The wonder of the Champions League

It is widely acknowledged as the ultimate club competition in world football. It’s certainly the richest. Qualifying for it is now the mark of success of failure for clubs. Winning the domestic league is just a bonus trinket. For the clubs, it’s the ultimate experience. For the fans of those clubs, however, it’s a different kind of experience.

The club I support, Tottenham Hotspur, qualified for the Champions League for the first time this year. We have been drawn against Inter Milan, the European champions. That means we play at the San Siro stadium, one of the great cathedrals of world football. It’s a glamour tie, a footballing pilgrimage. Everyone wants to go. But football is no longer about the fans, whatever the marketing departments try to pretend when they spin their stories of passion and devotion.

Familiar ritual

When the Milan trip was announced, a familiar ritual was being followed. Fans hunched in front of computers booked flights and hotels, knowing that prices would soon go up. Just 24 hours after the Milan tie was anounced, direct flights into the city had doubled and hotels were reporting full booking. At this stage, no one had even applied for a ticket. Leaving it until the tickets went on sale would mean higher prices, or possibly missing out altogether.

Like many, I wanted to go. My wife, who likes her football too, was also keen so we booked a three-day city break. Plenty of our friends did the same. Inter’s ground holds 84,000. They rarely sell out group stage games. So getting tickets would be easy, we thought. And my wife could go to the game without depriving a more regular fan of a ticket – although she’d done her time standing on wet and windy terraces (I was a romantic suitor 🙂 ).

How very wrong we were. This week, six weeks after we booked up along with thousands of others, the details were announced. The Italian authorities are only letting us have 5,000 tickets. The seats are at the very top of the stadium in a steep, uncomfortable section accessible only by hundreds of stairs. They’re still £48 a pop though. We have to provide passport numbers to match tickets, carry ID at all times, and supply the Italian authorities with full details of travel and hotels.

Operational reasons

Already we are having to prove our suitability to be allowed to watch the game. To be fair to Spurs, according to my sources they tried to get more tickets. The Italians cited “operational reasons” for refusing to allow ticket sales in the sections that will undoubtedly be empty if the last group game at the San Siro is anything to go by. There are many Spurs fans who retain suspicions that the club didn’t push hard enough, based on previous experiences of the club seeming to limit tickets in order to push people onto the expensive official packages. This time it seems it’s not Spurs to blame.

Thousands of fans who applied for tickets did not get them. The loyalty point cut off, a system based on points allocated for games attended over years, was very high. They will still travel and look for tickets. It’s a reasonable estimate that several thousand more will travel. English football fans do that, as there is always the expectation of getting a ticket. Already the messageboards are buzzing with alternative ticket options. Touts are said to be charging upwards of £250 a ticket. Inter are said to be selling tickets on general sale and, as always, rumour has it that tickets will be sold on the night.

There’s a volatile mix building, just as JohnSugden outlined in his excellent book Scum Airways ten years ago. In it he detailed how the combination of greed and bone-headedness by the football authorities pushed ordinary football fans into the same space as the hard-core hooligans and petty criminals who operate on the game’s black market.

Unwelcoming host

It is no exaggeration to say that 8 or 9,000 Spurs fans could turn up in Milan for this game. Only 5,000 will have tickets. The rest will attempt to gain entry to the home sections, with all the problems that could provoke. The touts will have a field day. Many more English fans will arrive with feelings of resentment and suspicion of an unwelcoming host, feelings that some Italian fans and authorities may not be over-concerned about disproving.

English fans have not helped themselves in the past, and I’ve seen some stuff on my travels that makes me wonder why people act the way they do. But most fans travel well most of the time. And the Italians have their own problems – which partly explains the draconian ID regulations. The way this game is being set up does not bode well.

UEFA would like everyone to think that the Champions League enables the kind of trip me and my wife and our friends are taking. A city break, some shopping, some sightseeing and some great food with a football match thrown in too. What we’ve got is nothing of the sort. Sure. we’ll do the sights and we’ll eat the food. We probably won’t have a bottle of wine as there is an alcohol ban. Then my wife will stay in the hotel and I will go the game, watched by suspicious and aggressive Italian policemen, in the midst of angry and pissed off fans. If I’m lucky I will get in in time to climb the stairs into the Gods and then attempt not to fall down the steep banks of seating as I lean forward to try an pick out 22 stick men far below.

Welcome to Champions League football.

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