Heysel: 25 years on. The view from Belgium

By Walter Broeckx

I remember the day that Belgium had it’s greatest tragedy in football history very well. I know it was a very bright and sunny day. As I worked in the office of an industrial laundry at that time and we had a lot of hotels in Brussels as clients we had a busy period in business.

Our truck drivers went out early as the police had warned of a lot of traffic problems in and around Brussels and the football stadium. When they came back they told me lot of story’s about how the streets were full of football fans of both teams and that with the lovely weather and the sunshine it all looked rather very friendly.

At some of our clients hotels there were fans from both teams who sat together, eat and drank together. Nothing pointed at the tragedy that was about to happen.

So when I came home after work I was rather interested on how the game would go. Our TV stations had been building it up and at that time Liverpool – Juventus was what Arsenal – Barcelona is today for the neutral football fan.

So I sat in front of my TV as the news began and right after the news they would go to the Heysel stadium to give live coverage of the game. From the moment the news started you could see at the journalists face that there was something wrong. Now you must know that in those days live coverage was not the same as it is now. An average PL game has now maybe over 10 camera’s but in those days communication was not what it is now. So the first thing they said was that there was some trouble inside the stadium.

They didn’t know just what was wrong but it seemed that the Liverpool fans had attacked a zone where there should have been neutral fans. But as Belgium has many people from Italian origin the neutral zone was full with ItaloBelges as they are called in Brussels. The real Italian fans where situated on the other side of the stadium.

So in the neutral fan zone there were a lot of fathers with their sons to enjoy what should have been a great evening off football between the biggest club in England at that time and the biggest club in Italy at that time.  To make the point, the fans in that zone only came to see some football and when they were attacked by the Liverpool fans they did what fathers do when they want to protect their children : they ran away from the fighting.

That natural reflex became a disaster because all those thousands of people ran in to each other, they crushed each other to death and when the side wall of the stand collapsed under the pressure of thousands scared people fighting for survival the Heysel tragedy was born.

I have seen different TV programs where they have investigated what went wrong, who was to blame. I have seen the horror unfold many times on my TV and I must say I always sleep bad after such a programme.

What is the general conclusion after all this and who was responsible for the tragedy? I will try to give an answer on how people looked at it in Belgium. The general conclusion over here is that there were many responsible and I will try to sum them up, not in order of more or less guilty but in random order:

  • The Belgian FA and Uefa: They had planned the final in an older stadium that was not fit for a final. Also they had not thought deeply about the zones they had given to each club and certainly not about a “neutral zone” near one of the real fan zones.
  • The Belgian FA and our Ministry of Internal affairs (responsible for public safety): They also had not thought about the fact that many ItaloBelges would come to this game and would be located right next to the Liverpool fans. Hooliganism was a real issue still in those days so they should have thought about the danger of getting two sets of fans next to each other with only a thin wire fence between.
  • The Ministry of Internal affairs and the police at the Heysel stadium: From the moment that it was clear that there would be a lot of ItaloBelges right next to the Liverpool fans they should have acted and should have put policeman in the ground between those fans. There was a massive police force outside the stadium but only a few between the neutral zone and the Liverpool fans. This was a terrible mistake. The police should have prevented the attack by standing between the 2 zones.
  • The Liverpool fans : why oh why do you have to attack other fans ? I’m not the person to blame every Liverpool fan for this but I really hope that some of those who attacked that neutral fan zone later died in the Hillsborough disaster and died the same dreadful death they gave those people in the Heysel stadium. Those who know me a bit, know that in the Emirates I shout, I scream, I yell, I do what any passionate fan does but when it comes to attacking someone I say : NO, NEVER! This is a line no decent fan should ever cross. If you get attacked and you defend yourself, okay to me but you do not attack other people just for the fun of it.

That day will remain a black day in football history in Europe and in Belgium. My father for example didn’t bother to look at live football any more after that. He completely lost interest in the game because of that dreadful evening in the Heysel.

As a result the English clubs got banned from European football for some years and Belgium was not allowed to organise another European final. This period only ended with the organisation of the EC in 2000 in fact.

Maybe the Belgian authorities were fooled by the excellent behaviour from the Arsenal fans a few years earlier when the played the European Cup final in the same stadium and lost after penalties.  We showed in that game how to support your team without attacking other fans, we even took defeat with some class. Hard to swallow but with dignity and giving the club a reason to be proud of their fans.

