and robbed by locals on the streets of Saint-Denis when leaving France’s national stadium after the game.
By then, attempts to deflect blame from the shambolic organisation and police violence were under way, with Uefa attributing the delayed kick-off to the “late arrival of fans” before changing tact to counterfeit tickets. French government ministers have maintained that line ever since, along with the claim that, based on rail user figures, an extra 30,000-40,000 Liverpool fans descended on the stadium either without tickets or with fakes.
The realities of last Saturday are a long way from the obligations enshrined in the Saint-Denis convention. France was among 14 Council of Europe member states who signed the convention at its launch in 2016. The total is now 23 states who have signed and ratified – including the Russian Federation, which is no longer a member after its invasion of Ukraine – plus 15 states who have only signed (including the UK).
Its original form was the spectator violence convention, adopted in 1985 after the Heysel Stadium tragedy, but, as the title suggests, that was too focused on security and not the overall management of a major sporting event. By 2011-12 the committee that monitors the convention had adopted 28 specific recommendations for improving safety, security and service at major sports events.
In 2015 these were adopted into a single, consolidated recommendation, helping to bridge the 1985 convention with the new one signed at the Stade de France the following year. The secretary of the Saint-Denis convention, Paulo Gomes, outlines some of its key articles. “It mentions the need for coordination arrangements,” says Gomes. “It talks about all essential standards in terms of safety, security and service inside sports venues, the three main risks being pyrotechnics, any violent or other prohibited behaviour and, last but not least, any racist or other discriminatory behaviour.
“We also have a specific article dealing with these aspects outside sporting venues. It is very important to cover all the spectators’ journey from the home, to the city, to the stadium and then back home. This includes fanzones, everything that is going on in the city centre and the surroundings of the stadium.
“There is also an article on emergency and contingency planning, to tackle any kind of incident inside or outside the stadium. This convention mentions very clearly for the first time that there needs to be communication and confidence between the public authorities, namely the police, supporters groups and the local communities and businesses.
“We have an article about police strategy and operations. It describes the good practices for policing football events, such as the importance of intelligence gathering, a dynamic risk assessment, a risk-based deployment of police officers and, perhaps the most important one for me, the proportionate intervention of the police to prevent the escalation of risk or disorder. A proportionate intervention – that is key. And, last but not least, evidence gathering and the sharing of evidence with the competent authorities for prosecution.”
Gomes cannot comment on the specifics of the police operation at the Champions League final due to the various investigations that have started. But he admits: “It’s about international cooperation. In international matches like in Saint-Denis it is key that there is an exchange of experiences and information between not only the sports authorities but also the police. We have a European network of NFIPs – national football information points, there is one in every member state – and they facilitate the exchange of police information with each other.
“The French police in Saint-Denis must have received relevant police information from their Spanish and British counterparts in the NFIPs to help them plan and prepare for the policing of this event.”
The Spirit of Shankly supporters’ union has said it worked closely with Liverpool, Football Supporters Europe and Merseyside police on fan safety in the weeks leading up to the final but their “collective work was ignored by Uefa and the relevant French authorities”.
The Council of Europe contacted the French authorities this past week and the committee will consider the lessons learned at its next meeting. “The convention doesn’t establish sanctions for non-compliance,” admits Gomes. “What we are currently examining with the committee, still in a draft status, is to adopt a non-compliance procedure but only for cases where the state party doesn’t respect its procedural obligations in providing information on the implementation of the convention at national level.”