How much has European football learnt over the last eighteen years or so? It is, I rather think, a fair question because, on the evidence presented before us last night during Manchester United’s extraordinary Champions League match against Lille, the only rational answer that I can think of is: “not very much, no”. Fences around the pitch and a riot squad spraying tear gas at crushed supporters would seem to indicate not, anyway. Okay, now we’ve got that cleared up, here’s another question for you: should Lille be strongly censured for what went on last night? Well, yes and no. Allow me to explain why I think this.
It is a sad reflection on the priorities of the modern game that more space on the back pages of today’s papers seemed to be given over to Alex Ferguson’s wrath over Lille’s contemplation of walking off the pitch after Ryan Giggs’ controversial late free-kick than the fairly appalling crowd management that led to people being unconscious from behind the goal while the riot squad were spraying tear gas at those trying to get out. My personal feeling towards the “walk-out” is that this is a massive fuss about, if not quite nothing, then very little. The question of whether the goal should have stood or not is completely irrelevant. You play to the whistle, etc etc etc. What I saw afterwards, was the ball being kicked off the pitch, and one of the Lille staff keeping hold of the ball, whilst calling the players over. For all they knew (bearing in mind that, in front of a crowd of pushing on for 40,000 people in the immediate aftermath of a hotly disputed goal, they almost certainly couldn’t what the hell he was saying), he had some sort of tactical change he wanted to throw at them. Enter stage right Alex Ferguson, screaming and shouting while his face turned that familiar shade of beetroot that we all know and love. A couple of minutes later, they were playing again. I’m not suggesting that the actions of the coach weren’t stupid, but we really weren’t witnessing act one of the decline and fall of the Lille empire.
The level of vitriol that poured forth from ITV’s “experts” was as predictable as it was depressing. It was bad enough seeing Alex Ferguson stopping not far short of implying that Lille should be thrown out of the competition in his post-match interview (because Alex would never harangue officials, would he? It’s “not football”), but I still think it’s not too much to ask to expect a modicum of even-handedness from a television station. Would anybody on ITV have seriously argued that Manchester United should be chucked out of the competition had the roles been reversed? Andy Townsend should feel ashamed himself.
What Lille should be censured for is their treatment of Manchester United’s travelling support. UEFA will doubtlessly launch their own enquiry into it, but what, exactly, was the point in switching the match from Lille to Lens if the match couldn’t be staged safely there? UEFA ground regulations for staging UEFA Cup finals and Champions League finals state quite clearly no perimeter fences – is this rule not good enough for the last sixteen of the Champions League? Is it a rule in place purely for cosmetic reasons? Lille also have to shoulder the burden for the behaviour of the French riot police, the CRS. The CRS are infamously heavy-handed. What were they even doing in the stadium in the first place? The stupidity of spraying tear gas into a crowd that was clearly trying to avoid a situation that could have quickly turned very serious again defies belief.
Last night’s match felt a trip back in time, with the cameras flitting from the pitch to the crowd and back again, and baton-wielding police officers smacking away at visiting supporters. We (and by that I mean all football supporters) deserve better. I trust that UEFA will concentrate on a matter that needs their urgent attention rather than something looked to me like, at worst, a bit of pantomime villainy.