Who could have predicted that only some 5 years later that same Heysel stadium would change into a tomb for so many innocent football fans. There is still blood on the hands of some organisations, some public persons and some fans. Most of them went on with their lives unpunished.  People who lost beloved ones will suffer from their incompetence and from some persons violent behaviour.

May the deadly victims rest in peace and may the responsible persons be haunted and feel guilty until their last day. It will be the only punishment they have to face in this live.

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13 Replies to “Heysel: 25 years on. The view from Belgium”

  1. Strong words Walter and very true. You have just stirred up the emotions I felt at the time. I was 19 and saw it on TV, I bet some of those hooligans are around my age now. They have probably forgotten what they did that day……very sad.

  2. Excellent article, albeit very sad, Walter. I believe that you have spread the blames evenly up there. Some disaster, no matter how small or big, are completely avoidable if only the organisers put some thought into their planning. Sadly, they don’t often enough.

    Football fans? Sadly people are often very unpredictable; especially when you add alcohol effect into the mix. Very volatile. Yet, even today, we still have fans who behave like demented animals. Take the case of a ManU fan who, after the loss to Barcelona, drove his vehicle into a small group of fans celebrating their club’s victory, killing about four and injuring a few others. Did they not have a right to celebrate their club’s triumph? Would this demented fan not have celebrated had ManU won?

    Football is unifying, yes. But only when the organisers are not solely focused on revenue. Safety and Security should be at the top of the list too. We all, opposing or neutral fans, have a right to enjoy our football entertainment without fear for our lives.

    May the poor victims and their families find piece.

  3. Walter, I am a relatively new follower to the global game. I have heard ‘Heysel’ mentioned in interviews, articles, etc……but your narrative reveals more details and perspective.

    Unfortunately, there are small elements in every society that are poorly educated and when combined with faulty judgment, innocent suffer.

  4. Walter – wonderful peice and you told me something that I didnt know – that the “Juventus” fans in the section next to the Liverpool fans were actually Belgian Italians. I always wondered why they knew so little about Hooligan tactics.

    That takes me onto something that I might be able to help you with. You ask why fans attack other fans. Nick Hornby covers this very clearly in his book “Fever Pitch”. He has a large section in the book about hooliganism and its development in the UK and subsequent spread through Europe. He describes the tactic of “running” where one set of hooligans would charge another set, who would retreat, take a few punches and kicks at the front-line, and then set forth on their own counter-attack to force the first group into their own retreat. This was something that had been going on in the terraces for years and the reason why wire fences between sections (rather than just around the pitch) were first put up. This was problem number 1 – Heysel had no such fences so the Liverpool fans knew they could indulge in one of their favorite activities. It wasnt so much attacking the opposing fans as doing something that British football fans had been doing since the late-60’s, but something that fences had been stopping them from doing in England for a few years at that point. Problem Number 2 was that the Juventus fans didnt know what “running” was and didnt know they were supposed to counter-attack at some point. Nick Hornby explains this by simply saying that the Juve fans were families and therefore not the hard-core Juve fans who would surely have known what the appropriate response was but your information about Belgo-Italians makes this point even clearer. It all makes sense in a way now. The Juve fans, who were not “regulars”, instead of counter-attacking, simply kept moving back and back and back, until the walls disintegrated and deaths started to occur. The Liverpool fans must have wondered when the counter-attack was going to come, when they would be turned around, and why they were being allowed to continue.

    The above IN NO WAY absolves anyone of blame. It is simply given to try and provide further clarity to that awful day. May something like that NEVER EVER happen again.


  5. Paul C,
    Thanks for your information. I have read the book but it is some time ago now and didn’t remember it untill you pointed it out.

    I think most of the Italian fans in that section lived in Belgium. But also some travel agency’s specialised in sport travels had bought a lot of tickets in Belgium (anyone could buy tickets at that time and the only thing you had to do was to pay for it) and sold them in Italy to Juventus fans. I could have added them on the list of responsable for the drama.

    It was for a big part Murphy’s law if you look at everything that went wrong together.

    I did not mention it in my article but to be complete I just want to tell that also the hard core Juve fans that were standing on the other side of the Heysel stadium tried to attack as well at a certain point. Even some Juve fan fired a shot with a gun. I saw it live on TV and for a long time it looked as if nobody else had seen it. I even began thinking that I was wrong. Later the media picked this up and showed the images again. So I knew I was not having a nightmare in this nightmare.

  6. Walter – you can imagine what might have happened had the hard-core Juve and ‘Pool fans been next to each other. Carnage in all likelihood, but funnily enough (or not so funny depending on your view) there might not have been any deaths. Violence, blood, embarrassment, shame etc. but no deaths. Maybe. Who knows?

