Heysel disaster 30 years on: A night of shocking violence that the game shamefully ignores
Mark Lawrenson is a rarity among Liverpool players in that he is even prepared to talk about Heysel. For 30 years it has been the one subject never broached at reunions of the club's class of 1985, the very name threatening to engender a chill shudder of dread. "It was the elephant in the room," Lawrenson says. "It wasn’t so much a macho thing, it was just never spoken of. Even in smaller groups, no one mentioned it."
It remains football's great taboo, a tragedy where the reminders elicit a sense of universal shame. In Liverpool on Friday, a service at Anfield upon the 30th anniversary of the disaster will pass with but a fraction of the observance or publicity that attends the annual remembrance of Hillsborough. In Brussels, a starkly minimalist In Memoriam plaque outside the remodelled Heysel Stadium, next to an old entrance to the infamous Section Z, might be festooned with a few more flowers than usual. In Turin, mourners will gather for only the second Mass dedicated to the disaster in three decades.
At a time when the sport is wedded to a culture of vicarious grief, where black armbands and minutes' applause are the norm rather than the exception, the failure to find any adequate means of marking a calamity where 39 fans were crushed or suffocated to death seems a troubling sin of omission.
In the corridors of power, the easiest refuge is found in silence. The Belgian government say nothing, given that an inquiry by Marina Coppieters, one of the country's leading judges, found them culpable for a catalogue of incompetence. Liverpool remain reticent, since the direct involvement of their supporters in the carnage that engulfed the European Cup final on May 29, 1985, led to all English clubs being banned from continental competition for five years. As for Uefa, president Michel Platini is unlikely to offer much in the way of a statesmanlike lead, in light of the censure he attracted for celebrating his winning goal for Juventus on that benighted evening.
On the surface, the decision to press ahead with the game when 39 corpses lay strewn in the car park stands among the crassest and most insensitive ever taken in sport. The rationale offered at the time by Uefa and the Brussels police, that they were simply pre-empting further chaos by giving the people what they wanted, sounds today like feeble self-justification. Football emerges from such a travesty not as a great democratic unifier but as a world wholly divorced from any code of human decency. Back in London, as the desolating stories of human loss poured in from the Belgian capital, the reaction of one national newspaper sports editor reflected a widespread obliviousness to the gravity of what had happened. "Where's the match report?" he asked.
The juxtaposition of sport and death was an obscenity, an unforgivable affront to the 39 victims who had perished two hours earlier amid the pandemonium of Section Z. Lawrenson, who played in two consecutive European Cup finals, does not conceal his contempt for the meaninglessness of the 1985 instalment. "Every single player believed that there was no way you could play football on the back of that," he says. "People dying? Young people involved? We all just thought, 'No way am I playing football after that.' I have never to this day seen a moment’s footage of that match. I have never had the slightest inclination to."
In one sense, Heysel constituted the logical culmination of English disgrace in Europe. Tottenham supporters had twice been embroiled in ugly skirmishes in Rotterdam, in 1974 and 1983, while Manchester United's travelling band invited similar ignominy in St Etienne in 1977. Rioting by English hooligans in Basle in 1981, after a World Cup qualifier, was another stain impossible to ignore. But viewed from another angle, the mayhem in Brussels arrived like a bullet from a clear blue sky. The stadium itself was nestled in a leafy suburban district, adjacent to the iconic Atomium sculpture, the model of a reconstructed atom built for the 1958 World Fair. Plus, the morning of May 29 had dawned peacefully, cloudlessly, as if in anticipation of a joyful and thrilling crescendo to the European season.
Paul Fry, 58, a Tottenham fan who had bought a ticket as a neutral in Section Z, did not detect any immediate harbingers of trouble. "I had been in the centre of town, around La Grand-Place, and there was a really lovely atmosphere," he recalls. "It was a beautiful sunny day, and there was a newly-married couple there, being serenaded by the Italian fans. But while they retired to a few little local restaurants, the Liverpool fans started to appear with shopping trolleys full of dog-eared bottles of cheap beer."
It was, Fry points out, a different era, when football away-days offered a far more open invitation to loutish rampages. But the convergence of exuberant Liverpool disciples upon the sedate heart of Brussels proved especially chaotic. "I came over on the ferry, and there were people streaming into Belgium unchallenged," he says. "Some of them even had tickets marked 'Brighton' and had crossed it out with 'Brussels'. I saw a lot of bad drunkenness. There was a jeweller whose shop windows had been stoved in by fans running wild. There was glass all over the cobbles of La Grand-Place. It was absolutely disgraceful. As the match approached, the mood had changed."
