The Heysel Stadium Disaster

Day of shame

HeizeldramaOne of the darkest chapters in the history of international football was written on 29 May 1985. Thirty-nine people lost their lives during riots prior to the National Champions Europa Cup final between FC Liverpool and Juventus Turin, all of them Italian fans. What transpired that evening left a deep imprint on millions of people’s minds but on the other hand these tragic events almost announced themselves.

At the time the stadium had for a large part been modified and upgraded, the standing places were left relatively untouched. Some walls had holes so big that supporters without tickets could easily get into the stadium. The only escape route led upwards. Below on each short side there were just three gates, totally insufficient for the 22,000 standing places. Nonetheless this terrible shortcoming did not present any insurmountable obstacles for the UEFA in allocating the final for the most important European cup to Brussels in February 1985. The stadium’s actual inspection lasted barely thirty minutes!


Over half an hour before kick-off there was a clash between Liverpool supporters in Section X and Juventus supporters in Section Z. They used anything they could find lying around and anything that they could quickly dislodge as missiles. The Liverpool fans drove their opponents all the way to the far end of their section. Dozens of Italians were crushed against each other and against the barriers resulting in a horrible death by asphyxiation.

The whole world looked aghast at the victims for whom there was no escape and at the Brussels Police, just a few dozen units strong that evening, which simply had no idea what was happening. Kick-off was further delayed while the bodies were carried outside the stadium walls. However there was no doubt that the game should still go ahead if it didn’t the catastrophe would only intensify. Even the players, who were kept informed of the situation in the dressing rooms, knew that cancelling the match would offer no solution. Victory in the game was now of secondary importance. The fact that Juventus eventually won the match with a penalty goal by Michel Platini, left the 58,000 shocked fans completely unmoved. Thirty-nine people had lost their lives in the disaster, all of them Italian.

In just one hour the Heysel Stadium was transformed into a cursed arena that was promptly closed. Since 29 May 1985 the Heysel name, until then associated with the World Fair, the car and food shows and its proudest stadium, became synonymous with death and destruction.


Endless aftermath

And yet less than a year later football was being played again at the Heysel Stadium. On 23 April 1986 the Red Devils won a friendly international against Bulgaria 2-0 in preparation for the 1986 WC in Mexico. With just a few small upgrades the stadium had been barely modified. The notorious Section Z, where most of the victims died, was left virtually intact. This lack of refurbishment was due to government plans to completely renew the Heysel Stadium and reduce its capacity to 35,000 places.

The drama’s aftermath seemed interminable. Four years later, in May 1989, sentences were passed. The Belgian Government and UEFA remained untainted but the Football Association’s Secretary General Albert Roosens, who was responsible for organising the final, was charged with manslaughter. The verdict was literally Roosens’ death sentence. In addition Belgium was banned from hosting any European final for ten years. However instead of working on creating a new stadium culture there was squabbling, for three long years, about who would finance the new temple. In the meantime the Heysel Stadium became a ghost stadium. Only the annual Van Damme Memorial brought the stadium to life. It barely witnessed any football. No club had actively played there since the disappearance of Racing Brussels in 1963 that had found short-lived shelter there during financial problems; and the very small Racing Jet Brussels, active at the highest level in the 1980s for a few seasons, was content with the B-Stadium. With its 12,000 places it was far too big for the 1,500 or so locals who braved the home matches on Sunday afternoons. Internationals and Cup finals were played at Anderlecht, Bruges or Liège.