Thursday, May 29, 2008

May 29

On 29 May 1985, a football riot claimed the lives of 39 spectators when a concrete retaining wall collapsed at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, where supporters of Liverpool FC and the Italian club Juventus had gathered for the finals of the European Cup. The episode took place shortly before kick-off, when Liverpool fans rushed a section of Italians -- most of whom were guest workers living in Belgium -- and drove them backward against the wall, which gave way in the panic. Victims as young as 11 and as old as 58 were crushed or suffocated in one of the worst episodes of football violence in the history of the sport.

Hostilities between Italian football fans and supporters of Liverpool stretched back to at least the previous year, when the latter were assaulted following their team’s European Cup victory over A.S. Roma. At that time, the Roma club’s most violent enthusiasts clubbed their English rivals with tire irons and other weapons after the match concluded; some English fans had to take refuge at their nation’s embassy. When the 1985 final brought Liverpool back to face another Italian club, the drunken yobs chose to overlook the fact that the followers of Juventus -- a club from northern Italy -- had nothing to do with the 1984 attacks. Italians were Italians. So when a handful of Italian fans began lobbing chunks of the stadium at the English hooligans in the adjacent section, further violence was inevitable.

Otello Lorentini, one of the many attendees who lost a family member that evening, described the night two decades later for the British newspaper The Observer.
[An English hooligan] jumped over a small fence and came charging towards us. Then, many more followed. They had lumps of terrace concrete, Coke bottles, beer bottles, rocks and even knifes. Everyone panicked. There were seven or eight policemen standing on the pitch side of the fencing. We pleaded with them to call for reinforcements. But none came.

I thought we would die. Everyone moved away from the charging Liverpool fans and, in the crush, the wall collapsed. This was actually lucky because otherwise thousands may have been killed . . . . I escaped through a small door at the top of the terracing and eventually found myself on the field where people lay on the ground dead. There were still no police around. Many people were trapped and dying and there is one man I cannot forget -- his face was covered in blood and over these past 20 years I have dreamt about him many times. I waved [my son] Roberto’s black-and-white Juventus scarf so that he could see it and then I decided to return to look for my son among the corpses in Sector Z. It was then I met my nephew. He said: ‘Come quickly, Roberto is not so good.’ I put my ear to my son’s ears and listened. I deluded myself that I could hear his pulse. But no, he was dead. The TV cameras had been filming me and later, I watched myself find my son.
Sharing blame for the 39 deaths, organizers of the European Cup tournament had selected one of the worst stadia in Europe to host the final match. The facilities at Heysel were feeble and unsuited for the 50,000 people who were expected to attend the event. Several clubs, including Liverpool FC, raised complaints over the site -- which some critics described as more of horse barn than athletic stadium -- but event officials refused to relocate the match to a newer complex better suited to handle the security problems that were inherent in a contest like the Euro Cup final. Officials in Brussels failed as well by not assigning enough police to the event.

After a two-hour delay, the match continued, with Juventus winning, 1-0 -- the only goal of the match coming on a penalty kick, the result of an objectively incorrect call on the part of the officials.

Unaware that more than three dozens of their supporters had actually died that evening, Juventus players enjoyed a post-game victory lap, hoisting the European Cup trophy as they circled the stadium.