Taken at their most simple level, the events of Wednesday, 29 May, 1985, are as stark as they are horrifying: at the European Cup Final, the most prestigious occasion in the European football calendar, Liverpool supporters charged Juventus supporters, causing 39 deaths.
The circumstances under which this dreadful event occurred - while nonetheless horrifying - reveal a far more complex set of causes, and an insight into terrace culture at the height of the football hooligan phenomenon.
1984 - Liverpool v AS Roma, Rome
It can be argued that the Heysel Stadium Tragedy really began the year before. Liverpool, perhaps the greatest club side England has ever produced, had reached the European Cup Final for the fourth time in their history. Unusually, they were to start the match as underdogs, as by a strange quirk, the Final was to be held on the home ground of their opponents, AS Roma.
Roma were confident of victory. However, after a dour, tense game, Liverpool won in a penalty shoot-out. The next day, the English press carried page after page of pictures of the winning side, and dozens of pictures of delirious 'Scousers' ('Scouser' being a slang term for a native of Liverpool) dancing in the Trevi fountain. What received rather less coverage was the roaming scooter gangs hunting down Liverpool supporters, stabbing and slashing dozens, many of whom were family groups returning to hotels in the area. One 13-year-old boy was almost ripped apart, needing 200 stitches in his face alone. Many hoteliers refused to let their English guests in, either out of spite or for fear of subsequent attacks on their premises. There was little protection from the Police, who routinely attacked and robbed English supporters in revenge for the defeat of the local team. Before the match, stewards and gate attendants had taken hundreds of watches, cameras and items of jewellery from visiting supporters. That night, many desperate English fans, deserted by Italian coach drivers booked to drive them to Rome airport, sought sanctuary at the British Embassy.
Scores To Settle - Terrace Culture In The 1980s
There have been countless attempts to rationalise football hooliganism. Many cite what is seen as the inherent violence of the English working class. Others argue that somehow fighting is in the gene pool - a nation that has sent almost every generation of its men folk to war throughout antiquity has produced a social stratum naturally predisposed to violent disorder. It could simply be that if 40,000 people are crammed into one place and given even the slenderest reason to confront each other, there will be a small proportion that will do so, and a greater proportion that will allow themselves to be drawn in.
Whatever the reasons, by the mid-1980s violence was endemic in and around football grounds throughout England. With little closed-circuit television and largely indifferent policing, hooligan 'firms' had carte blanche to set about each other wherever they met. Indeed, terrace violence had attained a certain glamour with the screening of a famous documentary - Hooligan - which followed the exploits of West Ham's Inter City Firm. At Upton Park, the home of West Ham, a brisk trade in t-shirts bearing the legend 'You've Seen The Film - Now Meet The Stars' sprung up. West Ham were also responsible for the introduction of 'calling cards'. These cheery items, bearing the legend 'Congratulations. You Have Just Met The ICF - Inter City Firm, West Ham' were pinned to the clothes of unconscious and occasionally lifeless victims. Enterprising Cockney hooligans eventually patented the name 'ICF' and made a small fortune from its use.
Although the major London firms of West Ham, Millwall and Chelsea attracted the most media attention, almost any club was capable of attracting hundreds if not thousands of willing combatants. Leeds United were particularly notorious, as were Newcastle United, Cardiff City, Swansea City, and the Sheffield and Manchester clubs. Violence between Cardiff and Swansea was so bad that for a while it seemed likely that the fixture would be deleted from the season's programme altogether, and the result decided by the Pools panel. In Cambridge, city councillors attempted to ban visiting supporters after Millwall wrecked the city centre. Luton Town went one step further and actually did ban opposing supporters, simultaneously introducing an identity card scheme for home fans after Millwall fans rioted through their town. Every level of the game was affected: there were widespread disturbances when Leyton Orient played Slough. These were not random events, either. There was a recognised pecking order running from 'Generals' at the top to 'Under 5's' or 'Youth Firms' of junior thugs at the bottom. 'Spotters' were employed to report on the movements of opposing supporters. Indeed, a journalist commenting on Arsenal's Gooners at the time wrote 'They looked like an army - and after the game went into action like one'. The banning of alcohol from grounds did little to stem the violence. Injecting oranges with vodka was one imaginative solution. Others simply drank outside the ground or took drugs. Most were happy enough to 'mix it' while completely sober.
Despite the prevailing terrace culture, Liverpool supporters had no particular reputation for violence, outside of an intense rivalry with Manchester United (during the 1985 FA Cup semi-final between the teams, supporters had hurled golf balls with eight inch nails driven through them at each other). However, news of what had happened in Rome spread quickly. It became clear that some sort of reprisal was considered to be in order. The perfect opportunity presented itself the following year, when Liverpool again reached the European Cup Final and again faced an Italian team - Juventus of Turin. Even the most placid terrace fan knew that there was going to be unfinished business to attend to at the Heysel Stadium.
'The Day That Football Died' - Newspaper Headline.