The Liverpool players, arriving at Heysel in the heat of the afternoon for their warm-ups and pre-match routines, also noticed a recipe for unrest. Lawrenson's eye was caught, in particular, by the material deficiencies of Section Z. "There wasn't really any segregation," he says. "There was just a bit of chicken wire. It is staggering to me that a decision had been taken to sell a third of the tickets back to Juventus in the Liverpool end."
Fry, taking his place in Section Z, quickly became aware of the ghastly consequences of that move. "The area was very sparsely populated, and that was one of the reasons why it all kicked off. While Juventus fans had all the space at the far end, Liverpool's were crammed into one pen. They were looking over the fence, and some of them had kicked the wall in to get in without tickets. There were far more people in that pen than there should have been. Then they saw the Italians in the corner, holding Juventus flags, and it all turned nasty."
The full horror of this tipping point grew apparent when the restive Liverpool contingent breached the feeble line of separation, forcing a group of mostly Juventus supporters to flee through the terraces towards a concrete retaining wall. The ferocity of the surge, while not dissimilar to the stampedes that many English troublemakers abroad would use as a gesture of intimidation, created a terrible crush.
Roberto Lorentini, then 31, a doctor from Arezzo, Tuscany, died in those moments as he tried in vain to save the life of Andrea Casula, an 11-year-old boy. His friend Francesco Caremani, whose book Heysel: The Truth has this month been translated in to English, says: "He was fighting to rescue Andrea, the youngest victim. For this he posthumously received a silver medal for civic duty. He died like he lived."
From the Italian side, there have been sustained and lurid allegations about the Liverpool fans' belligerence. Michela Merli, a young woman of 19, told Caremani: "The Reds had knives and rockets." Such tales have been vigorously disputed on Merseyside, but certain arguments offered in mitigation – such as the claim by John Smith, the then Liverpool chairman, that the true culprits were National Front members from London – do not hold water. Neutral eyewitnesses in Section Z attest that the provocation sprang from one source only.
"It was all one way, from Liverpool to Juventus," Fry says. "There was nothing coming back. I was right at the back of that pen, and bits of rock were breaking off because the fans were just kicking the terraces apart. The first time I understood that something awful was unfolding was when somebody got some railings and carted a body off, covered in a big flag. Then an arm fell out from underneath."
The wall had caved in under the weight of the seething human tumult. But it is a long-perpetuated fallacy that this collapse was the primary cause of 39 deaths. Most had perished through lack of oxygen in the desperate jam of bodies, and the wall's disintegration acted instead as the release of a pressure valve. It was at this juncture that the magnitude of the crisis was made manifest. The infernal scenes that assailed Brussels' underprepared emergency services belonged more to the aftermath of a medieval battle than to a sporting occasion on the outskirts of one of Europe's quieter capitals.
Martine Bollu, 60, was a social worker attached to the fire department and among the first to glimpse the devastation. "I told myself I had to do this," she says, replaying in her mind her grisly assignment of identifying bodies. "I was alone with all these bodies, and I was thinking only of the families who were waiting for information. I am a mother, and I know that I would have wanted to know if my child was dead or not. There was one man there, who had a big stomach, and he had a restaurant receipt in his pocket from only two hours earlier. I thought to myself, 'I hope he had a good time at the restaurant, because it was the last time for him.'"
The psychological traumas were so profound that Bollu felt compelled to write a diary of the night. Twenty years would pass before she could summon the strength to read it back. In one excerpt from her journal, she wonders aloud if the hell of Heysel must be une blague, someone's macabre idea of a joke. "It was impossible to forget it," she admits. "There weren’t any doctors I could discuss it with, so I had to write it down. It was necessary. It’s not possible to carry something like this with you alone. All I knew is that I would never be the same girl again. That time was finished. My son, Mathieu, was only two, and I was always afraid afterwards that something would happen to him. You just never think that 39 people will end up dead at a football match."
That last statement reflects the incredulity that pervaded the stadium in the two-and-a-half hours between the riot and the delayed, highly dubious kick-off. One perverse irony is that the Liverpool dressing room was positioned beneath Section Z and yet the team remained none the wiser about the death toll mounting mere yards away. "I remember my stepfather and his pal coming into Heysel," Lawrenson says. "They were ushered through a VIP entrance due to our tickets, and they were just met by a series of body-bags. My stepfather’s mate said, 'Oh my God, there must have been a bomb.'
