Heysel: Lest we forget

May 29th 1985, should have been a day of celebration for Liverpool. Instead, this day is remembered as the worst day in Liverpool’s history. That day could have saw Liverpool fans watch their team lift the European Cup for the fifth time in 8 years. Instead Liverpool fans remember that day as the day where thugs purporting to support Liverpool (there were members of hooligan firms from all over England present, not just Liverpool) were responsible for the deaths of 39 people.

I should mention at this point, I wasn’t at Heysel; I was only 2 at the time, so none of what I’m writing comes from first-hand experience. However, being from Liverpool, I know many people who were there and I’ll try and explain, as best as I can what happened.

Britain in the mid 80’s was not a good place to live. The policies of the Thatcher government had left three million people unemployed, and crime had soared. Liverpool had been hit especially hard. In what was mostly a blue-collar city, 50,000 manufacturing jobs had been lost in just 5 years, the port, which had been the lifeblood of the city for hundreds of years, was in decline and unemployment in Liverpool stood around 25%, in some of the poorer parts of the city it was higher still. Kids were leaving school with few prospects of work and the government was perceived as doing absolutely nothing to help.

Many people in England were bored and angry and latched onto football as a medium to channel their anger and boredom, often expressing it in a violent way. This is in no way an excuse for this behaviour, but an attempt to explain it.

Liverpool didn’t have a particularly bad reputation for hooliganism pre-Heysel, but there were signs that that sort of behaviour was creeping in. In March 1985 there was a Cup tie played at Goodison Park between Liverpool and Manchester United where things turned nasty as both set of fans were hurling missiles at each other, including golf balls embedded with 8 inch nails.

The previous season Liverpool had played Roma in the European Cup final. UEFA in all its wisdom had allowed the game to be played in Rome. After Liverpool won by penalty shoot-out, the visiting fans were attacked outside the ground by thousands of Roma hooligans. One 13 year old was slashed so many times to his face he needed 200 stitches. The Italian police offered no protection, indeed some fans accused them of joining in the beatings. Coach drivers refused to take groups of fans back to their hotels, leaving them having to seek sanctuary in the British embassy. News of this travelled around England and many of the hooligan firms all over the country were spurred into action. Despite the divisions of Italy meaning that Turin may as well be on Mars as far as the Romans are concerned, to the English they were one and the same and Juventus’ fans had to pay for Roma’s sins.

Heysel was a dilapidated, crumbling stadium, built in 1930, that was completely unsuited to hosting such a big match. Indeed, the 85’ European Cup final was meant to be the last ever game played in the stadium due to it's bad condition. The stadium was surrounded by small cinderblock walls, that fans were able to kick through, or walls that didn’t properly reach the ground that could be crawled under .Visiting journalists were amazed that UEFA had allowed a game of that magnitude to be played in a stadium in such bad condition. One of the stories reported after the game was that when UEFA sent people to inspect it, they came on a freezing cold day, and didn’t leave the warmth of indoors long enough to have a proper inspection. Liverpool’s Chief Executive, Peter Robinson, had urged UEFA, the FA and the Belgian FA to think again about using Heysel for the game. He was ignored.

Behind one of the goals there were three standing sections, Blocks X, Y and Z. Blocks X and Y were given to Liverpool fans. Block Z was meant to be a ‘neutral zone’ for Belgian fans, but there is a large community of Belgians of Italian descent, and most of the tickets ended up in the hands of expat Juve fans either directly or via touts. These fans were only separated from the Liverpool fans by a thin chicken-wire fence. Both Liverpool and Juventus urged UEFA to reconsider this but again their protests fell on deaf ears.

Policing was a major failure at Heysel too. Heysel was policed by both the local Brussels police force and the Rijkswacht, which were a sort-of paramilitary police force. Both forces wanted responsibility for policing the game so it was decided that the ground would be split into two, with each police force being responsible for half the stadium. Stupidly, there was no overall commander for these police forces. Even more stupidly, these two police forces used radios that were on different wavelengths so were not able to communicate with each other. This is one of the reasons they couldn’t evacuate the stadium later. The fence dividing the Liverpool fans and the Juventus fans was policed by only 5 officers.

I’m told on the day itself, the atmosphere started off quite convivial as both sets of fans mingled without incident. However, as the sun beat down and the beer flowed, the trouble began, with chairs being thrown and fights breaking out. The police responded by herding fans into the ground as quickly as possible, without checking tickets (I work with a guy who was there and he still has his fully intact, unchecked ticket) and doing nothing to stop fans who were getting in by breaking down the walls from getting into the stadium.

The stewarding in blocks X an Y was minimal, and the police organisation was so poor that there was no way of keeping an eye on known troublemakers and what happened was that some of the most malevolent football fans in England were able to assemble in one place. On the other side were a few of the more fascist Juventus fans mixed in with a majority of totally innocent people, including families who just wanted to watch a game of football.