Built in the 1920s, the Heysel Stadium was quite simply the worst venue in the world to host such a volatile encounter. The game was due to be the last match ever played at the ground, as it had been condemned many years previously for failing to meet modern standards of safety and design. As a result, little money had been spent upon it, and large parts of the stadium were crumbling.
There was little segregation of supporters, a factor exacerbated by the indiscriminate selling of black market tickets by touts. Many fans found that it was possible to enter the ground by simply lifting a section of the flimsy fencing that surrounded the terraces. There had been skirmishes around Brussels all day, and local police responded by getting fans into the stadium as quickly as possible, rather than arresting and detaining offenders. This haphazard stewarding of rival fans proved to be crucial as the tragedy unfolded: as there was no way of knowing who was in the ground and where they were, it was impossible for police to weed out known troublemakers, and easy for pockets of hard core hooligans to assemble wherever they wished. As a result, two hours before kick off, perhaps the most malevolent assembly of football supporters ever seen in one place had gathered, and as far as they were concerned, it was payback time. It should be understood that not just Liverpool hooligans were present. There were contingents from a great many firms all over the country, from Luton MIGS to Millwall Bushwackers, West Ham ICF and Newcastle Toon Army. After the events in Rome, club rivalries had been put aside: Juventus were to catch the full fury of the English hooligan elite.
Violence was immediate. Italian fascists, who were present in force among the Juventus contingent, goaded supporters into making incursions into the main body of Liverpool fans, at the Western end of an enormous shared terrace. What were initially scuffles quickly escalated into a series of serious terrace battles. Then, 20:45 local time, something dreadful happened. The Liverpool fans charged into a solid mass of Juventus support, which was hemmed in on three sides by crumbling concrete walls. Unstoppable force had met immovable object.
The Juventus supporters attempted to fall back. However, with no avenue of retreat, they simply piled on top of each other. Panic set in among the Italians, some of whom were now starting to be crushed at the rear of the terrace as the Liverpool supporters continued to charge against the front. At this moment, with police and stewards too stunned to react, a wall at the Eastern end of the terrace gave way. Dozens of Juventus supporters were now trapped against what remained of the wall, and were trampled underfoot as thousands of people stampeded over them. It was at this point that the majority of the deaths occurred.
Meanwhile, there was mayhem in the ground itself. Italian supporters invaded the pitch in an effort to get at the English. All over the stadium violence erupted. It appeared that one Italian fan was firing a gun into the Liverpool fans: this later turned out to be a starting pistol. In desperation, several Liverpool players spoke across the public address system in an attempt to calm the supporters. Eventually, with the arrival of police reinforcements and elements of the Belgian army, enough order was restored for the match to take place. Neither set of players wanted to play. However, it was felt that even more carnage might ensure if rival supporters were allowed to rampage through Brussels. In one of the most meaningless matches ever played, Juventus won 1-0 with a goal by French genius Michel Platini.
The next morning, flowers were left on the doorsteps of Italian restaurants all over Liverpool. Bemused fans arriving home seemed unable to grasp what they had witnessed. In Brussels, dozens of supporters were quizzed by police, although relatively few custodial sentences were passed. The supporters were described as 'fighting mad' by the Belgian police. One had to be injected with six times the amount of tranquilliser required to knock out a horse in order to calm down enough to be interviewed.
The stadium itself was frightening to behold. Steel crush barriers at the Italian end of the terrace were bent and buckled entirely out of shape, in a grisly testament to the force of the Liverpool charge. It was in many respects fortunate that the wall had collapsed, as it is estimated that had it not done so the death toll could have been many times higher. In an unpleasant twist of fate, Liverpool supporters themselves experienced exactly what happens when force is unable to dissipate four years later, when 96 of their own number were crushed to death as a result of overcrowding at the 1989 FA Cup Semi Final at Hillsborough, England.
Official reaction was swift: English teams were banned from European competition for six years. This damaged the English game as top players, deprived of competing at European level, chose to play on the Continent instead. Also, several smaller clubs, whose domestic performances would otherwise have qualified them for the various European tournaments, missed their chance. Margaret Thatcher and the Queen issued formal apologies to the people of Belgium and Italy. A series of sweeping police anti-hooligan offensives saw several known 'Generals' jailed, although many hooligans simply decided that they had seen enough, and abandoned terrace violence altogether.
As we have seen, there were many reasons why the circumstances surrounding the events of the 1985 European Cup Final arose. Had it not done so at the Heysel Stadium, something similar was bound to have happened somewhere, such was the level of antagonism surrounding English football at the time. Until the Heysel Stadium, the terraces of English football grounds were little more than filthy concrete expanses where tens of thousands of people were literally locked in and left to their own devices for a couple of hours every Saturday afternoon. After Heysel, the authorities were no longer able to dismiss terrace violence as little more than working class lads letting off steam.
Today, many of the huge fan banners on display wherever Liverpool play incorporate a Juventus flag as a mark of respect to the victims of the most shocking night European football has ever seen.