"Joe Fagan, the manager, told us, 'You need to stay indoors.' That is generally what we did. Nobody among the playing or coaching staff knew the full story or what was going on. When the Brussels chief of police came in and said, 'Look, I insist you play the game', somebody replied, "What's the point in playing football if people have died?" The guy explained, 'I've spoken to Juventus and I have told them that there could be major fallout if we don’t play this match.' No one wanted to play whatsoever. Phil Neal, our captain, went out to try to calm the fans and got shouted down."
Cocooned in their subterranean safe house, the players knew least of all about the scale of the catastrophe. Survivors of the purgatory of Section Z understood differently. Fry, who today designs newspaper pages for New Zealand publications and who in 1985 was doing freelance shifts on Fleet Street, made his way to the press box to see if he could help in filing copy back to London. En route, the sights were increasingly distressing.
"There were bodies laid out outside, draped in giant flags, but as the police helicopters flew overhead the downdraft was blowing the flags away," he says. "It made for a pretty gruesome spectacle. There was not even a makeshift tent to put the bodies in. The police didn't seem to have any disaster plan. When I finally reached the press seats, I ended up next to Emlyn Hughes, the former Liverpool captain, who was being interviewed on TV. And he was in tears. But that was also the first time my mum knew I was safe, when she saw me on the screen."
Would that the same could have been said of Beatrice Martelli, who watched the reel of bloodshed from her living room in Todi, near Perugia, with no such reassurance that her son Franco, an ardent Juventus supporter, was free from harm. When she learned that there had been fatalities, she has said that she dropped to her knees thinking that she, too, would die. Franco Martelli, the son of a primary schoolteacher who had headed to Belgium in a haze of happy expectation, would turn out to be one of the 39 who never returned home that evening. He was 22-years old.
The final, when eventually it started at 9.41pm local time, was an unvarnished sham, a cynical act of appeasement by entertainment. The decisive goal in Juventus' 1-0 victory came via Platini's spot-kick, awarded for a foul on Zbigniew Boniek, but the action was immaterial. For Platini, who wheeled around in a state of jubilation wholly at odds with the tragic backcloth to this game, the recollections are dreadfully awkward. A request to the Uefa president's office for a statement upon the latest Heysel anniversary went unanswered.
Liverpool, having failed to defend their European Cup title, peeled off into the darkness with Italian chants of "Murderers!" at their backs. Lawrenson, though, was already at Brussels' Saint-Luc University Hospital, undergoing an operation after suffering a dislocated shoulder within only the third minute of play. The difficulty was that the hospital was also full of hysterical Juventus fans seeking news of friends or relatives, and demanding the blood of the perceived English perpetrators.
"There were 24 beds in the ward, and there was a bloke in army uniform at the end of my bed," Lawrenson says. "He was carrying a machine-gun and spoke very little English. I recall waking up from the anaesthetic and telling the nurse that I could remember everything. The next morning, after I had seen the specialist, Roy Evans brought me a tracksuit and he had to reverse it so that there was no Liverpool badge on display. Then, he had to take me out of the hospital in a service lift."
This was a tragedy of truly international scope. Such was the eclectic composition of the supposedly neutral Section Z that of the 39 dead, there were 32 Italians – including three Inter Milan supporters who had come along for the adventure – four Belgians, two French, and Patrick Radcliffe, a 38-year-old from Northern Ireland. The swell of vitriol towards the English for their part in this, the hideous upshot of years of hooliganism across Europe, stirred an acute discomfiture among many of the players and onlookers who survived. Fry, whose sole intention had been to attend his first major European final, reflects: "I had a Belgian girlfriend at the time, but I felt I couldn't go and see her afterwards, because I was so embarrassed to be English. I just stayed in a hotel that night instead."
For Lawrenson, likewise, the first instinct was to hide away. "As players, for whatever reason, we all felt guilty," he says. "At the airport the next day, we got spat upon. Even the bus that took us there was surrounded by very irate Juventus fans. We all just wanted to get out of the country." From his account, it appears that the received wisdom that Heysel is a disaster lost to the mists of time, overlooked due to the passing of history, is misleading. Indeed, the rush to forget in 1985 was as instantaneous as it was unseemly. Lawrenson discloses: "Within a few days of getting back, I went to a service at the Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool – and it didn’t get a mention."
Even Juventus, on whom the impact had been most grievous, did not exactly coat themselves in glory. So intoxicated were the players by their maiden European Cup triumph, singing and doing laps of honour, that they neglected to pay due heed to the appalling human cost.
