LONDON—Police helicopters and emergency dispersal measures were needed in the early hours of Saturday morning as cops battled to stop soccer fans gathering in a known coronavirus hotspot to celebrate Liverpool’s long overdue Premier League title.
The grim predictability of fans abandoning social distancing to celebrate their teams’ victories had been one of the major arguments against soccer being allowed to return in England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson ignored the warnings as his government searched desperately for a way out of the monotony of lockdown. As far back as April when up to a 1,000 people were dying every day in the U.K., the government proclaimed it wanted to see soccer back “as soon as possible.”
Liverpool football club, which was a European powerhouse in the 1980s, had failed to win the English championship for 30 years. That barren run ended late on Thursday night, sparking an impromptu celebration outside the ground by several thousand ecstatic supporters.
Throughout the day on Friday, the mayor of Liverpool and club officials begged fans not to congregate in the city for a second, full night of celebrations. Their pleas were ignored as thousands congregated on Liverpool’s waterfront to sing, share beers, hug and, inexplicably, to aim fireworks at the city’s iconic Liver Building.
Fire crews were needed to put out a fire on the building’s balcony shortly after a pyrotechnic crashed into the facade while fans cheered in the streets below.
Merseyside Police announced that a 48-hour dispersal order was issued on Friday night and would remain in place until Sunday. “Tonight we have seen masses of people flock to the Pier Head area heightening the risk of spreading Covid-19," a spokesman said.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson continued to plead with fans to go home on Twitter. “There is clearly to many people intoxicated and causing anti social behavior, around City Centre, Please I urge you leave the City centre now it is not safe.”
The mayor had warned that this would happen when governments around the world were debating whether to allow sport to resume. Scotland and France ended their soccer seasons early to lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus, but Downing Street encouraged the Premier League to return.
When Anderson spoke out in April, saying he thought playing matches behind closed doors with rigorous measures to ensure social distancing would lead to the “farcical” situation of fans gathering anyway, he was criticized by the club and fans groups.
While some leagues had declared the season “null and void” or used a points-per-game average to work out the champions, Liverpool fans were desperate for the season to resume so that they could claim their first league championship in three decades.
One of Liverpool’s most prominent supporters, the former football editor of The Times of London who has written several books on the club, was among those who said the fears were both unfounded and offensive.
“The authorities believe that fans, like lemmings, will pour out of their houses, spit in the face of social distancing and gather like morons,” Tony Evans wrote on Twitter in May. “People who would never thing of doing stuff like this in a million years accept that those neanderthals who support Liverpool or Leeds will pour into the streets and spray drunken spittle at each other. Yeah, right. Give people a bit of credit.”
On Saturday morning, he returned to social media to explain that the situation in the country had now changed, and other groups had already seemed to abandoned social distancing. “The behavior of some LFC fans appalls me. But stupidity has no colours,” he wrote.
Local officials feared that the partying was all the more dangerous as Liverpool is thought to have been particularly badly hit by COVID-19.
“We understand people will feel jubilant that Liverpool has secured the league title for the first time in 30 years,” said Merseyside Police Assistant Chief Constable Rob Carden. “As we all know, Merseyside has been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and we must all do what we can to prevent further cases and deaths in our communities.”
Some analysis suggested that a Champions League match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid—one of the last to be held before the lockdown—may have contributed to a surge in coronavirus deaths in the city. Three thousand Atletico fans were allowed to travel to the match in Liverpool on March 11 from Madrid, which was badly hit by the virus at the time.
The football club issued a joint statement with the local council and police on Saturday morning condemning the fans who disregarded their advice: “Several thousand people turned up at the Pier Head on Friday June 26 and some chose to ignore the social distancing guidance and risk public safety. Our city is still in a public health crisis and this behaviour is wholly unacceptable.”