THURSDAY was jubilant. Exactly what you are in it all for. All the tension you have been feeling all week disappears and all that remains is ecstasy. All the nerves you felt every time Villarreal attacked a distant memory, replaced by pure joy. Another European final. Get them flights booked, Mick, we’re off to Basel.
The reason Jürgen Klopp is so popular as a manager, apart from being really good at his job and that, is that he gets it. It’s exactly what he is in it for, too. They say of Bill Shankly, simply, that: “He made the people happy.” Not that he won loads of trophies, or signed loads of players. The t-shirts and posters and indeed the inscription on his statue outside The Kop say: “He made the people happy.”
Klopp is cut from the same cloth. He knows that football without fans is nothing. On Thursday he wanted to win, not for himself, but for the 40,000 Liverpool fans in the ground and the millions watching around the world. So when we get to the final he invites the whole family. Because why wouldn’t we all go? It’s what we are all in it for. He wants to make the people happy.
His comments that 100,000 Reds will go to Basel should have been a battle cry. Instead they are met with panic. Why wouldn’t we all go? Because the chances of getting tickets are close to zero. Because you are likely to be staying miles away because there are no hotels. Because there are hardly any flights in and out and the few there are cost about the same as a flight to New York.
So Klopp, the man who has been brought in to make the people happy, to turn us from doubters into believers, to make us dream, has to go on TV and say sorry. Sorry for suggesting that a Europa League final, the biggest occasion for the club in years, should be something celebrated by all. Instead, there is a strict guest list. The rest of you have to watch on TV. Don’t worry, we’ll tell you all about it when we get back. We’ll flog you a DVD, or sell you a programme.
Basel was awarded the Europa League final back in September 2014, which seems a ridiculously long time to plan a Europa League final when football clubs have to plan a semi-final in the matter of weeks or a cup replay in a matter of days. I’d love to know what Basel actually did for the first year they knew they had a Europa League final. “Yeah, all the seats are still here. Check again in a month.”
In response to criticism of the stadium size — reduced to just 36,000 from 38,512 for European football, smaller than a number of Championship grounds in England — UEFA said: “It is impossible to predict in advance which clubs will reach the final.” I would agree that it is difficult when you pick the venue before you know who is even in the competition that year. But why not plan for the best possible outcome rather than the worst?
UEFA have made plenty of noises that they want to boost the profile of the competition. Then they pick a venue based on two poorly-supported teams making the final, rather than having the contingency that one well-supported one might get there. There might be empty seats in a bigger ground depending on the teams who reach the final, but so what? Who cares if you have as many people as possible in the ground making a racket?
People have been quick to point out that previous finals haven’t sold out. But the average attendance of the last six finals is around 45,000 (Thanks to Barry Glendenning for doing the maths for me). So even predicting the attendance on the norm rather than budgeting for better shows that this stadium is too small (the second smallest venue to EVER host the final in fact).
So Liverpool fans are left with around 10,000 tickets, with around half of that figure available to “normal’ fans and a very small number to scramble about for in a ballot today for those who have “just” been to every home European game this season. But, in all honesty, whatever we got ticket-wise it wouldn’t be enough. And if you haven’t got a ticket, the fact we have got 20,000 rather than 10,000 doesn’t make you any happier. But you should be able to enjoy the trip regardless.
The choice of city has actually annoyed me more than the stadium itself. For many after the semi final win it was a case of book your flights quick and worry about a ticket later. To be told that the city is effectively closed for you is a disgrace. “Don’t come, you’re not welcome.” UEFA should be turning it into a festival of football. Instead they seem to want to disparage those for daring to turn up.
When we went to Brazil for the World Cup (did I tell you I went to Brazil for the World Cup?) we had tickets for some games but were happy to watch the rest in fan parks just being part of the atmosphere. Images from these fan parks were beamed round the world. It wasn’t just about the full stadiums. Many who have booked travel to Basel will be hoping to get a ticket somehow, but will mostly be happy to be with their mates and hopefully part of the celebrations after. They should be treated as part of the party, rather than a potential nuisance.
UEFA need to change their attitude to these games and maximise the potential of them being fantastic football events; to see swarms of fans as something that adds to an occasion rather than a headache they have to deal with. But football clubs also need to be more proactive in how they deal with these situations, rather than shrugging their shoulders and acting like there is nothing they can do if they reach a final.
Spirit of Shankly, along with supporter trusts from Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, actually wrote to UEFA earlier in the season to point out that should any English club get to the Europa League final, the ticket allocation will be wholly inadequate. They received a predictable reply. However, surely it should be the clubs themselves who are lobbying UEFA. They are more powerful and much more difficult to fob off. They can create more of a fuss in the media, too.
If clubs in England care about fans as much as they claim, they should be lobbying UEFA for minimum requirements in terms of stadium and city for all European finals. If UEFA care about the Europa League as much as they claim then they should be happy to oblige, safe in the knowledge that some years there will be (God forbid) a few empty seats.
Liverpool are members of the European Club Association. Along with eight other English teams. Apparently in 2012 they were given “a greater influence in the decision making processes at UEFA.” Heard of them, much? Me neither. Feels like it’s about time they did something.