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A Day Of Horror And Shame
Clive Gammon
June 10, 1985
A soccer riot in Brussels left 38 dead and 437 injured after English hooligans attacked panic-stricken Italian partisans
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June 10, 1985

A Day Of Horror And Shame

A soccer riot in Brussels left 38 dead and 437 injured after English hooligans attacked panic-stricken Italian partisans

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Abide with me," they sang last Friday evening in Liverpool, 1,700 of them, as the last of the sunlight, a brilliant blue through stained-glass windows, poured into the city's starkly modern Roman Catholic cathedral, mocking the somber lines of the hymn—"Fast falls the eventide: The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide...." Now, in Europe's proudest, most honored soccer town, the grief and shame of its half-million citizens showed nakedly in the tears that streamed down the faces of players and fans, for whom let one Joe Nolan speak. "The horror," he said, "will remain with us as long as we live."

Around his neck he wore a knotted scarf, not in Liverpool's red and white but in the black and white of Juventus, the soccer team of Turin, Italy, the last of whose slain fans now lay boxed in a Brussels aircraft hangar. There would be a Saturday morning memorial service before they were flown home. Nolan had been given the scarf, he said, after the tragic events of Wednesday night, May 29, at the European Cup soccer final in Heysel Stadium in Brussels, by a Juventus fan in a gesture of comradeship and forgiveness.

If that was so, then the spirit it showed must have been close to unique, because through all of Europe a tower of anger raged against not merely a mob of drunken Liverpudlian hooligans who had been largely responsible for the deaths of 38 people, most of them Italians, but against the whole British nation. British guests at hotels on the Venetian coast were being warned not to head into town unescorted. British officials urged their nationals to "keep a low profile" on the Continent, and motorists were being advised to remove the identifying "GB" stickers from their automobile license plates, even though their display is a legal requirement. And in stricken Turin, home to the team and three of the victims, a Union Jack-burning fury built up in the streets, though there were some fans whose passions were fired more by the fact that Juventus had won the game, which had been allowed to be played after the carnage. Said one, "We didn't cause that disaster. Yes, O.K., people died. But now we have won the Cup. Let me be happy." Others, though, were able to show an extraordinary sense of balance, considering the circumstances. One Turin worker was quoted by the Corriere Delia Sera as saying, "When violence spreads, it is like a dam collapsing. A bastard starts it and the crowd follows."

In Britain the events of Black Wednesday led to angry recriminations and deep expressions of shame, unsurprising reactions in a nation whose image had already been badly damaged by what is called in Europe, with some justification, the British disease. The malady has afflicted Great Britain for more than 20 years, though it probably received wide attention in the sporting world for the first time in 1972 when, in what became known as the Battle of Barcelona, fans of the Glasgow Rangers rioted, causing their team to be suspended from European competition for a year. To list the outrages British fans have committed since then, both in club and national games, would be like trying to compile a pocket battle history of the Hundred Years' War. Let it be noted, though, that it is only a year since hooligan fans of Tottenham Hotspur rioted through the same Brussels streets that last week echoed to the sound of breaking beer bottles. Last year's riots resulted in 141 arrests and the shooting death of a man after a row in a city bar.

Even so, early on match day last week, the authorities in Brussels might have been expecting a smoother time with the European Cup final. Some Juventus and Liverpool fans mingled happily in the streets, kicking soccer balls around, playing cards, exchanging flags and even addresses. But long before that, the seeds of the tragedy had been sown. Other fans from Liverpool, many just teenagers, had drunk their way down on trains to the English Channel ports, then stocked up on the hard stuff aboard the ferry boats at duty-free prices. By 7 a.m. you could see them, bottles in hand, on the quays at Zeebrugge and Ostende—and there were still more than 12 hours to go before the game's 8:15 p.m. scheduled start. The Belgians did not discourage the revelers; around the stadium temporary liquor stands had been set up to slake the thirsts of spectators arriving early.

At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon a Liverpudlian was stabbed—not seriously—by a Juventus fan. Later, Liverpool fans allege, Italians drove through the streets making random knife slashes through open car windows at anybody in Liverpool red. In the meantime, English fans littered Brussels' squares with bottles, and urinated in the streets. One marauding group smashed a jewelry store window and made off with approximately $165,000 worth of gems. The culprits were dressed in Liverpool colors, although police theorized that they might have been professional jewel thieves.

In spite of such events, this ugly but comparatively harmless level of hooliganism might not have been exceeded had it not been for the way the crowd of 58,000 at Heysel Stadium was handled. European soccer stadiums cater to two classes. At Heysel there were seats along the sidelines priced from $13 to $21 and, in the end zones, standing room, in what the English call terraces, for $5 per person. The terraces have rails to lean against but are otherwise open to free movement, and thus are susceptible to gross overcrowding.

Fans who occupy the terraces ordinarily are deployed so as to keep rival groups apart, preferably at opposite ends of the stadium. Indeed, the European Soccer Union issues guidelines governing such segregation, but they were not followed in Belgium last week. A so-called neutral zone had been established in section Z of the northwest end zone terraces adjacent to the English fans in section Y. Section Z was to be reserved for Belgians and other "neutrals." It apparently didn't occur to anybody that 300,000 Italian nationals work in Belgium and had access to these tickets. Thus there were Italian fans in their assigned area at the opposite end of-the stadium from the English but also, ominously, in the adjacent section.

At first, exchanges across the wire mesh fence separating the English from the Italian fans were confined to tribal chants and bottle throwing, but 45 minutes before game time, a swarm of Liverpool fans burst through and over the flimsy barrier (see diagram, page 23). Brandishing broken bottles, tin cans, flag sticks and metal bars broken from the fallen fence, they charged the Juventus fans. The Italians pulled back in panic, moving down the terraces toward the field and away from the onrushing red tide of Liverpudlians. One eyewitness described the Italian section as "a swirling river of bodies" cascading downward. Within minutes, hundreds of fans found themselves at the bottom of section Z, crushed by more and more bodies behind them and cornered between a six-foot-high chain-link fence that fronted the field and a two-foot-thick concrete wall that formed one end of the standing-room area.

Almost simultaneously, the fence and wall collapsed, pitching hundreds of pressing fans into a hideous pileup in which those at the bottom were trampled and pinned under bodies and debris. Three minutes after the charge had begun, 31 Italians, four Belgians, two Frenchmen and one Briton lay dead, most, if not all, by suffocation; 437 were injured. All but 220 of (he 1,000 policemen assigned to the Heysel security detail had been stationed outside the stadium.

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