Caremani, who at 15 had been hoping to go the match at Heysel – only to be barred by his father for underperforming in his Latin exams – says: "We are uncomfortable about remembering some of the behaviour, about how Platini celebrated. It was not a good image: 39 bodies at the stadium and thousands of people chanting, 'Glory, glory, Hallelujah.' Juventus are not proud about that. Another problem was that at the airport, Sergio Brio, the centre-back, lifted the cup up to the sky. I know that many fans didn't like that moment. It was an injury to the memory."
It is only under the stewardship of Andrea Agnelli, Juventus' president since 2010, that the Old Lady of Turin has learned to accept her tortured past. For years there was scarcely even a reference on the club website, an oversight that Agnelli went some way to correcting in 2011 by staging a moving ceremony that featured 39 falling stars. Professor John Foot, author of Calcio, an authoritative history of Italian football, says: "So much was extremely difficult and painful to explain. That is one of the reasons why Juventus found it very difficult to know how to mark this tragedy. It took them a long time to realise how important it was for the fans and to deal with it adequately. For a football match to have gone ahead with 39 dead bodies sitting in the stadium is one of the most horrible things ever to have happened in sport."
If Heysel is a strained subject in Savoy, then it is almost unspeakably so on Merseyside. The initial reaction by Liverpool was pitifully lily-livered, with just two mentions in the official yearbook to launch the 1985/86 season that talked vapidly about "putting this behind us". It fell to the players to acknowledge the blackness of the shadow that had been thrown over them. Lawrenson says: "In all the games that I played for Liverpool, all the European Cup finals, I never knew pressure like the kind we faced in our first game after Heysel, when Kenny Dalglish was player-manager. Liverpool were under the microscope. We played Arsenal and beat them 2-0, but it was unbelievably tense beforehand. It was a very strange feeling."
The sanctions against Liverpool were notoriously draconian, as they confronted a six-year exile from Europe. The five-year bans issued to all other English clubs ensured that Norwich City, promoted this week to the Premier League, missed out three times on the chance of continental football. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, having said that Heysel had left her "worse than numb", declared: "Those responsible have brought shame and disgrace to their country."
A glacial judicial process in Belgium meant that it was another four years before the ignominy translated to convictions. In 1989, at the end of a five-month trial in Brussels, 14 of the 26 Liverpool supporters who had stood in the dock were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Some of them seemed genuine in their contrition. Tony Allen, who served a nine-month prison sentence, later became a born-again Christian and took up a job as a lifeguard.
But Liverpool's uncertain position on Heysel was made doubly vexed by Hillsborough. The two disasters, while polar opposites in terms of the Liverpool supporters' role at each, can no longer exist in isolation. Emotionally, the outrage that the club attracted in 1985 and the agonies that it experienced in 1989 might be fiendishly difficult to reconcile, but there are historical connections. As Foot puts it: "A Belgian government fell over Heysel. It was a huge political scandal. It was also a major turning point for British football. Put Heysel and Hillsborough together, and consider the ban, and this was the moment that football changed."
There are voices in Italy that go much further. Caremani, who has been sharply critical in his published work of Liverpool's limp-wristedness in the wake of Heysel, makes the incendiary contention that 96 deaths at Hillsborough could never have occurred if the lessons of 1985 had been properly absorbed. "From 1985 to 1989, the English were only angry about being banned from Europe," he says. "Heysel and Hillsborough had three important similarities: the disorganisation of the authorities, the behaviour of the police, and the fact that innocent people died. If the English had understood Heysel, Hillsborough today would only be the name of a stadium, not of a disaster."
Heysel today is commemorated with a striking understatement. Look closely at the memorial on the site itself, since rechristened the King Badouin Stadium, and one discovers the inscription of a WH Auden poem taught in every seventh-grade English class as an elegy to the shattering nature of loss:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
The mourners will congregate, in an all too rare display of collective grief, at the church of Grande Madre di Dio, in Turin on Friday. A smattering of sympathisers will also turn up at Anfield, not that the event is receiving much advance notice. The resentment at Juventus towards Liverpool over Heysel is still awfully raw. The bianconeri have an opportunity next Saturday night in this, the 30th anniversary year, to be anointed champions of Europe for a third time, but they continue to spurn any efforts at rapprochement.
Only this year, Juventus refused even to allow the Football Association to lay a wreath at its stadium. Lawrenson concedes: "If they take the olive branch from Liverpool, it is tantamount to saying, 'We exonerate you and your club for what happened.' And I don’t think that they can be seen to do that."
The absence of reconciliation is just one more sorrowful legacy of a tragedy that dare not speak its name. It was a moment in football so grotesque that the straightforward act of honouring the dead seems somehow banal and insufficient. Thirty years on, the hurt of Heysel is impossible to erase.