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When The Beautiful Game Turns Ugly

AT THE beginning of March, Liverpool was on the verge of a storm that would leave more than 1,000 local people dead across the City Region — a number that continues to rise and seems likely do so for the foreseeable future.

Throughout this time, our city – and the whole world — has become more and more aware of the dangers coronavirus poses to us all.

Before Britain went into lockdown, Mayor Joe Anderson chaired an emergency coronavirus meeting on March 4. He warned that outbreaks in Liverpool were “very likely”.

Yet, despite this, a Champions League football match was allowed to go ahead just a week later and was attended by more than 52,000 people

A leading supplier of analysis to the NHS has since released findings that indicate Liverpool’s game against Atletico Madrid, on March 11, is linked to an additional 3.5 deaths per DAY at local hospitals 20 to 35 days later.

This should come as no surprise. Prior to the match, on the week beginning March 9, coronavirus cases in Madrid had more than doubled, to a total of 1,204, and 24 had died. Spanish domestic football matches were already being played behind closed doors.

The decision to then let 3,000 fans travel to Liverpool from Spain’s capital city “didn’t make any sense”, as Madrid mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almedia put it during an interview.

“We are looking back with hindsight, of course, but I think even at that time there should have been more cautious,” he added.

Other critics include Liverpool’s City Region mayor, Steve Rotherham, who called for an investigation into whether the match should have taken place. The city’s newly installed public health director, Matt Ashton, also questioned the decision and suggested it could explain the rise in the number of Covid cases in Liverpool.

Angela McLean, the government’s deputy chief scientific advisor, has conceded that a suggested link between the Liverpool match and any coronavirus cases is an “interesting hypothesis”.

Liverpool Council has since ordered an official inquiry into the game. But, because of the city’s focus on dealing with the coronavirus crisis, there is no timescale or date yet confirmed for when this will get underway.

“But let me make it absolutely clear, that if it is necessary to stop that type of event happening in the city in order to protect the public health then we will do it.”

Mayor Anderson, who commissioned the inquiry, has made it clear who he thinks is to blame. In an interview with the Liverpool Echo, he said the government “didn’t take firm action fast enough” and was “reluctant to do anything” that would worry the public or affect the economy.

He tweeted about the rise of coronavirus cases in the city, to which Twitter users responded by asking why Spanish fans were permitted to travel to Liverpool.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Anderson wrote. “But it was a decision, sadly, that was not mine to take. Now we have to deal with today and tomorrow – not yesterday. I just want people to think about others.”

While neither Anderson nor the council had any powers to stop fans travelling to the city, there is no doubt they could have done more to try to prevent the match from taking place — despite both parties declaring on more than one occasion that they could not.

“At this juncture and this moment, we have nothing to be overly concerned about,” Anderson said during a council meeting on March 4 – the same day that he chaired an emergency coronavirus meeting.

“But let me make it absolutely clear, that if it is necessary to stop that type of event happening in the city in order to protect the public health then we will do it.”

In a bizarre turn of events, Anderson later denied ever saying this when questioned by a Twitter user. In a tweet – which has since been deleted – he said: “No I didn’t! And no I couldn’t!”

But after a video of the meeting was posted online, in which Anderson’s comments are clearly audible, he quickly backtracked and said the video didn’t give “the full story”.

“If you look at that video it doesn’t quite show the full story,” he claimed, “I was saying that if we could be given permission from the authorities to stop mass gatherings, and we felt it was the right call, then we would,” he added in a report from the Liverpool Echo – in which the newspaper’s political editor describes those questioning Anderson as  “detractors keen to lay the blame”.

Not satisfied with this explanation, Scottie Press reached out to Anderson. We asked about his deleted tweet and for more clarification on his comments. But we were repeatedly referred back to his interview with the Echo by a council spokesperson.

Pressing for answers as to why the council didn’t do more to halt the game, a spokesperson told us that they had no powers to do so.

“Just to be clear: it was not in our gift to stop the match,” we were told. “That would have had to be a Government decision in terms of instructing the football authorities and clubs not to hold it.

“Our role is in terms of helping facilitate a match, in conjunction with partners such as the police, and making sure the ground holds a relevant safety certificate.”

We were immediately struck by the clear contradiction in this statement.

Under the provisions of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act, 1975, it states that the council is “solely responsible for any decisions on safety certification.” If the council’s role is to issue and enforce a safety certificate, wouldn’t it also be in their power to revoke it, too?

And without a valid safety certificate, the match would have had to have been pulled under the law.

Safety certificates are required for every match and are agreed by the local Safety Advisory Group.

Cllr Wendy Simon chairs the city’s SAG, which is made up of members from the council and emergency services, plus invited representatives from, in this case, Liverpool Football Club, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and St John Ambulance.

If one of the parties involved could not confirm the safety and security of an event, it would be up to Cllr Simon to decide whether the event could go ahead.

Scottie Press sought comment from Ms Simon on more than one occasion, to ask what concerns were raised during the meeting for the Champions League game – but there was no response.

It became clear that the council was refusing to admit to having any accountability, so we decided to approach other parties to find out who COULD have done more.

Neither LFC, nor Atletico Madrid, had the power to make the call to postpone the game, so perhaps UEFA could have stepped up to the mark? Sadly, just like with the city council, the European confederation was quick to pass on any responsibility.

A spokesperson told us: “We would like to inform you that any decision taken by UEFA which led to matches being postponed, or played behind closed doors, was taken in close collaboration with, and based on decisions made by, the relevant national authorities in the respective host countries.

 

“UEFA did not receive any advice or request from local authorities to play this match behind closed doors. 

“Relevant authorities, be it at local or national level, have the power to take decisions based on their prerogatives.”

UEFA pointed out that the UK government continues to stand by its position on the game – as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, confirmed during a press conference on April 20.

“At every stage in this crisis, we have been guided by the scientific advice and have been making the right decisions at the right time,” he said.

“It’s important. And that’s what we do. There’s often a wrong time to put certain measures in place, thinking about sustainability and everything else. At all parts of this we have been guided by that science, guided by taking the right decisions at the right time – and I stand by that.”

So Scottie Press contacted the government, but were once again met with statements that do not really answer the questions asked.

“It is our absolute priority to protect people’s health and our advice on coronavirus is the result of direct, continuous consultation with medical experts,” a government spokesperson said.

“There are many factors that could influence the number of cases in a particular area, including population density, age and health profile and the position of an area on the pandemic curve.”

It would seem that an unsought symptom of a global pandemic is the refusal of anybody to take any responsibility. All parties involved, from the government to UEFA, deny responsibility and are quick to call each other out.

But this is more than just a blame game. This is now potentially a matter of life and death for thousands of people.

Liverpool is a city that knows all too well what happens when authorities refuse to be held to account. We must not allow history to repeat itself.