The Heysel Stadium disaster (pronounced: [ˈɦɛizəl]; Dutch: Heizeldrama; French: Drame du Heysel) occurred on 29 May 1985 when escaping fans were pressed against a collapsing wall in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, before the start of the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus of Italy and Liverpool of England. 39 people—mostly Italians and Juventus fans—were killed and 600 were injured in the confrontation.
Approximately an hour before the Juventus-Liverpool final was due to kick off, Liverpool supporters charged at Juventus fans and breached a fence that was separating them from a „neutral area“. This came after a period of hostility between the two sets of fans which saw missiles thrown from both teams‘ supporters. The instigators of violence are still unknown, with varying accounts. Juventus fans ran back on the terraces and away from the threat into a concrete retaining wall. Fans already standing near the wall were crushed; eventually the wall collapsed. Many people climbed over to safety, but many others died or were badly injured. The game was played despite the disaster, with Juventus winning 1–0.
The tragedy resulted in all English football clubs being placed under an indefinite ban by UEFA from all European competitions (lifted in 1990–91), with Liverpool being excluded for an additional three years, later reduced to one, and fourteen Liverpool fans found guilty of manslaughter and each sentenced to three years‘ imprisonment. The disaster was later described as „the darkest hour in the history of the UEFA competitions“.
In May 1985, Liverpool were the defending European Champions‘ Cup winners, having won the competition after defeating Roma in the penalty shootout in the final of the previous season. Again they would face Italian opposition, Juventus, who had won, unbeaten, the 1983–84 Cup Winners‘ Cup. Juventus had a team comprising many of Italy’s 1982 FIFA World Cup winning team–who played for Juventus for many years–and their playmaker Michel Platini was considered the best footballer in Europe, being named Footballer of The Year by France Football magazine for the second year in a row in December 1984. Both teams were placed in the two first positions in the UEFA club ranking at the end of the last season and were regarded by the specialised press as the best two sides in the continent at the time. Both teams had contested the 1984 European Super Cup five months before, finishing with victory for the Italian side by 2–0.
Despite its status as Belgium’s national stadium, Heysel was in a poor state of repair by the time of the 1985 European Final. The 55-year-old stadium had not been sufficiently maintained for several years, and large parts of the stadium were literally crumbling. For example, the outer wall had been made of cinder block, and fans who did not have tickets were seen kicking holes in it to get in. Liverpool players and fans later said that they were shocked at Heysel’s abject condition, despite reports from Arsenal fans that the ground was a „dump“ when Arsenal had played there a few years earlier. They were also surprised that Heysel was chosen despite its poor condition, especially since Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Bernabéu in Madrid were both available. Juventus president Giampiero Boniperti and Liverpool CEO Peter Robinson urged UEFA to choose another venue, claiming that Heysel was not in any condition to host a European Final, especially a European Final involving two of the largest and most powerful clubs in Europe. However, UEFA refused to consider a move.
The stadium was crammed with 58,000–60,000 supporters, with more than 25,000 for each team. The two ends behind the goals comprised all-standing terraces, each end split into three zones. The Juventus end was O, N and M and the Liverpool end was X, Y and Z as deemed by the Belgian court after the disaster. However, the tickets for the Z section were reserved for neutral Belgian fans in addition to the rest of the stadium. This meant the Juventus fans had more sections than the Liverpool fans with the Z section occupied by neutrals which is thought to have heightened prematch tensions. The idea of the large neutral area was opposed by both Liverpool and Juventus, as it would provide an opportunity for fans of both clubs to obtain tickets from agencies or from ticket touts outside the ground and thus create a dangerous mix of fans.
At the time Brussels, like the rest of Belgium, already had a large Italian community, and many expatriate Juventus fans bought the section Z tickets. Added to this, many tickets were bought up and sold by travel agents, mainly to Juventus fans. A small percentage of the tickets ended up in the hands of Liverpool fans.
At approximately 7 p.m. local time, an hour before kick-off, the trouble started. The Liverpool and Juventus supporters in sections X and Z stood merely yards apart. The boundary between the two was marked by temporary chain link fencing and a central thinly policed no-man’s land. Fans began to throw stones across the divide, which they were able to pick up from the crumbling terraces beneath them.
As kick-off approached, the throwing became more intense. Several groups of Liverpool fans broke through the boundary between section X and Z, overpowered the police, and charged at the Juventus fans. The fans began to flee toward the perimeter wall of section Z. The wall could not withstand the force of the fleeing Juventus supporters and a lower portion collapsed.
Contrary to reports at the time, and what is still assumed by many, the collapse of the wall did not cause the 39 deaths. Instead, the collapse relieved pressure and allowed fans to escape. Most died of suffocation after tripping or being crushed against the wall before the collapse. A further 600 fans were also injured. Bodies were carried out from the stadium on sections of iron fencing and laid outside, covered with giant football flags. As police and medical helicopters flew in, the down-draught blew away the modest coverings.