    What always gets me, and still does 25 years later, is the fact that they still played the match that evening.

    You almost have to do a double-take and think about that one again.

    They still played the match that evening.


  7. Another really stupid thing was that in those days we had two kinds of police forces. The local Brussels police and the “rijkswacht” which was some kind of federal or national police. As they both wanted to be responsable for keeping control they took a typical Belgian solution: the divided the ground in 2 sections and on one side was the local police and on the other side the federal police would be responsable.

    To make things worse: they had two seperate headquarters and now comes the really criminal thing : they could not communicate with each other as they both had different wavelengths on which their radio worked.

    Whithout the attack nothing would have happend and this attack was the main reason for the drama but if you look at all the authority’s have done wrong that day… It really is beyond anything

  8. Paul C,

    I remember my father was so disgusted at that time he said to us looking in disbelieve on what we saw on the screen : “The police should let them hooligans from both sides on the field and let them kill each other. It would be a good thing for society.”

    Maybe a bit of a harsh solution but it just gives an impression on how shocked we were at that time. And how angry by the fact that this thing could happen.

    I must admit that even for me, and I was not directly involved in the whole thing and don’t know any victims myself, but when I look back at it, it is still something that brings a lot of emotions from sadness to angry on how it all could have happened.

    I think that day football lost its innocence in Belgium and it became from a fun game a game of life and death.

  9. Great piece, Walter, I don’t always agree with you but you wrote from your heart about something that thousands can’t approach. I agree with all that you say, especially about not attacking other fans for the sake of it.

    I would also add to your list of ‘to blames’:

    A. The English football authorities for not addressing the culture of hooliganism which was rife in the game. I was at the Leeds-Bayern final in 1975 as my cousin was a Leeds supporter and we all went to Paris for her 21st birthday and she was doing her year abroad as a languages student and had queued all night for 4 tickets, she being a Leeds supporter. The ref was bent, but the fans destroyed their end of Parc des Princes and threw pieces of stadium at Beckenbauer, Maier, Mueller, all those great players. It was a disgrace. We had rampaging fans on the pitch at Luton hurling things at the police, shown on the news without thought of how children would digest it, supporters racing onto pitches to get games stopped when they were losing (1974 FA Cup Notts Forest against Newcastle being one example), fascists using Hitler salutes when following England (a match in Dublin abandoned as a result) and much, much more. Politicians betrayed society through weakness and ‘not my problem’ and it took 80 deaths to change that. A national disgrace….
    B. Our clubs for not taking responsibility for their own fans, thus tarnishing all English fans with communal responsibility. I am still outraged by our 1985 champions not being allowed to try in 1986. Their fans weren’t a problem. That club arguably suffered more than any in England, they could be Man Utd now but for Heysel……sometimes life isn’t fair…
    C. Our politicians and our culture. We had lost all sense of moral compass in how to handle objections and protests. We were a people who refused to say ‘this will not do!’ We wouldn’t complain at useless food, hours of delays on the trains, striking trotskyists and thought that thuggery was the only way apart from sullen silence. We were in a communal sulk from losing our Empire and stood by and watched our nation being disgraced by hooligans, our industries being destroyed by partisan duelling and our media descending into sensationalism rather than seek to enlighten, cajole and inform.

    I am one who has long argued that until all parties take ownership of their responsibilities for past tragedies, a calm acceptance of how to face the future will not come.

    Are we getting there yet or are there still more years of tiptoeing to come??

  10. Rhys – wonderful stuff, mate. A worthy addition to the debate. Total agreement with you.

  11. I especially agree with what Rhys said about one of the true unknown victims of Heysel – Everton. If there was ever a reason for one club to hate another then Everton hating Liverpool would be very valid and reasonable. That Everton side of 1985 was wonderful, the best side I had ever seen (until Liverpool 87-88) and without a weakness. They then went and added Gary Lineker but couldnt enter the European Cup because of Heysel. Southall, Stevens, Radcliffe, Mountfield, Van Den Hauwe, Steven, Reid, Bracewell, Sheedy, Gray, Sharp. Even 25 years later that team just rolls off the tongue. A great team.

  12. Thank you Walter for that very informative post and to you guys too for filling in the many blanks with you input.I had stayed up late to watch that game and like everyone else could hardy fanthom the carnage and idiocy unfolding.
    I never knew of those attacked “neutral fans ” as the were decked out in Juve colours – but I did wonder why they were so timid and docile.
    Let us hope that it never happens again.

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