Terror threat a big test for football

Gallows humour is much the same among football fans the world over. So the sight of snipers high up in the stands of the Bernabeu stadium for Real Madrid’s match against Barcelona on Saturday inevitably prompted questions about whether they were protecting Florentino Perez against the fans.
Terror threat a big test for football

Despite the media pointing the finger at Rafael Benitez, most of the club’s supporters have been blaming the president rather than the manager.

The chorus of “Florentino dimision!” (Florentino resign) could be heard quite clearly at the end of Saturday’s debacle, even if the club tried to drown it out by playing the Real Madrid anthem at full blast over the loudspeakers.

Perez may now regret the match took place, and perhaps also Spain’s prime minister and prominent Real Madrid member Mariano Rajoy, attending his first league match for four years. But joking apart the decision to let the Clasico go ahead was not an easy one.

The people of Madrid were the victims of the worst terrorist atrocity in Europe back in 2004.

Ten bombs packed with dynamite and nails were planted on four commuter trains on the morning of 11 March. The explosions caused over 2,000 injuries: 192 people were killed.

“11-M” as it is known in Spain is commemorated every year at the monument outside the Atocha railway terminal and with a funeral mass in the cathedral.

Naturally the assault on the Stade de France and the massacre in Paris have fuelled fears of a repeat.

When the Belgians cancelled last Tuesday’s friendly against Spain and the Germans called off their game against the Netherlands the following day there were suggestions Spain might follow suit and postpone the match in Madrid.

As the most televised club match in world football, the Clasico was an obvious target.

However, the Spanish were unhappy their game in Belgium was cancelled.

Just two days after the 2004 atrocities, Real Madrid were due to play Zaragoza and the match at the Bernabeu went ahead, even if it needed the toughest-ever security measures at a sports event. So it was important to carry on this time too, even if not quite as normal.

Security on Saturday was even tighter and more elaborate.

After Paris the authorities initially planned to use 550 police; by Wednesday it was decided to increase that to 1,100. The club brought in a further 1,400 security staff. Usually security involves one guard for every two gates: On Saturday each gate was covered by a police officer and a security guard.

The security operation began the previous evening, with the stadium patrolled throughout the night.

Four hours before the 6.15pm kick-off, the Bernabeu was encircled by checkpoints — three rings of them, 50 metres apart. Spectators were searched one by one, tickets and IDs were checked.

All regular stadium staff — stewards, Red Cross, bar staff and cleaners — were in place as usual. They have had digital IDs for the past three years, making it extremely hard for unauthorised individuals to gain access.

With all this, match preparation passed off smoothly. Spectators were encouraged to arrive early and the gates opened two hours before kick-off instead of the usual 90 minutes.

Staging the Clasico successfully while minimising the risks was a big test. The next test comes with this week’s Champions League games.

Barcelona is one potential target because of Roma’s visit. Another is Munich, where both sets of fans will be under scrutiny after crowd violence at the weekend at the Panathinaikos-Olympiakos derby (which was abandoned) and at Bayern’s game against Schalke.

Wednesday’s game involving Atletico Madrid and Galatasaray will also be a concern. The difficulty for the football authorities, and clubs, everywhere remains the fact that while stadium security cannot be 100% guaranteed it is far easier to ensure than the protection of crowds arriving and leaving games. And the deployment of large numbers of police and security staff at stadiums inevitably means fewer people are available to protect softer potential targets, such as shopping centres.

“We must not succumb to psychosis,” said one Real Madrid official on Saturday. Football seems to be managing that. But the run-up to Christmas, with thousands of people thronging the streets searching for bargains, is going to be a nervy time.

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