Heysel – the Belgian perspective. By Walter Broeckx
The history of the Heysel stadium goes back to 1927. In those days the city of Brussels decided to build a brand new stadium which was meant to become the home for all kind of sporting events in the Belgian capital. It was finished in 1930, thus celebrating the 100th anniversary of the separation between Belgium and Holland. It was not only a football stadium but also other sports like a world championship cycling on a track was held there in those days. The first game of football in fact was between Belgium and Holland. Some 70.000 people could enter the stadium in those days.
After the second world war the stadium is renamed as Heyselstadium. Heysel is the name of the district where the stadium is located. Again it is a stadium where many sports take place. The Heysel stadium gets a first class athletic track and since 1977 it is the venue of the Memorial Ivo Van Damme, a Flemish athlete that won silver on the Olympic games in 1976 and who died in a car crash shortly after that. The stadium is always full for this event which is the biggest athletics events in Belgium.
In the Heysel stadium also some very important football matches were played in the past. A lot of European cup finals have been played there since 1958. Older Arsenal fans will remember Arsenal losing to Valencia on penalties in 1980. My brother was there, I wasn’t and I still can kick myself for not being there. But also in Belgium football history it is an important stadium as the national team of Belgium plays most of its games in the stadium. In fact the Heysel stadium was and is what Wembley is for England: The national stadium. It also has, just like Wembley, no club team that plays in it so it really is a neutral place for all the teams in Belgium.
On may 29, 1985 a lot of visitors came to see one of the biggest games in European football. Liverpool and Juventus, both giants in their country and in Europe, came to the Heysel stadium to play the final of the European cup. Unfortunately, another uninvited guest came over. That guest had the name of Death. Death came to the old stadium and took away 39 lives. We all know the history and I wrote another article a few weeks ago on what is regarded as the cause of so many wasted lives. You can find it here.
It nearly was the end of this famous stadium. Some people said in the first emotion to tear it down. But after a few months and because of the Memorial Ivo Van Damme the authorities realized they needed the stadium. So the athletics could go on but at first no more games of football was played in the stadium. The final of the Belgium cup was played in different locations for several years to be sure there would be no second Heysel drama.
But after a few years the renovation of the old Heysel stadium began. It got a new name, King Boudewijn stadium, and new stands were build. So the old wound, the place where so many died disappeared and a brand new stadium was erected. Not completely new like Wembley because the main stand was kept but renovated. And if I can add another resemblemce with Wembley: the pitch has also a very bad reputation. In this stadium there was another European cup final in 1996. The first after the Heysel disaster and it was between Paris Saint Germain and Rapid Wien. PSG won with 1-0.
Then the Heysel stadium was renewed once again. This time for the European finals of 2000 for national teams. The opening of the tournament took place in the King Boudewijn stadium and in that game Belgium beat Sweden 2-1. But it wasn’t enough to qualify as they lost their final game against Turkey and went out after the first round. The stadium is still being used for the Belgium cup final and for games from the Belgium national team. It has survived the disaster and started a new life after it.
But as a result of the Heysel disaster a lot of things changed in Belgium and also in European football. English clubs were banned for 5 years to play in Europa and also Arsenal became a victim in those days and in the years after when England had not many places in Europe as the coefficient had dropped after that 5 years spell. Arsenal missed some 4 years of international football as a result.
There came a law in Belgium which is still in place and this law gives the authorities more power in the struggle against hooligans and violence in and around football grounds. In a way one could say that it opened the eyes of the Belgian authorities and from that moment on they realized that football was not only just a sport but also a risk for the health and security of the spectators. Something that we in Belgium never realized before that warm, sunny evening in May that turned in to one of the most frightening evenings in the lives of so many people.
As a general football fan I will never forget this evening and the images that we have seen on TV and in the newspapers. When I was doing some research on the internet I ran in to pictures of those terrible moments in Brussels and they still are as shocking as they were 25 years ago. Brussels will never forget that day and the families of the dead and the wounded will also never forget this day of horror in football. Today, saturday May 29, there will be held a remembrance ceremony at the stadium organised by the Belgian and Brussels authorities.
During the 2000 European championship the Italian team came over to the stadium to play against Belgium and they remembered the event with flowers on the place where the people died. And 20 years after the disaster there was the unveiling of a sundial as a memorial. The sundial was build around the number 39 to commemorate the 39 people who died after the attack of the Liverpool fans on that terrible day in May.
The Italians haven’t forgotten the Heysel disaster. In fact on thursday June 3, the Italian national team will come over to play Mexico in a friendly international. The Italian football federation has demanded specifically to play this game in Brussels to commemorate the Heysel disaster. There will be held a short ceremony before the kick off.
I have been in the stadium a few times and I usually sit on the main stand close to the section where the people died. I always have a few moments when I sit there when I look at that place and my thoughts go to the dead. It’s always a scary moment in fact. So let us never forget and most of all: No more Heysel disaster. Now and in the future.
Temporary editor’s note: As Tony is going away for a few days, I have agreed to take over the operation of the site during his time away . If you have an article to submit for the next week please email email@example.com.
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