Soccer's Deadly Past

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In less than two weeks, the world's eyes will turn to South Africa for the opening ceremony of the month-long World Cup.

While trepidation still surrounds the first World Cup hosted in Africa—Will security be up to par? Will it be a financial success? Will the average South African receive any of the benefits?—it is expected to be a celebration, of the country, the continent, and of course, the game of soccer itself. Violence among opposing fans—hooliganism—has largely been expunged from the sport's biggest events. Indeed, one of the slogans of the 2006 World Cup hosted by Germany was "A Time To Make Friends."

It wasn't always this way. Twenty-five years ago this Saturday, the face of soccer was an ugly, brutal one. The day of the dead. On May 29, 1985, at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, 39 people were killed and 600 injured in one of the ugliest soccer riots in history, on the highest-profile stage: the final of European Cup, today known as Champions League, Europe's equivalent to the Super Bowl.

In that much-anticipated final, Liverpool, the defending champions, took on Juventus of Turin, the club of the Agnelli family. Before the match, the two groups of supporters lobbed cans, bottles, and other debris over a fence that separated them in a "neutral" section. It was poor planning. Liverpool supporters went over and through the fence to attack the Juventus fans, who retreated in mass. That's when a wall in the decaying stadium (though Belgium's national stadium) collapsed, which led to most of the fatalities and injuries. The wall couldn't withstand the sudden rush of weight; and there wouldn't have been a sudden rush if one large group hadn't set upon the other. Of the 39 dead, 32 were Italian. But the mayhem wasn't contained to the stands. It spilled out onto the running track surrounding the field and to the playing field itself.

The scenes are hard to believe. The video footage—and there's plenty; it was broadcast internationally—is revolting but almost impossible to turn away from:


By the time players came onto the field to appeal for calm, the damage had been done. The start of the game was delayed, but remarkably, shockingly, unconscionably, it was played. Many, including Italy's socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, couldn't understand the logic in this. "Uncomprehensible absurdity," is how he described it. Officials claimed at the time that they feared still more violence if the game was canceled. One German TV channel refused to televise the game. Bizarrely, some Liverpool players are shown smiling in footage just before kickoff; Juventus players celebrated after their win.

The condemnation came from all directions. Margaret Thatcher called for an emergency Cabinet meeting and requested English club teams to be banned from European competitions for two years. She said, "I want to get those responsible and get them before a court with stiff sentences that will stop anyone doing this again." Clive Toye, an Englishman who did so much to spread this wonderful game to the U.S., wrote in The New York Times that "everyone of English blood must feel shame and rage." The French sports newspaper wrote: "If this is what soccer has become, let it die." But soccer has an inextricable link with culture, and culture is sturdy.

English clubs were in fact banned for five seasons, not two, and although Heysel was the nadir in continental Europe, there was still worse to come in England. On April 15, 1989, in a F.A. Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Notts Forest, 96 people were killed, almost all Liverpool fans, and over 700 injured. (One of the horrifying images was used in Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II, facing the last page of the prologue that ends in the iconic line: "The future belongs to crowds.")

Presented by

Michael J. Agovino is author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts of New York City (HarperCollins, 2008). He will be blogging for TheAtlantic.com during the World Cup.

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