May 29, 1985: The Heysel Stadium Disaster


WHAT HAPPENED?


The Heysel Stadium Disaster refers to a human stampede that occurred during a football game in Brussels, Belgium on May 29, 1985. Italian Juventus fans were pressed against a collapsing wall at the Stadium, and 39 people were killed, while another 600 were injured.


The disaster happened because of a fight that broke out between the fans of the 2 teams. The Liverpool fans charged at the Juventus fans about an hour before kickoff. The cause of the fight is disputed, with some blaming it on the Italian fans while others don't remember it that way. When the Juventus fans ran back away from the threat, the wall collapsed, crushing many fans. Despite the 39 deaths and 600+ injuries, the game played on and the Juventus won 1-0.


The disaster lead to English football clubs being banned from all European competitions, with Liverpool specifically being excluded for additional years. 14 Liverpool fans were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 3 years in prison.

BEFORE AND DURING THE DISASTER


I might bounce back and forth between the team and the country in this story, so for a quick brief: Liverpool is the football (American soccer, but football in Europe) team of England, and Juventus is an Italian football team. The game was played in Belgium, and fans from both England and Italy were attending the game.


In May of 1985, Liverpool were the defending champions for the European Champions' Cup, winning in a really suspenseful game the year before. There is a lot of background information about the 2 teams, but to summarize, the teams were more or less rivals, both winning different important titles, and beating the other out for them.


To add to an already contentious game, the Heysel stadium was not in great shape for the 1985 European Final. It had been standing for 55 years, but had not been maintained for several years and was in a poor state, some parts were literally crumbling. Fans who did not have tickets to the game were kicking holes in walls and able to climb inside. Fans were shocked that Heysel was selected for the big game, especially because Barcelona and Madrid both had beautiful stadiums that were in far better condition.


But, despite the urging from the Juventus president and the Liverpool CEO to move the venue for a game involving Europe's most powerful, dominant football clubs, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) refused, and thus, crumble city Heysel Stadium was selected as the location for the game. They inspected the stadium for all of 30 minutes, and decided it was good to go.


The game was a big one, with up to 60,000 supporters coming to watch, more than 25,000 for each team. Part of what may have lead to the heightened tensions was the set up of the stadium sections. The Juventus had sections O, N, and M, all of the sections behind one goal, and Liverpool was supposed to have sections Z, Y and Z, the sections behind the other goal. The seats down the sides of the stadium were reserved for neutral fans. However, tickets for section Z ended up being reserved for neutral fans, as well, giving the Juventus more seats.


Because section Z was neutral, and Belgium had a large Italian community, many Juventus fans purchased section Z tickets, cramming the Liverpool fans into 2 sections, right next to their rival fans.


Trouble began at about 7 PM, about an hour before kick-off. The Liverpool and Juventus fans were merely feet apart, and the only boundary between them was a temporary chain link fence. Fans began throwing stones across the divide, largely available because the terraces were quite literally crumbling beneath them.


The tension became more intense as Liverpool fans broke through the boundary between the sections, overpowering the police, and charging the rival fans. The fans began to retreat toward the perimeter wall of their section. But, because the stadium was falling apart, it couldn't withstand the force of all of the fleeing fans, and began to collapse.


Contrary to popular belief, most of the deaths did not occur from the collapse of the wall. In fact, the collapse relieved the pressure, allowing them to escape. Most of them died of suffocation from tripping, or being crushed within the stampede before the wall actually collapsed, suffocating within all of the bodies trying to escape. The 600 injuries came from both the stampede and the collapsing wall. Bodies were carried out from the stadium and laid outside, covered in flags, but the wind blew away their coverings, revealing the dead bodies of the fated fans.


Many Juventus fans on the opposite side of the stadium, in the sections dedicated only to their team, began to riot, but police were able to intervene. However, they continued to throw rocks, bottles and stones at the police for 2 hours, but no further reported deaths or injuries came from the subsequent riots.


The game, strangely enough, carried on without delay, primarily because the Belgian Prime Minister, Brussels Mayor and the city's police felt that further trouble and violence would be incited if the game was cancelled. The captains of both teams spoke to the crowd and asked them to be calm and abandon their violence, and the game started.


The Juventus won the match 1-0 on a penalty kick.

