“Let me say this,” said Juventus forward Zbigniew Boniek, “if people go to watch the final of the European Cup it is absolutely ridiculous that they will never return home because they have been killed.” His comments were triggered by a horrifying event: the Heysel Stadium Disaster.
Seldom had football experienced such a tragedy.
It was 29 May 1985, the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, two of the continent’s best teams. It should have been a classic encounter, but instead 39 football fans lost their lives at the game. The disaster occurred after crowd trouble erupted between fans; the panic that followed led to crowd crushing in a stadium that was not fit for purpose.
While it appeared to provide an impressive setting for the match, the Heysel Stadium wasn’t the right venue for the occasion. Built in the 1930s, the 60,000-seater stadium had fallen into a state of disrepair and desperately needed a revamp. Yet UEFA chose it as the venue for the European Cup Final of 1985.
Five years earlier, fans of fellow English club Arsenal, who had visited the stadium for the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, had described the stadium as a “dump”, and nothing had changed since then.
Understandably both clubs had their reservations about the stadium, with the Liverpool club secretary warning UEFA to think carefully about “staging the European Cup Final in a stadium that was due for demolition”, but UEFA seemed unwilling to listen.
“My first thought was that it barely stood comparison with Wembley or Rome, the game would have sold out any stadium in Europe yet… we got Heysel with its frail-looking fence,” said Liverpool captain Phil Neal years later.
Some 60,000 fans arrived at the venue with tickets, but there were many more in the stadium. Fans could be seen kicking through the stadium’s breezeblock exterior and sneaking through the crumbling building.
Spectators were divided into three sections, with rival fans at opposite ends of the ground behind each goal and a neutral area reserved next to the Liverpool fans. However, as the stadium began to fill up, it became clear that the neutral area had become another Juventus section – populated by Italian families who’d bought tickets through travel agent re-sales.
Liverpool player Mark Lawrenson couldn’t help but notice the issue: “There wasn’t really any segregation… just a bit of chicken wire. It is staggering to me that a decision had been taken to sell a third of the tickets back to Juventus in the Liverpool end.”
Barely separated, the fans began to build up tension, first with words, and then with missiles.
“There was an empty sector next to ours that acted as a buffer to the Liverpool fans,” said Juventus fan Otello Lorentini, who was in the neutral area. “I was relaxing, reading a newspaper, when I saw a single English hooligan, he jumped over a small fence and came charging towards us.”
As more Liverpool fans entered the neutral stand, panic set in. Thousands of Juventus fans tried to escape in the other direction, only to be confronted by a 9-foot wall. The speed and power of the surge created a terrible crush that became deadly. Fans fell on top of one another, many unable to breathe.
Finally the pressure was released as the wall collapsed, which according to Lorentini “was actually lucky because otherwise thousands may have been killed”.
It is staggering to me that a decision had been taken to sell a third of the tickets back to Juventus in the Liverpool end.”
“The scene was horrific,” said Liverpool fan Dave Thomas. “There were people laid out all over the ground, many with discoloured, blue faces.”
The resulting death toll reached 39. Six hundred fans were injured and countless more scarred for life.
Sadly, Lorentini’s 30-year-old son Roberto was killed in the mêlée: “He was a doctor and although he could have escaped when the violence began he wanted to stay and help people… I deluded myself that I could hear his pulse. But no, he was dead.”
To the dismay of many the game went ahead, but as Boniek said: “The players did not want to play. The authorities ordered us to. They believed it would prevent a war between the fans.”
The game finished 1-0 to Juventus but the result didn’t matter: “I don’t feel as if I won the European Cup, not that night against Liverpool,” said Italian striker Paolo Rossi.
UEFA were quick to duck their responsibilities, blaming the incident on the Liverpool fans, with UEFA official Gunter Schneider saying, “Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt.” Chief Executive Lars-Christer Olsson called it “the darkest hour in the history of the UEFA competitions”.
After Belgian police pored over television footage, 34 arrests were made; 26 Liverpool fans were charged with manslaughter (14 were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter); the head of the Belgian Football Association stood trial for allowing tickets for the Liverpool section of the stadium to be sold to Juventus fans; two police chiefs in charge of policing that night were arrested too; and English clubs were banned from playing in Europe for five years.
“It’s also a story of forgetting. Many people have an interest in not remembering what happened that night"
UEFA also faced retribution, with General Secretary Hans Bangerter given a three-month suspended sentence by a Belgian court for negligence leading to involuntary manslaughter.
While justice was served, over thirty years later some suggest that the event has been forgotten. As John Foot writes: “It’s also a story of forgetting. Many people have an interest in not remembering what happened that night: the players, many fans, the Belgian politicians and police forces.”
On the anniversary of the tragedy it’s important to remember and learn from the pain of that day and make sure no one forgets that, due to poor organisation, violence and tension in the crowd, 39 supporters didn’t make it home from a game of football.