It is still unclear who started it but there were missiles thrown by each side. Small-scale scuffles quickly escalated into serious terrace battles. At 20.45 the Liverpool ‘fans’ charged into the Juventus support. Hooliganism had been mostly eradicated by the time I started attending matches, so I don't understand the mentality, but a good place to start is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, which devotes a section to hooliganism, where he explains ‘charging’as a concept. The Juve fans backed away in a panic but had nowhere to go and were crushed at the back of the stand. A wall collapsed at the Eastern end of their terrace and the Juve fans stampeded to safety, but people were crushed to death in the process. Andrea Casula, an 11-year-old and 17-year-old Guiseppina Conti were amongst the dead. Hundreds were also injured.

The Juventus fans at the other end of the stadium rioted and fought with police in an attempt to get to the Liverpool fans. Many Liverpool fans I’ve spoke to say the confusion was such that they hadn’t realised what some of their own fans had done, and simply thought they were under attack from Italian thugs. Eventually enough order was restored so that the most meaningless game in European Cup history was eventually played. Juventus won 1-0.

The finger of blame was quickly pointed at Liverpool. UEFA’s Gunter Schneider said "Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt". Margaret Thatcher called upon the FA to immediately withdraw all English clubs from European competition, saying We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism at home and then perhaps we shall be able to go overseas again”. UEFA responded by banning all English sides indefinitely (it ended up being 5 years, Liverpool were banned for six).

What made it hard for the FA to resist Thatcher’s calls was that hooliganism had long been a major blight on English football and had got out of control. There had been two major incidents of hooliganism in the months leading up to Heysel. Millwall ‘fans’ (a lot of the fans subsequently arrested were fans of other clubs such as West Ham and Chelsea) had rioted at Luton’s Kenilworth Road ground and later through Luton itself, causing 81 injuries. Two weeks before Heysel, a 14-year-old Leeds fan was killed at Birmingham City’s St, Andrews; when a wall collapsed on him as Leeds fans clashed with police and Birmingham hooligans.

There was no official enquiry into Heysel, but 18 months later, Belgian judge Marina Coppieters published a dossier which has now become the accepted view of what happened. Rather than Liverpool fans being solely responsible, she concluded that blame should be shared with the Belgian authorities and UEFA. UEFA General Secretary Hans Bangerter was given a three month suspended sentence and a 30,000 Belgian franc fine. The head of the Belgian FA, Albert Roosens was given a six month suspended sentence and Captain Johan Mahieu of the Belgian police was given a three month suspended sentence and a small fine, all for involuntary manslaughter. In the end 27 fans were extradited on manslaughter charges. 60% of those were from the Liverpool area. 14 fans were given three-year sentences, though half were suspended. Belgium was banned from hosting another final for 10 years.

The reaction back in Liverpool was one of shock and disbelief. People struggled to comprehend that people just like them; maybe even people they knew, had done something so terrible. That Liverpool fans had been turned into monsters overnight. The natural reaction was to try and find another reason for Heysel. There were stories that there were members of far-right skinhead groups that had infiltrated the Liverpool fans, a theory that Liverpool Chairman John Smith also expressed. There were the other reasons of the events of Rome, the conditions at home meaning plenty of unemployed and disillusioned people went to get their kicks by hooliganism or the fact that because of Liverpool’s success, many outside hooligans would attach themselves to their trips abroad, all used to excuse the behaviour of those responsible.

However, after Hillsborough, when people could see the families of the victims suffering because of the lies told, the blame being deflected and all of the cover-ups, all of a sudden it became clear that responsibility had to be taken for Heysel and the truth be told.

The truth is this. That ultimately, the 32 Italians, 4 Belgians, 2 French and an Irishman didn’t die as a result of a decrepit stadium, or a stupid ticketing policy. They didn’t die because the police were inadequately prepared for a game of that magnitude. They died because English hooliganism had been allowed to get out of control and because a crowd of drunken thugs, high on adrenaline, supposedly supporting Liverpool, had charged at a defenceless crowd with no thoughts as to the consequences of their actions.

I think it was really shameful that it took Liverpool 25 years to put up a memorial for those that died Heysel around Anfield. Even now there’s only a small plaque at Anfield which you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. While a plaque is a small step forward, the club should have done something years ago. Hopefully, if the club moves to a new stadium, something more fitting will be installed.

Rocco Acerra

Bruno Balli
Alfons Bos
Giancarlo Bruschera
Andrea Casula
Giovanni Casula
Nino Cerullo
Willy Chielens
Giuseppina Conti
Dirk Daenecky
Dionisio Fabbro
Jacques François
Eugenio Gagliano
Francesco Galli
Giancarlo Gonnelli
Alberto Guarini
Giovacchino Landini
Roberto Lorentini
Barbara Lusci
Franco Martelli
Loris Messore
Gianni Mastrolaco
Sergio Bastino Mazzino
Luciano Rocco Papaluca
Luigi Pidone
Bento Pistolato
Patrick Radcliffe
Domenico Ragazzi
Antonio Ragnanese
Claude Robert
Mario Ronchi
Domenico Russo
Tarcisio Salvi
Gianfranco Sarto
Giuseppe Spalaore
Mario Spanu
Tarcisio Venturin
Jean Michel Walla

Claudio Zavaroni

Rest in Peace