It was supposed to be another glorious night in our history. Another European Cup Final, and the lads were looking to defend the win in 1984 in Rome. That prior year, Liverpool fans were subjected to assaults at the hands of Italian fans, as Tony Evans recounts that day in Rome, in his book Far Foreign Land:
From the moment we landed at a small airport some way from the city it was clear that it was going to be a long and difficult day. Carloads of youths in cloth-topped Fiats shadowed the coaches, pulling alongside while an occupant popped up through the roof to fire a flare, or hurl a brick at the bus… we arrived at the ground 90 minutes before kickoff, and what we found in he streets around the stadium unsettled us even more. Inside the ground, there were people with bruised faces and patched-up shallow slash wounds… a hail of missiles came from the Roma fans adjacent to the away section, so the police baton-charged us foreigners.
The account goes on to describe the violence that happened outside the stadium after the game as the victorious Liverpool fans, having watched Liverpool win the trophy on penalties, with flaming rubbish bins being hurled at them as they exited the stadium, while Italian police fired tear gas behind them in an effort to keep them moving. All in all, over a dozen Liverpool fans were stabbed by Roma Ultras, and over 100 more suffered serious injuries. Many considered themselves lucky to escape with their lives. And for some Liverpool fans, it was a night they’d not forget. To quote Tony Evans again:
None of us wanted to see another Italian again. But, by God, if we did, we’d be ready for them next time…The ultras had made us suffer once, but it would not happen again.
And so fate placed another Italian club in Liverpool’s path the following season when we met Juventus in the Final, at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. When the venue was announced, Liverpool chairman Peter Robinson visited the ground, and was shocked at the condition the ground was in. The club publicly voiced their concerns over potential safety issues – including the dilapidated state of the stadium, as well as UEFA’s plans to separate the Liverpool and Juventus fans with a “mixed” area – a section of the ground earmarked for local fans, but which would surely be occupied by Liverpool and Juve fans who picked up tickets from those locals selling them on the street. But the protests fell on deaf ears, and the match was set to go ahead.
At first, the trouble seemed innocuous by 80s standards. Liverpool and Juventus fans, separated by just a few feet, began hurling missiles back and forth. Numerous reports afterwards attest to Italian fans “starting it”, but as the kick off approached, Liverpool fans retaliated by moving closer to the Juventus fans. Many Italian fans, seeking to avoid trouble (as many Liverpool fans that day were also doing) attempted to climb over the side wall to escape, when the wall collapsed. 39 people died that day, with scores more injured. In retaliation, Juventus fans began rioting at their end of the ground, and attempted to charge the length of the stadium. They were met by police, who were pelted by bricks and bottles as a riot ensued. This riot was still being fought between Juventus fans and police when the Final actually kicked off. The match was almost an afterthought, with Juventus winning 1-0 in a match many said should never have gone ahead.
As the dust cleared, the blame for the disaster was laid squarely at the feet of Liverpool fans, but a later report also apportioned blame to the police and the owners of the stadium. Over two dozen fans were extradited to Belgium afterwards on charges of involuntary manslaughter, with half of them being found guilty. Many were members of the “British Movement”, a far-right fascist group who helped to drive the hooligan culture that was rife in English football at the time. (I clearly remember as a 12-year-old watching this game on the television, and asking my father why there were so many people in Union Jack t-shirts instead of Liverpool shirts). Outraged that the blame wasn’t placed equally, then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher demanded that all English clubs withdraw from European competition. UEFA responded to this by banning English clubs indefinitely – a ban that lasted over six years.
To this day, animosity festers amongst Juventus fans towards Liverpool. While many see this as a tragedy caused by a senseless handful of ultras on both sides, attempts at reconciliation have been largely ignored. When the Kop displayed a mosaic saying “Amicizia” (friendship in Italian) for the first leg of their Champions League tie against Juventus in 2005, the majority of Juve fans turned their back on the gesture. When Liverpool visited Turin for the return leg, they were greeted with banners that said “Easy to speak, difficult to pardon: murders” and “15-4-89. Sheffield. God exists” Kenny Dalglish recalls:
These Juventus fans felt that Liverpool were responsible for the deaths of their friends. How could we be? We had been the ones warning UEFA and the Belgians. It was our supporters who had been attacked the previous year by Italians and were determined not to be ambushed again. I could understand Juventus’ emotions because they felt the team represented those who had been involved in the trouble, but they could have directed some of their anger towards UEFA and the Belgian authorities. It was wrong that Liverpool took all the blame.
But while it was wrong that Liverpool took all the blame, blame must be acknowledged. It may have been at the hands of a senseless minority, egged on by skinheads who had no affiliation with our club and were there to just spread hatred, but the fact remains that nobody should go to a football match and not come home. 39 people died that day in a tragedy that could have been avoided.
Should have been avoided.
May 29th remains a day of remembrance for both Juventus and Liverpool supporters.
In Memoria e Amicizia
Sergio Bastino Mazzino
Luciano Rocco Papaluca
Jean Michel Walla