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
June 09, 1985

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.

Alberto Michelini, a member of the European Parliament, was an eyewitness to the debacle inside. "I watched the Liverpool fans jump over the net separating the sectors on the stands," he said. "There were no police. A mass of people fled the oncoming Liverpool wave of hooligans, savages with broken bottles, iron bars, knives. People were clambering over the wall. Then it collapsed."

Loredana Crema of Somma Lombardo, Italy, was among those injured. Flown to Milan, she was in a wheelchair when interviewed about her ordeal. She said she had been in the Z section. "They threw stones at us," she said. "I was pushed all over the place. We retreated to a wall. Here, many people were overrun by the crowd. I fell and was stepped on by many. I was in a panic, I didn't know what was happening to me, then suddenly I was out of it. I saw a little girl with a glass bottle stuck in her tummy. There were corpses all around."

Another Italian fan said, "I saved myself because, like many others, I stepped on bodies and pushed my way through wounded and dead."

For fear that fans on both sides might be further incited if the game were called off, officials decreed that it be played. That, strange though it seems to say, was probably a wise decision. No more than 200 Liverpool fans had taken part in the fatal charge. But there were 20,000 English fans on hand in all, and an equal number from Italy. And together on that bloody night, they could have made the body count 10 times as high. Italian fans will long remember the Heysel riot, but they will also remember that Juventus won the Cup, 1-0 on a penalty kick in the game's 58th minute by Michel Platini.

Liverpool, though you would not have guessed it from the events that blackened its name last week, is a city that grows poets as well as hooligans, and one of the best of the former, Roger McGough, summed up the latter (and the distinctive sound of their speech) in a poem published in 1976. Some of it goes like this:

I'm a nooligan
got a nard 'ead
step out of line
and you're dead
(well, bleeding)

I'm a nooligan
I spray me name
all over town
football's me game
(well, watching)*

A simple pop poem that you may think you understand. It is unlikely that you do fully, though, until you have seen the species in its native habitat.

Early last March I was in Liverpool on another assignment, waiting for a bus on a filthy Sunday morning, shivering in the rain. But I was not as cold as the 300 or so members of the Liverpool supporters' club who were my companions. They were clad in thin, cheap clothes and they clutched plastic shopping bags containing lunches, but mostly cans of beer. In the bus, beer breakfasts were taken and there was singing, though not indecorous singing. Strangely, until last week, Liverpool fans had, by British standards, a reputation for good behavior. The mood was comfortable. The game figured to be a walkover, for the luck of the draw pitted mighty Liverpool—15 times champions of England, four times champions of Europe—against second-division Barnsley.

Entering Barnsley, the bus convoy was picked up by a police escort of siren-blaring Range Rovers and motorbikes that hustled us through downtown. One could see why. On every street corner the locals were out, shrieking obscenities. At the stadium we were led by mounted police into one end zone, cut off by a steel fence from the rest of the stadium.

We were. I realized, being treated like animals, and it was a hateful experience. So was much of the game. Once Liverpool scored its first goal on the way to a 4-0 win, a different competition started, one of bottle-throwing, screeching abuse. At short intervals, Liverpool youths were dragged off into police wagons. And when the game ended, the mounted cops were back—and this time we were glad to see them. But on the way out of town the buses somehow lost their escort, and a crack like a rifle shot shattered the window in front of me. Then we ran a rock and beer-bottle gauntlet that was not nearly as worrying as the reaction in the bus. Kids I'd just been sharing a chocolate bar with turned into—you cannot avoid the word—animals. They screeched and hammered for the bus to stop, and that day's only hero was the driver, a 60-ish man who kept his foot down until we were clear of danger.

Two weeks before the terrible events at Brussels, Liverpool's other first-division club, Everton, went to Rotterdam to play Rapid of Vienna in the European Cup Winners' Cup. That night I headed down the Scotland Road which, in the Victorian heyday of the Liverpool clipper ships, housed more than 2,000 grog shops selling the gin and water they advertised would make you "drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence and clean straw thrown in." I made my way into Dolly Hickey's pub, where they had a big screen and plenty of happy and joyful company in which to relish a 3-1 Everton win. Liverpool on that occasion had a grimy magic. The girl behind the bar was Lucy-in-the-sky-with-diamonds. and you called a yellow submarine to get you back to your hotel. But now, so it seems even to Liverpudlians, the city has forever changed.

"It's took everything away from us, Wednesday night has," said a man who'd been last seen dancing solo in Dolly Hickey's when Everton got its third goal. "Now we're livin' in a bad place. I couldn't go on my vacation now and say I'm from the 'Pool. I can't say, 'Ooh, I'm from Beatle City' any longer."

There were moments last weekend when the city showed a touch of saving grace, as when, for instance, a wreath of carnations—red and white for Liverpool—appeared on the step of Casa Italia, a pizza house on Stanley Street. The note, according to a waiter named Franco, said, "I have no words to describe how I feel," and was unsigned. But, added Franco, who is seven years removed from—of all places—Turin, "I also get bad phone calls. People are going to smash my windows. I tell them, go ahead, the window tables are full of Liverpudlians. But I am frightened."

