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Jun 2, 2011

Rewind: The Heysel aftermath

On June 2, 1985, UEFA took action against English clubs, banning them from European competition after the riot at Brussels' Heysel stadium during the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus in which 39 people died. The repercussions of the tragedy saw stringent changes in the way hooligans were dealt with and formed the basis for a framework of measures to ensure nothing similar would ever happen again.

The recent success of English clubs in Europe - reaching six of the last seven Champions League finals - has played its part in reviving the country's history in the competition. But at the root of English struggles in Europe in the 1990s lies an event that is indelibly burned into football's memory - the 1985 Heysel Stadium Disaster.

The European Cup final on May 29, 1985 saw Liverpool travel to Belgium to face Juventus. The Anfield side had a rich history of success in the competition and were looking to retain their title having already picked up four trophies in a seven year period; the Italians had never won it, although they had twice been losing finalists.

Yet, before the players even walked onto the pitch, trouble began. With Italian and English supporters pushed together in a supposedly 'neutral' zone, a fight broke out about an hour before kick-off and, after a surge by some Liverpool fans, a wall collapsed, killing 39 supporters (mostly Italian though there were locals and an Ulsterman among the dead) and injuring a further 600.

As the Belgian police moved in to deal with the carnage, the captains of both teams, Gaetano Scirea and Phil Neal went out to plead with fans to calm down, but the players in the dressing-room had little idea of the enormity of the situation. Liverpool defender Jim Beglin told the Independent in 2005: "We started to hear that there was serious violence as we were putting the finishing touches to our preparations in the changing-room. I was eventually told there might be three deaths, but not until just before we finally went out. I knew something bad was going on but had no idea of the scale. We were being told to stay focused. It's possible the management and my more experienced colleagues shielded me from things.''

Despite the sight of bodies being carried away on iron fencing, draped in football flags, the football authorities decided that the game should go ahead and, amid a backdrop of chaos, Juve's Michel Platini scored a debatable penalty to win it 1-0. Never has a result mattered so little.

For the players, it was a sudden realisation, when they came off the pitch. Beglin said: "The enormity of Heysel hit me like a train after the game. Dejection over losing the European Cup final to Juventus quickly gave way to disbelief when I learned that 39 people had died. I walked with my Liverpool team-mates to where the wall had crumbled and the Italian fans were crushed. The remnants of people's lives - handbags and shoes, scarves and spectacles - were strewn among the rubble.''

The tragedy was described as "the darkest hour in the history of the UEFA competitions" and fingers were pointed at a number of contributors. The Belgian police for their handling of the fans; UEFA for letting the game go ahead and, of course, the hooligans themselves.

A day after the events, UEFA observer Gunter Schneider was quoted as saying: "Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt," although after an 18-month inquiry into the disaster by top Belgian judge Mrs Marina Coppieters, it was pronounced that the police and football authorities were equally as responsible.

In the aftermath, though, anti-English sentiment was rife. A report from Michael Parry, who was in Turin for the Daily Express, revealed the true nature of the Italian anger, as he wrote: ''Outside in the street the pavements were littered with the remnants of burned Union Jack flags and pictures of Liverpool which had been torn to shreds. British cars had had their panels kicked in and 'British Bastards' had been daubed in paint on the white walls of the Communale.''

One more day passed before the Football Association took action and stopped English clubs from participating in European competition, with FA secretary Ted Croker appearing outside No. 10 Downing Street after discussions with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to say: "It is now up to English football to put its house in order. It was very important that the FA took positive action and immediately.'' Thatcher, too, made her feelings clear when she said: "We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism at home and then perhaps we shall be able to go overseas again,'' adding that there should be "stiff prison sentences" for those found guilty of stadium violence.

It did not take long, then, for UEFA to follow suit as they banned all English clubs from Europe for an ''indefinite period''. Liverpool's city rivals Everton were the worst hit as they had just won the League and, two weeks earlier, picked up the European Cup Winners' Cup in Rotterdam - a match in which fan trouble was notoriously absent. While Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton and League Cup winners Oxford United were also denied entry to Europe in the first year of the ban.

David Will, president of the Scottish FA and the British representative on UEFA's 11-strong executive committee, was keen to limit the ban to a set-period but revealed the depth of the issue when he said: "The feeling in UEFA is very, very strong".

Soon after, Home Secretary Leon Brittan, with the backing of the government, announced a major crackdown on drinking at grounds claiming it would ''remove this stain from a great British game''. Fans were banned from consuming alcohol on their transport to games but many argued that the reforms did not go far enough as they still allowed the sale of alcoholic drinks in so-called 'hidden' areas.

However, Heysel's impact went further still and also saw efforts made to tighten crowd control by keeping away fans in a set area and to enhance co-operation between different European states over football hooliganism through the introduction of club membership cards and increased usage of CCTV footage.

The Council of Europe drafted the 'European Convention on Spectator Violence and misbehaviour at Sports Events and in Particular Football Matches' report, while working together with the European Parliament on a framework that is still viewed as acceptable to this day - although they did attempt to steer away from the ''mechanical strategies'' employed by the English authorities.

Ultimately, UEFA's ban lasted for five years - and six for Liverpool. Before 1985, English clubs had been dominant in European competition with six European Cup victories between 1977-1982, but in the years following the ban, no English side even reached the knockout stages (previously the second round stage) until 1996-97.

What Happened Next: Fourteen fans were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, while captain Johan Mahieu, the policeman in charge of security, and Albert Roosens, secretary of the Belgian Football Union, were convicted of criminal negligence. Eventually, English clubs returned to European action in 1990, but the problems of hooliganism did not immediately stop. The national side bore the brunt as at Euro '92 in Sweden there were more problems and in 1995, a friendly international between Republic of Ireland and England in Dublin was abandoned after 27 minutes due to riots. An English club (Manchester United) claimed the Champions League trophy in 1999, but at the 2000 European Championship, 584 British citizens were arrested in Brussels and Charleroi, leading to UEFA threatening to ban England from the tournament.

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