By Arijit Tarafdar
We’ve all heard, read and discussed about the impact of the disasters that shook the game of football and the entire fraternity at large. The tales of multiple horrific incidents come to mind and we cannot help but wonder- Could they have been avoided? Who was to blame? Why did it happen?
We may never know why such disaster happen as there is no universal factor to mass psychology of the fans. But, what we can know is whether such circumstances could’ve been avoided. So, while talking about circumstances that could’ve been avoided, the Heysel Stadium Disaster on May 29, 1985 comes to mind.
The occasion was big, it was the European Cup final and Liverpool was playing Juventus for continental supremacy. Just an hour before the match was supposed to start, the Liverpool fans broke into a section that was officially designated as neutral but mostly had been occupied by Juventus fans which, ultimately led to 39 deaths and injuries to more than 600 people. The game, however, went ahead with Juventus going on to win 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Michel Platini.
Pyro-missiles started to be flung between the supporters, who were standing on terraces separated only by a chain-linked fence and poorly policed no-man’s land(gap). This continued for a while until the barrage grew much stronger shortly before kick-off time as the Liverpool supporters charged through the barrier, causing the Italian fans to retreat. Although this relieved the pressure, the damage had been done, with suffocation and crushing the cause of the majority of the deaths. Having seen this happen, the Juventus fans started a riot in their official section and got onto the pitch and approached the Englishmen, only to be stopped by the police.
WHO WAS BLAMED FOR HEYSEL?
The UEFA was quick to put the blame solely on Liverpool fans for the events at Heysel. The organisation’s official observer Gunter Schneider said: “Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt”.
Eyewitness Ed Vulliamy, writing for the Guardian, stated: “The signs had been there all day, as the British fans got drunk and rowdy on their way to the ground.
"In fact, they had been there for years: Britain was on patriotic turbo-charge after the election of Margaret Thatcher and war in the Falklands, and no one expressed the mood with greater articulacy than ‘our boys’ supporting football teams in Europe.
"There had already been serious trouble with Spurs and Manchester United; now it was Liverpool’s turn.”
In all of the media uproar that followed, nowhere was it written about UEFA that, they should have shouldered some of the blame as they picked a crumbling stadium to hold the match. Fans were able to pick up rocks from the terrace to hurl at each other. Furthermore, their decision to allow a third of the tickets for the Liverpool end to be sold in a ‘neutral’ section was also woefully ill-judged. Albert Roosens, the Secretary General of the Belgian FA was ultimately charged and handed a 6 month sentence for allowing tickets in the ‘neutral’ section to be sold to the Juventus fans.
Negligent policing and superficial security checks also contributed to an already alarming nature of the stadium. A Liverpool fan present at the middle of the proceedings wrote this harrowing account of what was exactly happening in the stands on that day-
“Suddenly, ahead of us, a group of supporters came clambering over the wall at the edge of Block Z, shouting and gesticulating. At first we assumed it was our lot trying to bunk in without tickets and being turned back. More and more appeared, swarming over the wall and charging down the bank towards us. But as they drew nearer, running maniacally towards us, it quickly became apparent they were not Liverpool supporters trying to get in but Juventus supporters getting out. And they were heading straight for us, at speed, maybe a hundred or more. When faced with a number of rival supporters charging at him, the average English football fan’s experience tells him they are not coming for his autograph”.
Phil’s eyes narrowed: “Bloody hell, these are coming for us here –– quick, get a brick or something!” The first group arrived, but just ran straight on past us, wild-eyed, before barging into some more Liverpool fans behind us. One Italian, wearing a silk scarf like a headband, bandanna-style, launched into a bizarre kung-fu routine with circling hands and trilling noises, before sprinting off with the others. More and more followed, all with the same wild demeanour. Most odd, we thought, not familiar with this type of pre-match behaviour, as we continued towards our entrance, completely unaware of the significance of what we had just seen and heard. “There were no police or stewards outside to control the surging swaying mass, or just beyond the turnstiles to check and control the access points. As the pressure at the front of the queues built, those behind were crying out for the pushing to stop –– a chilling foretaste of what was to come four years later at Hillsborough”.
Thirty-two Italians, four Belgians, two French and one Northern Irishman were killed. And one can only help but wonder if the unnecessary chaos could’ve been prevented. The answer is a big YES. Had UEFA been vigilant enough to deploy proper policing and had chosen to hold the match in a proper stadium, this horrific disaster could’ve been prevented.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER HEYSEL?
On June 2, 1985 UEFA banned all English clubs from European competitions for an indefinite period, which was extended to a worldwide ban by FIFA. The Belgian Government prohibited any English clubs from playing matches in their country even if it was to be a friendly.
In April 1990, the English teams were re-admitted into European competitions barring Liverpool. The Merseyside club found themselves banned for an additional year. England had been the leading country in terms of UEFA coefficient before the period of the ban but lost all of their points during their time in exile. It would be 2008 before they would again top that particular standing.