In the 1850s, the American consul, one Nathaniel Hawthorne, called Liverpool "the greatest commerical city in the world," and in the 1960s, another American writer, the poet Allen Ginsberg, said flamboyantly, "Liverpool is at the present moment the center of the consciousness of the human universe."

But now long gone is the prosperity of the great port, and the heady days of the Mersey sound and the Beatles are memories. Only tourists, and not too many of those, take cab rides out to Penny Lane now or visit the garish pub called Abbey Road, built over the original cavern where the Beatles first played (though a new Liverpool superstition has it that if you get yourself photographed beside the sculpture of Eleanor Rigby on Stanley Street, you'll never be lonely again). Much of the city is a wasteland. Magnificent Victorian-Gothic buildings still line the Mersey waterfront, but no ships berth there, only a little passenger ferry. The grandiose Adelphi Hotel, which Charles Dickens declared the finest in the world, now flaunts a ragged banner across its facade that reads: BEER so PENCE A PINT AND ROOMS FROM £10.

Closer investigation would reveal a decay in Liverpool far more serious. While in Britain 13.6% of the able-bodied population is unemployed, in Liverpool the figure is 24.5%, and there are pockets of unemployment within its bleakest neighborhoods that are said to touch 70%. The Socialist-controlled city council is in a state of rebellion against the government of Margaret Thatcher over taxes, and recently John Hamilton, the head of the council, darkly warned, "This city could become like Northern Ireland, with troops in the streets." In the meantime, the city has voted to "twin" with the port of Corinto, in Nicaragua. Delegations will be exchanged this year.

All of this has made for a sociologist's field day, and, of course, since last week's rampage in Brussels by Liverpool's sons, the theorizing has gone off the scale. Mostly the chorus says, "These kids are poor, young and macho. They are ignored, they have no work and they have no hope. The soccer is all they have, so they beat up on people."

The weak spot in this is that the Italian rate of unemployment is roughly equivalent to that of Britain, so what's the difference? Even the liberal Guardian focused blame on the Liverpool mob, describing it as so many "boozed-up cretins." (But Britain's chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, wrote a letter to the London Times suggesting that the British people as a whole felt "collectively guilty and disgraced.")

In Liverpool, however, after initial expressions of remorse, many excuses and explanations began to be heard. Not all of them were without merit, but taken together they were unsettling.

At the headquarters of the Liverpool team's official supporters' club, secretary Bob Gill, who is a 53-year-old unemployed construction worker, was clearly still in shock. "It was bad, it was bad," he kept on saying. "I'm not condoning anything. Twenty-one years of sporting achievement ruined in seconds by mindless hooligans." He was careful to insist that none of "his boys"—his club's 900 members—were involved. "This club," he said, "condemns the animals. All the same, until there is an inquiry...."

Gill said that the rioting could have been averted had the Belgian police made sure the two sets of fans were properly segregated. "Look," said Gill, "I've still got my ticket in my pocket. I bet half my members have still got theirs. Nobody bothered to collect them." Furthermore, Gill said, police were in the wrong places at the wrong times. "There was more security at the toilets, where they had cops to watch over the women taking money," he said scornfully.

In fact, most observers agreed that the police did too little, too late. Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat auto magnate who owns Juventus, was another who cited the failure to segregate the rival groups of fans. On British TV the respected soccer correspondent of The Sunday Times of London, Brian Glanville, attributed the tragedy both to Liverpudlian aggression and to the inaction of the Belgian police, who he claimed were inept, slow and cowardly.

But what some Liverpool defenders seemed to be saying, in effect, was, "Don't blame us. The police didn't stop us." Which, of course, begs the issue.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) faced that issue head-on. At a special meeting on Sunday, Louis Wouters, president of the Belgian Football Federation, said that an investigation of the deadly stampede concluded that 6½ minutes elapsed before police reinforcements arrived to aid the 220 officers stationed inside the stadium, obviously too late to save 38 lives. But UEFA also took the unprecedented step of indefinitely banning all English soccer clubs from all competition on the European continent. That could mean, said UEFA general secretary Hans Bangerter, "one, two, three, four, five or even more years. Nobody can tell." Clubs may petition for reinstatement one by one; it's a good bet that Liverpool will be last.

All of this raises the question of how the British, who practically invented the concept of fair play in sport, had come to this pass. Other countries have soccer hooligans. Try this quick question: Where was there recently a loss of as many as 20 lives in a stampede of soccer fans? Answer: in Moscow, in 1982, at the Lenin Central Stadium. Juventus also came into Brussels with hooligans, with special clan names emblazoned in English on their flags: Fighters and Superstars. These were the Italians that videotapes showed battling with the Belgian police—and in the case of 22-year-old Umberto Salussoglia, apparently firing a pistol, a starter's gun by some accounts, loaded with blanks—after the dead bodies began to pile up.