AFTERMATH AND CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS


The blame for the disaster laid solely on the fans of Liverpool, primarily the fans who were in section X after an 18-month investigation into the disaster. The British police reviewed images and videos thoroughly to try and bring the perpetrators to justice.


34 people were arrested and questioned, and 26 Liverpool fans were charged with manslaughter. All 26 of them were extradited to stand trial in Belgium for the Juventus fans. They were formally charged with all 39 deaths, and held in a Belgian prison for a few months, but were released when the trial continued to be delayed.


The trial didn't begin until October 1988, over 3 years after the disaster. In addition to the 26 Liverpool fans, 3 Belgians also stood trial for their involvement, including Albert Roosens, who allowed the tickets in the Liverpool section to be sold to Juventus fans, and 2 police chiefs who were in charge of that section.


In April of 1989, the trial wrapped up, and in total, 14 of the fans were convicted of manslaughter and given 3-year sentences, but they were allowed to return to the UK. Belgian prosecutors appealed the sentences, saying they were too lenient, and 11 of the fans sentences were increased to 4-5 years, while 2 sentences were upheld, and 1 person was acquitted upon the appeal.


The Deputy Chief of the London Fire Brigade claimed that the deaths were very largely attributable to the terrible state of the stadium, citing many problematic elements to the structure of the stadium. However, none of those findings were ever used in any inquiry into the disaster, and no one at the Stadium, or who pushed to use that Stadium for the match, were held accountable for its role in the disaster.


In addition to charging many of the Liverpool fans with manslaughter, English clubs were banned from European competition. They were not reintroduced until April of 1990, with the exception of Liverpool, who was not allowed back until the 1991-1992 season. Ultimately, all English clubs served a 5-year ban, and Liverpool served a 6 year ban.


Various memorials and commemorations have been erected or held in memory of those lost in the disaster. Songs were written, memorial services were held before games, monuments were built, flowers were left and sculptures were unveiled.


In 2005, Liverpool and Juventus competed for the first time since the disaster. Liverpool fans held up placards to form the word "friendship" in Italian, but while many of the Italian fans applauded the effort, some turned their backs on it. While the event is a thing of the past for many fans, some are not over it.


Different memorials and commemorations have cropped up or taken place since directly after the disaster all the way through 2015.


The deaths included:


ITALIANS:

Rocco Acerra, 29

Bruno Balli, 50

Giancarlo Bruschera, 21

Andrea Casula, 11

Giovanni Casula, 44

Nino Cerullo, 24

Guiseppina Conti, 17

Dionsio Fabbro, 51

Eugenio Gagliano, 35

Francesco Galli, 24

Giancarlo Gonneli, 20

Alberto Guarini, 21

Giovacchino Landini, 50

Roberto Lorentini, 31

Barbara Lusci, 58

Franco Martelli, 22

Loris Messore, 28

Gianni Mastroiaco, 20

Sergio Bastino Mazzino, 38

Luciano Rocco Papaluca, 38

Luigi Pidone, 31

Benito Pistolato, 50

Domenico Ragazzi, 44

Antonio Ragnanese, 49

Mario Ronchi, 43

Domenico Russo, 28

Tarcisio Salvi, 49

Gianfranco Sarto, 47

Amedeo Giuseppe Spolaore, 55

Mario Spanu, 41

Tarcisio Venturin, 23

Claudio Zavaroni, 28


BELGIANS:

Alfons Bos, 35

Willy Chielens, 41

Dirk Daeninckx, 38

Jean Michel Walla, 32


OTHER COUNTRIES:

Jacques Francois, 45 (French)

Patrick Radcliffe, 38 (Northern Irish)

Claude Robert, 27


It is really sad to think about all of the people who traveled to watch their beloved team play who didn't ever come home. Based on ages and last names, it looks like at least 1 young 11-year-old child died with their father, in what was probably intended to be a fun evening watching their favorite team play in a big game.


When you go to games like this, with extreme rivalries and high tensions on both sides, there could be some expectation of fights or arguments breaking out, but doing something that results in the deaths of nearly 40 people is absolutely crazy. I can't imagine the Liverpool fans who attacked the Juventus fans wanted to kill anyone, and countless lives were affected, or ended, by that rash decision.


It appears that European football as a whole refuse to forget this event, which is good. Tense rivalries are very common in sports, but this is a reminder that no rivalry is worth someone's life... An unfortunate reminder that many people got 35 years ago today.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heysel_Stadium_disaster

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