In retaliation for the events in section Z, many Juventus fans then rioted at their end of the stadium. They advanced down the stadium running track to help other Juventus supporters, but police intervention stopped the advance. A large group of Juventus fans fought the police with rocks, bottles and stones for two hours. One Juventus fan was also seen firing a starting gun at Belgian police.
Despite the scale of the disaster, UEFA officials, Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, Brussels Mayor Hervé Brouhon, and the city’s police force felt that abandoning the match would have risked inciting further trouble and violence, and the match eventually kicked off after the captains of both sides spoke to the crowd and appealed for calm.
Juventus won the match 1–0 thanks to a penalty scored by Michel Platini, awarded by Swiss referee Daina for a foul against Zbigniew Boniek.
At the end of the game the trophy was given in front of the stadium’s Honor Stand by the confederation president Jacques Georges to Juventus captain Gaetano Scirea. Due to collective hysteria generated by the massive invasion of the pitch by journalists and fans at the end of the match, and the chants of fans of both teams in the stands, some Italian club players celebrated the title in the middle of the pitch among them and in front of their fans in the M section, while some Liverpool players applauded their fans between the X and Z sections, the stadium’s section affected.
Initially, the blame for the incident was laid on the fans of Liverpool FC. On 30 May official UEFA observer Gunter Schneider said, „Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt.“ UEFA, the organiser of the event, the owners of Heysel Stadium and the Belgian police were investigated for culpability. After an 18-month investigation, the dossier of top Belgian judge Marina Coppieters was finally published. It concluded that blame should not rest solely with the English fans, and that some culpability lay with the police and authorities. Several top officials were incriminated by some of the dossier’s findings, including police captain Johan Mahieu, who had been in charge of security on 29 May 1985 and was subsequently charged with manslaughter.
The British police undertook a thorough investigation to bring to justice the perpetrators. Some 17 minutes of film and many still photographs were examined. TV Eye produced an hour-long programme featuring the footage and the British press also published the photographs.
A total of 34 people were arrested and questioned with 26 Liverpool fans being charged with manslaughter – the only extraditable offence applicable to events at Heysel. An extradition hearing in London in February–March 1987 ruled all 26 were to be extradited to stand trial in Belgium for the death of Juventus fan Mario Ronchi. In September 1987 they were extradited and formally charged with manslaughter applying to all 39 deaths and further charges of assault. Initially, all were held at a Belgian prison but over the subsequent months judges permitted their release as the start of the trial became ever more delayed.
The trial eventually got underway in October 1988, with three Belgians also standing trial for their role in the disaster: Albert Roosens, the head of the Belgian Football Association, for allowing tickets for the Liverpool section of the stadium to be sold to Juventus fans; and two police chiefs – Michel Kensier and Johann Mahieu – who were in charge of policing at the stadium that night. Two of the 26 Liverpool fans were in custody in Britain at the time and stood trial later. In April 1989, 14 fans were convicted and given three-year sentences, that were half suspended for five years, allowing them to return to the UK. After Belgian prosecutors appealed the sentences as too lenient, an appeal took place in Spring 1990 that increased the sentences of 11 fans (to five or four years), with two having their sentences upheld and one being acquitted.
Pressure mounted to ban English clubs from European competition. On 31 May 1985, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked the FA to withdraw English clubs from European competition before they were banned, but two days later, UEFA banned English clubs for „an indeterminate period of time“. On 6 June, FIFA extended this ban to all worldwide matches, but this was modified a week later to allow friendly matches outside of Europe to take place. In December 1985 FIFA announced that English clubs were also free to play friendly games in Europe, though the Belgian government banned any English clubs playing in their country.
Though the English national team was not subjected to any bans, English club sides were banned indefinitely from European club competitions, with Liverpool being provisionally subject to a further three years suspension as well. In April 1990, following years of campaigning from the English football authorities, UEFA confirmed the reintroduction of English clubs (with the exception of Liverpool) into its competitions from the 1990–91 season onward; in April 1991 UEFA’s Executive Committee voted to allow Liverpool back into European competition from the 1991–92 season onward, a year later than their compatriots, but two years earlier than initially foreseen. In the end, all English clubs served a five-year-ban, while Liverpool were excluded for six years.
According to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, the institutional relationships between both clubs and their fans improved during his career in Italy.
The following clubs were denied entry to European competitions during this period:
The number of places available to English clubs in the UEFA Cup would however have been reduced had English teams been eliminated early in the competition. By the time of the readmittance of all English clubs except Liverpool in 1990–91, England was only granted one UEFA Cup entrant (awarded to the league runners-up); prior to the ban, they had had four entry slots, a number not awarded to England again until the 1994–95 UEFA Cup. Welsh clubs playing in the English league system, who could qualify for the Cup Winners‘ Cup through the Welsh Cup, were unaffected by the ban.
In the meantime, many other clubs missed out on a place in the UEFA Cup due to the return of English clubs to European competitions only being gradual.
Liverpool’s additional year of exclusion from Europe meant that there was no English representation in the 1990-91 European Cup, as they were defending league champions that season. Football League Cup winners Nottingham Forest also missed out on UEFA Cup places in 1990-91, along with Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea.