By and large, though, Continental soccer gangs stop short of the extreme violence that impels their British counterparts. Some seemed eager to point a finger at a political group that has made a determined attempt to harness the xenophobia that, in Britain as in other countries, including Italy, is fueled by international sport. This is the neo-Nazi organization that calls itself the National Front. John Smith, who is chairman of both the Liverpool Club and the British Sports Council, claimed to have identified "at least six" members of the National Front at Heysel Stadium, who, he said, were palpably rejoicing at what had happened. And from that acorn had grown the biggest Liverpool alibi of all.

At week's end, at Dolly Hickey's pub, they had removed many of the football banners and flags that had decorated the bar. But as the bitter ale went down, morale steadily improved, especially among those who had been to Belgium. No one in Liverpool would admit to being a member of the assault group, perhaps because Italy is threatening extradition proceedings if any are identified. Holding court in Dolly Hickey's was John Bradley, unemployed and 29, who said he was no more than 20 yards away when, at 7:29 p.m., the Liverpool supporters rushed the fence into section Z. "The Eyeties were jabbin' their knives through the mesh," Bradley said. "Next thing we see is a kid, a Liverpool kid of 10 or 12, on the ground and the Eye-ties kicking him. A few scousers [Liverpudlians] tried to get him. But then came, it must have been 200 cockneys, with National Front banners, breaking through, then after that the bodies coming out. We didn't know they were dead until we see the plastic bags being dragged over them. It was sickenin'."

Bradley's story is doubted, since there is no evidence to support it. No matter. Later, accounts were given of cockneys with National Front tattoos on their forearms. If Dolly's were a courtroom, Liverpool would have been acquitted.

Mrs. Thatcher was verbally assaulted for having, in public utterances and in her announced intention to pay reparations to Italy, condemned Liverpool fans out of hand. "She takes from the poor to give to the rich," said one pub regular. "She just give £250,000 to them Eye-ties. If they'd stood and fought, there'd just have been a scuffle. It made her feel sick? It made everybody feel sick."

But the self-deception was not universal at Dolly Hickey's. There was Mrs. Margaret Duncalf, mother of 11, who had been watching the rioting on television and thought she saw her 23-year-old son, Patrick, lying among the dead. "Four of me boys and a daughter-in-law was there," she said. "They couldn't get through [to home] until two hours after the game; the phone lines was all jammed. When I was a little girl I stayed up all night for Liverpool, but I'll never watch another game again. Ah, God, I'm so sorry for those poor families over there."

And in a corner sat two bewildered women. There was Tottie Cronin, 67, confessing, "I think there's some Eye-tie on me mammy's side. Me real name is Teresa." Then pleading, "It weren't our boys' fault, was it? It was probably somebody else, weren't it? Our boys ain't like that." Her friend Bridget Garrity, 73, could say only, "All them poor lads. I was crying. Our boys don't act like that, do they?"

Well, Tottie and Bridget, the awful truth is that they do and they did, and all the pints of beer in Dolly's can't wash Heysel away. But what no one knows, really, what even the smartest sociologists in the world can't explain is why. Heysel could be a turning point in the life of international soccer or the beginning of the end of it. The only absolutely certain thing is that the sport—and the sad city of Liverpool—will never be the same again.


PHOTOPRESSE-SPORTS/PARIS PHOTODAVID CANNON/ALL SPORTAs fans of Juventus (above) and Liverpool (right) showed their colors, tension grew. PHOTOSTUART FRANKLIN/SYGMA[See caption above.] PHOTOCOLORSPORTBy the time most of the police arrived, the worst of the rampage was already over. A medic attempted to save the life of one man (above), but his efforts were unsuccessful. PHOTODAVID CANNON/ALL SPORT[See caption above.] PHOTOSTUART FRANKLIN/SYGMA[See caption above.] DIAGRAMMIKE QUONThe fatal battle began when Liverpudlians (1) crashed a barrier and charged Juventus fans (2). They retreated toward a fence and wall (3), both of which collapsed.
PHOTODAVID CANNON/ALL SPORTAt left, a Juventus fan went after a Liverpudlian with a fence post. Below, the emptied terraces left room for pitched combat. PHOTOMASSIMO BIANCHI/DFP[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID CANNON/ALL SPORTAll of Brussels was a fountain for thirsty Liverpool fans loading up for the big match. PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSON[See caption above.] PHOTOPRESSE-SPORTS/PARISFearing that scrapping the game would lead to more bloodshed, officials ordered the teams to play—and they did, 90 minutes late. PHOTOSTUART FRANKLIN/SYGMAWith the cup in their grasp, Platini (left) and mates were able to muster triumphant smiles. PHOTODAVID CANNON/ALL SPORTTo finish off a day that none of them will ever forget, Juventus fans set off fireworks. THREE PHOTOSGRAHAM FINLAYSONBradley (above, left) accused the National Front; Gill blamed police. The banner, a souvenir of Brussels, hangs in Hickey's pub. PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSONLiverpool's children may grow up to find their city and their sport forever altered.