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Stadium safety a joint venture

Cooperation was a keyword as stadium security strategies for the new European season were discussed at a meeting organised by UEFA and the EU Think Tank group of experts.

"Our main principle is safety first," explained Marc Timmer, UEFA's head of stadium and security, underlining the key message to come out of this year's UEFA Champions and UEFA Europa League security meeting in Vienna.

The conference, which is organised annually by UEFA and the European Union (EU) Think Tank – the pan-European group of football safety and security experts – was attended by representatives of European police and governmental agencies, and security officers of the clubs taking part in this season's UEFA club competitions.

In addition to providing information on stadium security, strategies were devised for the coming campaign in club and international football, with experts including Austria's minister of the interior, Maria Fekter, and her Belgian counterpart, Annemie Turtelboom, on hand to share their knowledge.

It was generally agreed that, in order to ensure safety and security at football events, the various organisations involved must work together rather than separately.

"We now have a joint venture," said UEFA vice-president Dr Joseph Mifsud. "Political bodies, UEFA, the police and organisers at local and European levels are not stand-alone structures any more." This was not always the case, as Marc Timmer pointed out: "Years ago, the police and clubs held separate conferences."

One feature of the meeting was a series of workshops in which the participants discussed topics including the role of supporters, an integrated approach to international cooperation and safety/security management, and contingency planning.

Tragically, the impetus behind a greater focus on safety and security came from the Heysel Stadium disaster 25 years ago, in which 39 spectators died. "When it happened, I was just starting out at UEFA," said Dr Mifsud. "Suddenly, we all started to realise that we had to do something."

"We must do everything possible to avoid a catastrophe like that," added Ms Turtelboom, whose country was deeply affected by the disaster. "I am sure the situation today is much better than the situation 25 years ago, but we cannot exclude such a tragedy happening again."

According to Ms Turtelboom, several lessons have been learned since, with safe infrastructure, a model safety certificate, an integrated ticketing system and good communication between the various emergency services all essential.

"More than 98% of stadium visitors are not hooligans – we must protect the fans," said the Belgian minister of the interior. "We must not think negatively; most fans want to enjoy football," added Dr Mifsud. "Stadiums should be filled by people who want to see a spectacle. Football represents a cross section of society and only a small minority want to do bad things."

"Safety has to be provided for everyone – in and outside the stadiums, on the way to and from them, and for people who are not football fans as well," said Ms Fekter, who is sharing the knowledge she picked up at UEFA EURO 2008 with UEFA EURO 2012 co-hosts Poland and Ukraine.

The Austrian minister of the interior also praised the efforts being undertaken by Belgium, who currently hold the EU presidency. "Innovations in stadium security, escape routes, fire prevention, etc. – all these are being forced by the Belgians," she said.

One piece of legislation that has aided the stadium security cause has been the Prum Treaty, which has proved enormously beneficial in the field of cross-border police cooperation. Since the treaty became part of EU law, bilateral contracts have no longer been required for every single international event. "Police and fans – this is not a contradiction," said Fekter.

The continuing rise in female attendance figures at games was another topic that came up for discussion. "We don't want stadiums to be male-dominated," said Dr Mifsud. "We want them to also be filled with children and women. In the future, 50% of visitors to stadiums will be women."