The teams who missed out on the 1991-92 UEFA Cup for the same reason were Sheffield Wednesday, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Manchester City.
The excluded teams in 1992-93 were Arsenal and Manchester City.
In 1993-94, the excluded teams were Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers.
The final season of partial exclusion was 1994-95, when Leeds United missed out.
After Heysel, English clubs began to impose stricter rules intended to make it easier to prevent troublemakers from attending domestic games, with legal provision to exclude troublemakers for three months introduced in 1986, and the Football (Offences) Act introduced in 1991.
Serious progress on legal banning orders preventing foreign travel to matches was arguably not made until the violence involving England fans (allegedly mainly involving neo-Nazi groups, such as Combat 18) at a match against Ireland on 18 February 1995 and violent scenes at the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Rioting at UEFA Euro 2000 saw introduction of new legislation and wider use of police powers – by 2004, 2,000 banning orders were in place, compared to fewer than 100 before Euro 2000.
The main reforms to English stadiums came after the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 people died in 1989. All-seater stadiums became a requirement for clubs in the top two divisions while pitchside fencing was removed and closed-circuit cameras have been installed. Fans who misbehave can have their tickets revoked and be legally barred from attending games at any English stadium.
The Heysel Stadium itself continued to be used for hosting athletics for almost a decade, but no further football matches took place in the old stadium. In 1994, the stadium was almost completely rebuilt as the King Baudouin Stadium. On 28 August 1995 the new stadium welcomed the return of football to Heysel in the form of a friendly match between Belgium and Germany. It then hosted a major European final on 8 May 1996 when Paris Saint-Germain defeated Rapid Vienna 1–0 to win the Cup Winners‘ Cup.
In 1985, a memorial was presented to the victims at the Juventus headquarters in Piazza Crimea, Turin. The monument includes an epitaph written by Torinese journalist Giovanni Arpino. Since 2001 it has been situated in front of the current club’s headquarter in Corso Galileo Ferraris.
In 1986 the band Revolting Cocks, fronted by Al Jourgensen of Ministry, released a song by the name of „38“, in commemoration to the deaths of this tragic event on the album Big Sexy Land.
A memorial service for those killed in the disaster was held before Liverpool’s match with Arsenal at Anfield on 18 August 1985, their first fixture after the disaster. However, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, it was „drowned out“ by chanting.
During Euro 2000, members of the Italian team left flowers on the site, in honour of the victims.
On 29 May 2005, a £140,000 sculpture was unveiled at the new Heysel stadium, to commemorate the disaster. The monument is a sundial designed by French artist Patrick Rimoux and includes Italian and Belgian stone and the poem Funeral Blues by Englishman W. H. Auden to symbolise the sorrow of the three countries. Thirty-nine lights shine, one for each who died that night.
Juventus and Liverpool were drawn together in the quarter-finals of the 2005 Champions League, their first meeting since Heysel. Before the first leg at Anfield, Liverpool fans held up placards to form a banner saying „amicizia“ („friendship“ in Italian). Many of the Juventus fans applauded the gesture, although a significant number chose to turn their backs on it. In the return leg in Turin, Juventus fans displayed banners reading Easy to speak, difficult to pardon: murders and 15-4-89. Sheffield. God exists, the latter a reference to the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a crush. A number of Liverpool fans were attacked in the city by Juventus ultras.
British composer Michael Nyman wrote a piece called „Memorial“ which was originally part of a larger work of the same name written in 1985 in memory of the Juventus fans who died at Heysel Stadium.
On Wednesday 26 May 2010, a permanent plaque was unveiled on the Centenary Stand at Anfield to honour the Juventus fans who died 25 years earlier. This plaque is one of two permanent memorials to be found at Anfield, along with one for the 96 fans killed in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
In May 2012, a Heysel Memorial was unveiled in the J-Museum at Turin. There is also a tribute to the disaster’s victims in the club’s Walk of Fame in front of the Juventus Stadium. Two years later Juventus‘ officials announced a memorial in the Continassa headquarter.
In February 2014, an exhibition in Turin was dedicated both to the Heysel tragedy and Superga air disaster. The name of the exhibition was „Settanta angeli in un unico cielo – Superga e Heysel tragedie sorelle“ (70 angels in the one same heaven – Superga and Heysel sister tragedies) and gathered material from 4 May 1949 and 29 May 1985.
In May 2015, during a Serie A match between Juventus and Napoli at Turin, Juventus fans held up placards to form a banner saying „+39 Rispetto“ („respect +39“ in Italian) including the names of the victims of the disaster.
On 12 November 2015 Italian Football Federation (FIGC), Juventus‘ representatives led by Mariella Scirea and J-Museum president Paolo Garimberti and members of the Italian victims association held a ceremony in front of the Heysel monument in King Baudouin Stadium for the 30th anniversary of the event. The following day, FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio announced the retirement of Squadra Azzurra‘s number 39 shirt prior to the friendly match between Italy and Belgium.
The 39 people killed were 32 Italians (including two minors), four Belgians, two French fans and one from Northern Ireland.