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Wembley shambles shows sport is playing with fire – Paris security fears a frightening reality

A pitch invader is seen on the pitch during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Final match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid CF at Wembley Stadium on June 01, 2024 in London, England
A simple pitch invader disrupted the biggest match in European club football - Getty Images/Justin Setterfield

Another glittering showpiece at Wembley, another unalloyed triumph of security planning. Even with a £5 million ring of steel constructed around the stadium, with beefed-up checks and 2,500 stewards all responsible for averting a repeat of the Euros disgrace in 2021, it took just 26 seconds for a pitch invader to shatter the illusion of control. So much for the draconian policing: one of the trespassers gatecrashing the Champions League final was so untroubled that he had time to run the length and breadth of the pristine turf, even pausing to perform Cristiano Ronaldo’s pirouetting ‘Siu’ celebration and to grab a nonconsensual selfie with Vinicius Junior.

It was over a minute before anyone in a high-vis vest tackled him to the ground. There have been tighter security cordons around village fetes. It was not even the only incursion: two other reprobates joined the prankster in his idiotic jape, apparently motivated by the offer of £300,000 from a Russian YouTuber notorious for slamming his girlfriend’s head into a table and filming it. Truly, does any venue in world sport rival Wembley’s gift for self-sabotage? Even with a defence force more than twice the size of the army of Luxembourg, the place could still not protect itself against the malign whims of a Moscow vlogger.

The barricades proved about as resistant as a blancmange. As if the first-minute invasion were not embarrassing enough, Borussia Dortmund fans were able to turn their half of Wembley into a pyromaniac’s paradise, setting off flares like party poppers. Normally, the stadium’s anti-pyro warnings are everywhere, threatening the strictest punishment for transgressors. And yet on one of its grandest nights, the German supporters created such a bonfire that by the time the teams emerged for the second half, it looked as though they were playing in a Newfoundland fog.

Borussia Dortmund fans let off flares during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 final match between Borussia Dortmund v Real Madrid CF at Wembley Stadium on June 1, 2024 in London, England
The inferno bought into Wembley by Dortmund fans - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

It was a debacle with a disturbing subtext. After the Euros final three years ago descended into cocaine-fuelled degradation, English football united in a spirit of “never again”, with Baroness Casey’s report lamenting the “ticketless, drunken and drugged-up thugs” who had brought a day of “national shame”. Was this latest final, the most anticipated at Wembley since England’s defeat to Italy, an example of lessons learned? There were 86 arrests on that dismal evening in 2021, 53 this time. At least we were spared the sight of feral youths clambering up traffic lights or over the breathing apparatus of fans in the disabled section. But after 18 months of preparation for this match, the breakdown of basic protocols on the night was alarming.

The problem, of course, is not purely Wembley’s. It feels increasingly as if sport is embarking on its tensest period in decades on the security front. If you thought the Champions League final seemed tricky to oversee, just wait for this summer’s Euros in Germany, where the host nation must look after 2.7 million fans as they fan out across 10 stadiums and 51 matches in a country with nine overland borders. It is no wonder that all police leave has been cancelled. The worry is not just over violent skirmishes – England’s first match, against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on June 16, is already under particular scrutiny – but the potential for more insidious attacks.

Just in the past week, a terror plot targeting the Paris Olympics was foiled, with a Chechen teenager who wanted “to die and become a martyr” arrested on suspicion of targeting the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St Etienne, set to hold football matches during the Games. While Gerald Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, congratulated his forces for their “effectiveness in the fight against terrorism”, the thwarted attack was a reminder of the recipe for chaos.

There are only 56 days until the opening ceremony, and still French organisers are none the wiser as to what form it will take. While “Plan A” is for 10,000 athletes to sail on barges along the Seine in front of a 300,000-strong crowd, in the first such spectacular outside a stadium setting, the safety jitters are self-evident. How on earth, in the heart of this dense metropolis, are police supposed to create a fully secure zone for competitors, spectators and visiting heads of state along a four-mile stretch of river?

Rarely have so many febrile political backdrops intersected at once. The war in Ukraine creates a fiendish predicament at the Euros, with the country’s team assured of enhanced security to reflect their heightened vulnerability. Even this operation is dwarfed, though, by the complexity of operations required to guard the Israeli Olympic team in Paris. With the shadow of the Munich massacre in 1972 looming larger than ever in the aftermath of the Hamas atrocities last October, two of the principal arms of Israel’s intelligence community, Mossad and Shin Bet, have sought to enlarge the close protection detail for those travelling to France.

The threats are multiplying everywhere you look. The Paris Games are at risk of subversion by anybody from Islamist extremists to hardline environmental activists, far-right groups and Russian hackers. Similarly, Euros officials are so agitated that they are installing three concentric rings of defence around every venue. Not that stadiums are the only possible danger zone, with German police equally perturbed by the vast fan zone in Berlin and the scope for drone attacks.

The intensity of the mobilisation can hardly be faulted. In Paris, a staggering 45,000 police will take to the streets on the opening evening of the Games, 10 times the standard deployment in the city. But Wembley has offered an alarming case study, with even meticulous planning failing to prevent the most brazen incursions. The overwhelming impression, in this of all summers, is that sport is hurtling towards a perfect storm.

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