1FC Köln & The Great Arsenal Stadium Mystery

by | Sep 15, 2017

Finsbury Park has seldom , if ever, seen anything like it before. More than twenty thousand supporters of 1FC Köln descended on North London for their match against Arsenal determined to have a party last night, and there was little that anybody was going to do to get in their way. Having raucously celebrated a return to European football after a quarter of a century away, the German supporters arrived at The Emirates Stadium last night to take it over, and take it over they did. Kick-off was delayed by an hour in order to try and bring some semblance of order to an evening that might well have turned considerably sourer than it did, but how did it come to pass that the whole of London seemed so woefully ill-prepared for an incident that had been thoroughly telegraphed in the days before the match?

The importance of this match in Köln had become reasonably common knowledge over the last week or so, with reports from the German media being passed on in the press in this country as well. For all that Arsenal supporters have become so used to annual European football, the experience of Köln supporters over the last two decades has been somewhat different. Relegated from the Bundesliga for the first time in 1998, the club has spent most of the last two decades bouncing up and down between the top two divisions of the German league system, finally ending this with promotion in 2014 and finishing last season in fifth place in the table to secure a place in the Europa League.

Somehow or other, though, this level of importance doesn’t appear to have percolated back to England to a extent sufficient enough for anybody to have really taken the safety and security measures that one might expect for such a huge travelling support. Arsenal allocated just 2,900 tickets to travelling supporters – FA Cup rules have determined that the club has regularly had to allocate 9,000 tickets to away supporters for matches in that competition, including, in recent years, those of Lincoln City, Leyton Orient and Coventry City, amongst others – whilst the police and ground stewards at The Emirates Stadium seem to have been completely unprepared for the number of ticketless supporters who would be making their way to London on the off-chance of being able to get into the ground.

Considering everything, we might at least be grateful for the fact that there wasn’t any significant level of crowd disturbance inside the ground. It’s difficult to say at this stage exactly how many Köln supporters ended up inside The Emirates Stadium. How many bought tickets from touts? How many bought them from Arsenal supporters who didn’t really have much of an inclination to go to a Thursday night Europa League match? How many rushed the gates? It will take a while to figure this out, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know precisely. All we know for certain – and this was obvious on the evidence of our own eyes – is that it was way, way more than the 2,900 that had been allocated tickets for it through legitimate channels.

But everybody knew this was likely. Arsenal had issued a warning to Köln supporters not to travel without tickets. With ticket sales relatively relaxed, a spike in Arsenal club memberships taken out in Germany had been reported and new German-based ticket applications had been refused. The question, therefore, of how both the club and the police seem to have been caught off-guard by this is important, if only because it’s so perplexing. Some Köln fans were suggesting last night that gates were still locked at The Emirates Stadium twenty minutes before the scheduled kick-off time, with ticket-holding fans growing increasingly restless as more and more people arrived. But a statement released by Arsenal this morning confirmed that “a number of measures including ensuring no tickets were sold via general sale and that no red memberships purchased after the draw were able to be used to get tickets in the home end for this match” and that “many tickets were sold through touts”, a situation that the club described, with almost touching understatement, as “very disappointing.”

Whenever anything like this goes wrong, there is a temptation to apportion blame entirely in one direction. If Arsenal’s statement is correct, they operated within the tournament rules, even if we might think that it was short-sighted to release less than 3,000 tickets to Köln when the match was obviously attracting so much interest amongst the club’s supporters. It might be considered somewhat more concerning that the Metropolitan Police, who, we might assume, have considerable knowledge of how to successfully manage big events such as this, seemed to have caught off-guard by it all. On balance, last night’s events in North London fell on the right side of orderly, but they could easily not have done and this is a state of affairs that should concern us all. It’s their job to know these things, after all. Likewise, if 1FC Köln did issue warnings to supporters not to travel, did they do anything like enough to dissuade them? The evidence would seem to indicate that they did not.

For all the panicked reaction last night – this Mirror article published last night, for example, did its level best to try and convince its readership that the sky was falling in, leading with scare quotes about “Nazi salutes” and the glum reaction of ITV News’s Robert Peston, somewhat bizarrely – and this morning, however, it’s difficult to avoid the very familiar question of why travelling supporters have to be treated as a problem to be dealt with rather than visitors to one’s home in this country. We wrote about this issue on a smaller scale just a couple of weeks ago, and this steady inability to deal with away crowds who won’t necessarily conform to expectations of how they should behave (even if the vast majority of those are travelling peacefully) should continue to concern us. Köln’s supporters seem to have travelled, in the main, to London in numbers with no malevolence in mind. The way last night played out at The Emirate Stadium gave the impression that all concerned were caught out by something that was clearly and evidently in sight. What, exactly, might we expect when something happens that isn’t?

Ultimately, no-one was killed or seriously injured last night, and there was a time when this statement in itself would have been a sign that a match in this country had passed off relatively peaceably. It says something for the extent to which our expectations have changed over the last quarter of a century or so that this is now the case. To a point, it’s possible to argue that this match was a culture clash between the relatively passive supporters who could likely do without the hassle of the Europa League in the first place and those of a big club that has fallen on hard times and found their excitement at being back on this stage difficult to contain. It’s likely that Arsenal, 1FC Köln, UEFA and the Metropolitan Police will all have some degree of investigating to do in its aftermath, though, and the likelihood is that all concerned may have to share a degree of blame for what went wrong at The Emirates Stadium last night.

You can support independent football writing on Twohundredpercent by subscribing with us through Patreon