France tightens Rugby World Cup security to avoid repeat of Champions League final fiasco

Workers are preparing the Stade de France stadium for the opening match between the host country France and New Zealand in Saint-Denis, France. The match will be held on Friday. Photo: Masaki Furumaya/Yomiuri/The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

Workers are preparing the Stade de France stadium for the opening match between the host country France and New Zealand in Saint-Denis, France. The match will be held on Friday. Photo: Masaki Furumaya/Yomiuri/The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

Published Sep 6, 2023


The French government on Wednesday revealed plans to ensure tight security at the Rugby World Cup that begins in France this week and avoid a repeat of last year's Champions League football final chaos for crowds of fans at the Stade de France.

With France taking on New Zealand in the mouth-watering opening match at 9:15 pm on Friday in the same stadium outside Paris, the pressure is on ministers and police to make sure everything runs smoothly just under a year before Paris hosts the 2024 Olympics.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera told reporters they were "confident" and had "learned lessons" from the Champions League football final between Liverpool and Real Madrid in May 2022.

The kick-off for that match was delayed by 37 minutes as fans struggled to get into France's national stadium after police funnelled them into overcrowded bottlenecks as they approached.

Police then fired tear gas towards thousands of mainly Liverpool supporters locked behind metal fences on the perimeter to the stadium.

Darmanin was the target of anger from Liverpool supporters for the way they were treated.

On Wednesday, he insisted that at the Rugby World Cup digitised tickets would make for smoother entry into venues and stated that "the number of police fighting delinquency has been quintupled" to avoid fans being mugged on the way out, as many were at the Champions League final.

Officers would no longer be prioritising "hooliganism" — the focus would be on looking after the supporters themselves, he added.

Around 2.5 million rugby fans are expected to attend World Cup fixtures across France over the next two months, including 600,000 from abroad.

Asked about the danger of terrorism, Darmanin said there was "no particular threat for the Rugby World Cup, and even less for the opening match".

'Experiment that must succeed'

Michel Cadot, a senior French official charged with major sporting events, told reporters several weeks ago that the World Cup is "something of a test on questions of security and other subjects, an experiment that must succeed" ahead of the Olympics next year.

International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach said he was "very confident" about the organisation of the rugby extravaganza.

"I will be there for the final... it's one of the most important events, not just for rugby, but also for the Olympic movement in general," he said.

France has introduced special legislation for securing mass fixtures, which among other provisions allows for the use of so-called "intelligent" cameras supposed to aid police in spotting troublemakers or emergencies — although they have yet to be deployed.

But the state has invested a million euros in security cameras in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, the site of the Stade de France.

The police have also been authorised to use drones to observe sports matches, concerts and other large gatherings.

Up to 7,000 police will be mobilised to secure the Rugby World Cup, the ministers said, joined by as many as 6,000 private security guards, according to Jacques Rivoal, a member of the tournament's organising committee.

Darmanin and Oudea-Castera on Wednesday officially opened a "National Strategic Command Centre" built specially for the World Cup and Olympics.

There is also a specialist intelligence-gathering operation created for the Olympics.

Sporting venues have in recent months been targeted by environmental protesters, including a "Just Stop Oil" pitch invasion at the English Premiership rugby final at Twickenham and at the Wimbledon tennis.

Irish help

In the western city of Bordeaux, authorities are setting up three mobile police stations, including at the stadium and the train station, with 900 officers on duty on match days.

"The eyes of the world will be on us," said Etienne Guyot, prefect of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region.

Police in Bordeaux will have four colleagues from Ireland at their side over the weekend of September 9-10 to help communicate with English-speaking fans at the Ireland v Romania and Wales v Fiji games, while volunteers will guide people through the station and airport.

Bordeaux is in special focus this month as King Charles III will be passing through as part of a state visit to France, while Mediterranean port city Marseille will welcome Pope Francis at the same time as the rugby.

"We're expecting no fewer than 50,000 to 60,000 people per match, with triple that on the weekend of September 22 and 23 because of the papal visit," said Yannick Ohanessian, Marseille's deputy mayor in charge of security.

In the capital, around 40,000 people are expected at a fan zone around the giant Place de la Concorde square at the bottom of the Champs-Elysees avenue — a life-size test for the site of the urban sports like breaking at the 2024 Olympics.