On the eve of another European Championship, it is hard not to think that football is losing it’s most unique attraction – the draw of ‘being there’.
Ask most soccer supporters about their favourite memory, and it will likely be a League title, Cup win, promotion final or derby victory. An integral element of this ‘special’ moment will usually be the atmosphere, the people you’re surrounded by and the friends and / or family who share your passion.
That sense of tribal belonging, the exhilaration of a goal scored against the odds, victory against the run of play, conquering a feat that once seemed like Everest. There’s nothing quite like it in the world.
And yet the beautiful game is changing and, unfortunately, not for the better it seems.
We’re now two weeks out from an international football tournament in France and yet rather than fretting over the fitness of key players, the main chat we’re hearing is about security and the actions authorities are taking to protect the tens of thousands of fans expected to travel.
The head of France’s internal intelligence agency said last week he believes ISIS is actively trying to target tournament games – a statement that comes months after the Paris attacks, where the friendly between France and Germany at the Stade de France was targetted, as well as the recent evacuation and postponement of a Premier League game at Old Trafford.
Two years ago I had the opportunity to attend an MLS game in Seattle while staying in the city. Seattle Sounders have a famed ‘March to the Match’ where supporters gather in Pioneer Square and then march in full song to CenturyLink Field. It’s amazing to see and be part of, it’s an idea cultivated and developed by fans and it changed my rather naive thinking on American soccer to that point.
Getting into the ground, however, proved to be far less enjoyable – think long security lines, airport-style metal detectors and a pat down where necessary. All in the name of security and fan safety.
It was this particular scene I had in mind when I arrived in Basle last week for the Europa League final between Liverpool and Sevilla. More than one person questioned whether or not I should actually travel but there was never a chance of missing out!
Armed police were visible at the airport but no more than you would typically see in any European airport these days. There was a noticeable but low-key police presence around the city on match day and all supporters were directed towards their respective Fan Embassies, which were buzzing with anticipation and not anxiety.
The idea of Fan Embassies is still a relatively new one. However, the objective is to allow fans come together, have a few drinks and enjoy themselves – free of any concern that there may be trouble. Dialogue, calm policing and co-operation mean they are extremely effective.
No one could get anywhere near St. Jakob-Park without a genuine match ticket on the night, which was scanned about a kilometre from the ground. There was one main security check where bags were given a cursory look – but no more than that. The feeling, quite rightly, was one of excitement and celebration.
For this, credit should be given to the city of Basle, various fan organisations and all other stakeholders – including Uefa – who worked to ensure the ‘event’ that is the Europa League final remains an occasion for everyone to enjoy.
It also demonstrated something we are all painfully aware of: it is absolutely vital that the football community protects the ‘live’ experience in so far as it is able and nowhere will that be more evident than the coming weeks.
Supporters travelling to France do so in the hope of ‘being there’ for another magical moment. Afterall, it’s what the beautiful game is truly about.
Niamh O’Mahony. Pundit Arena