Remembering Heysel

Image courtesy of mightymightymatze

25 years ago today – and just 18 days after 56 football fans lost their lives in the fire at Bradford City‘s Valley Parade – a collapsing wall at Brussels’ Heysel Stadium, where Liverpool and Juventus were due to contest the European Cup final, resulted in the deaths of 39 people. But whereas Bradford was largely a tragedy of misfortune, Heysel was altogether more preventable.

The events of that fateful evening are well documented, and I will not repeat them in great detail here, although they left a lasting impression on the memories of this particular football fan, at that time a 14-year old boy.

Suffice to say that after a period of escalating hostilities before kick-off, a large body of Liverpool supporters charged at a section of Juventus fans, a common hooligan practice at English grounds. In the ensuing panic, Juve supporters retreated and were crushed against a retaining wall, which collapsed under the pressure.

After a long delay in which representatives of both teams appealed for calm, and the dead and seriously injured were carried away on dismantled sections of iron fencing, the game was allowed to kick off, primarily to prevent further rioting.

Juve won 1-0, courtesy of a Michel Platini penalty. In truth, I do not remember anything about the game. Having just watched in horror as death unfolded in front of me on live television, why would I?

When in doubt, blame the English

Ultimately, the blame would be directed solely at the Liverpool fans, an excessive simplification exacerbated by the English FA‘s capitulation in response to political pressure from both home and abroad. Mea culpa, they said. No one, whether it was Juventus, UEFA, FIFA or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who was already on a vendetta of her own against the uncontrolled tide of football hooliganism), was in any hurry to disagree.

The day after the final, UEFA observer Gunter Schneider said:

Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt.

While in no way seeking to diminish the role the Liverpool supporters played in the disaster, the reality was that several factors contributed to the disaster. UEFA should never have approved such an old, crumbling stadium in the first place, a situation which was made worse on the night by poor ticketing arrangements and overcrowding. The policing of the ‘no man’s land’ area between the Liverpool and Juventus fans was inadequate to the point of being virtually non-existent, and backed up only by temporary chain-link fencing. Alcohol fuelled both sets of fans, with missiles being thrown across the divide from both sides before the tragedy occurred. And finally, there was also a sense of unfinished business after the events following the previous year’s final in Rome, when Liverpool fans were attacked by gangs of Roma supporters wielding iron bars and other weapons, after the English side had won the match in a penalty shootout.


After the tragedy, Thatcher applied pressure on the FA to withdraw English clubs from European competition. This was rapidly followed by UEFA banning English teams from all European club competitions for an indefinite length of time. In the end, it would be five years before they were readmitted, with Liverpool themselves serving an additional enforced absence of one year (originally three).

A number of Liverpool fans were subsequently prosecuted for manslaughter, with most receiving suspended sentences.

No inquiry was ever held into the causes of the disaster. Any errors or culpability on the part of UEFA officials, the Heysel Stadium owners and the Belgian police were never officially raised.

After Heysel (and Bradford), the winds of change started to blow through the English game too. The Thatcher government attempted to introduce mandatory ID cards for football fans, an ill-conceived and draconian measure which thankfully never saw the light of day. Clubs started taking greater steps to prevent known troublemakers from attending games. Gradually, violence at football matches became the exception rather than the norm. And with the enforced modernisation of grounds that came as a result of the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report, the transformation of the old First Division into the family/corporate-friendly and polished commercial product that is now the Premier League began to take shape.

The Heysel Stadium was not demolished until 1994. For nine years it stood as a decaying monument to the death of 39 people which could so easily have been avoided.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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