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.")

Much has changed since then. Heysel Stadium was leveled and rebuilt in 1995 and renamed King Baudouin Stadium. It hosted matches during the 2000 European Championships and the Italian national team laid flowers at the site. Brussels has become the increasingly influential unofficial capital of a Europe (for as long as there's an EU, anyway). Terraces, the standing sections behind the goals, have been banned in favor of all-seater stadiums. Michel Platini, who scored the lone goal in that game, has become the president of UEFA, European soccer's governing body, and he may well be the next president of FIFA.

Thanks to legislation that sought to pinpoint the most violent spectators and an eventual influx of money, the English game is hardly recognizable from its 1970s version, as the recent film The Damned United, about English soccer in that era, also illustrates. Soccer, always a global, international game, became globalized, an unofficial movement that began in Britain in the early '90s after further reforms recommended by the Taylor Report, done after Hillsborough. There's been good and bad that's come with that—soccer has lost a little of its soul—but mercifully, thankfully, there's less violence, particularly in the English game and no "death tolls."

The fan violence and mayhem of the '70s and '80s was known as the "English disease," and it was slowly exported (along with their racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic chants) to the continent. Today, there is more menace surrounding soccer in Italy and its old stadiuims—though nothing like Heysel—than in England, which comparatively is flush with cash, for now at least.

Today, Liverpool is owned by two Americans (looking to sell after just three years), has a Spanish coach, a star Spanish striker, a Spanish goalkeeper, Danish and Greek defenders, an Israeli midfielder, several Brazilians and Argentines, a Turk, a Swiss, and a Slovak. Of the starting eleven, only three are English, which is about the same as some of the other top sides in the Barclays Premier League, formerly known simply as the First Division.

Juventus—which once represented the hopes of so many southern Italians who migrated north after the war to get a piece of the post-war economic miracle—was the primary culprit in a match-fixing scandal in 2006. The club hasn't been the same since. They couldn't even sell out the new, and relatively small, 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena last Sunday in an exhibition match. They, too, have a Dane, Argentines, and Brazilians. And a Czech, a Bosnian, and a Malian.

In 1992, the Champions League was introduced as a watered-down, hyper-marketed version of the European Cup. English teams have become among the successful in the competition and some of the wealthiest (and trendiest) in the world. Juventus and Liverpool played each other for the first time since 1985 in Champions League five years ago. Liverpool supporters unfurled a huge sign that read "Amicizia"—friendship. Some visiting Juventus fans applauded in appreciation; others turned their back on the gesture. (Thankfully, there was no violence.)

Soccer is known as "the beautiful game"—as tired a cliché as "America's Pastime"—which we'll hear again and again over the next month. And occasionally it is a beautiful game. We certainly hope to see beautiful exchanges on the fields, from Johannesburg to Polokwane to Nelspruit to Cape Town to Bloemfontein and back to Johannesburg.

But soccer, while its history is rich with cultural exchange, brotherhood, and generosity, has also had a dark side. There was no day darker than May 29th, 1985, when the gentle, sun-dappled field of Heysel Stadium was overrun by mayhem, rage, and death.

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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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