Now we’ll see how hard line Michel Platini really is. At the Stade Felix-Bollaert in Lens on Tuesday, Lille effortlessly undermined their sprightly, hard working performance against Manchester United with a display of petulance which could easily have enflamed a tense situation on the terraces.
Football is always greater than the sum of its parts, and hardly a match goes by without people dealing a hand of ‘what ifs’.
It is disgraceful that so soon after the fateful fan violence in Sicily a European tie is allowed to unfold without effective crowd control. Manchester United fans who had made the journey to northern France found themselves trapped in a state of uncertain flux. Dozens were left stranded outside the stadium, offered short explanations about ‘crowd trouble’ by gendarmes who tripped over the language barrier.
Inside, fan concerns about forceful herding into small sections of fenced terrace offered an all-too-familiar sense of foreboding.
After 15 minutes, the tensions thickened. A push towards the ten-foot high fence at the bottom � a pathetically outdated relic of pre-Heysel stadia � meant that two United fans, including one elderly woman, had to be pulled to safety before they were crushed. The travelling support, rather unaccustomed to be treated like captured game, voiced their anger. The response? French police fired tear gas into the crowd.
But of course, these were peripheral issues, divorced from what happens on the pitch.
An otherwise exciting second 45 minutes of football had drawn the best out of both sides, most notably Claude Puel’s Lille who played with a boisterous drive to try and win the game. Just past the hour their Nigerian striker Peter Odemwingie headed past Edwin Van der Sar, only to have his goal ruled out for a nudge on United defender Nemanja Vidic. Harsh perhaps, but cookies crumbling and all that.
United’s winner was dramatic. A free kick was awarded on the edge of the Lille area on 83 minutes. Wayne Rooney placed the ball down, seemingly preparing to test Tony Sylva, who had blindly begun organising his defensive wall. The problem? Ryan Giggs requested to take the free kick quickly without waiting for the referee�s whistle. FIFA rules on this issue have always been thorny, but they do state that attackers are allowed to choose between these two options once the referee is informed. Giggs duly swung the ball past the bemused Lille goalkeeper.
The goal treaded across several emotional veins for Lille. Fate had dealt them a cruel hand, yes, but nothing that unfolded here did so outside the boundaries of the law. It was unfortunate, but their own naivety was more to blame.
Never mind the walk-off of protest demanded by the Lille bench. Never mind the show of childishness from these alleged professional players and coaches. This was a red rag to the ire of the Lille support which came close to inciting a riot in the stands.
Moments after Lille’s foolish, ill-guided attempt at protest, missiles rained down on United captain Gary Neville, who was attempting to take a throw in on the right touchline. One object struck him on the head. It is only through sheer chance and the evident restraint of most of the French support that vocal angst did not descend into physical aggression.
Heysel Stadium, Brussels, May 29th 1985. 38 Italians and one Belgian die after a dilapidated wall collapsed on them as they tried to flee from charging Liverpool supporters. It was football’s great disgrace, and it forced English football to neuter the violent excesses of its fans and make its stadia some of the safest in the world.
The ‘what ifs’ are a major factor in how football thinks. What if a riot had broken out between rival fans in the wake of Claude Puel’s shameful provocations? What if pictures of baton charges and tear gas and twisted metal and human bodies had decorated our television screens on Tuesday night? What if we had been dealt another Heysel?
Modern European football should be like an immune system resisting the attacks of an old disease when it comes to crowd control. The history of the European game is too littered with tragic precedents for it to be anything less. What happened at the Stade Felix-Bollaert must not go unpunished by UEFA President-elect Platini. The fact that events on the pitch could have sparked violence in the stands must be taken as clear ammunition for UEFA to further impose the urgent necessity of the modern game: human safety.
I admit that linking Lens to Heysel is wildly speculative. But UEFA must realise that a horribly fine line exists between the ‘what ifs’ and tragedy. What ifs like Tuesday�s have to be dealt with rationally and without mercy, or football will continue to flirt with its dark past.