Blood in the Stands

  • The trouble began in Section Y on the northeast end of Heysel Stadium in Brussels. In the stands thousands of fans were waiting for the opening of the European Cup Final between Britain's Liverpool and Italy's Juventus of Turin. About 45 minutes before the scheduled 8:15 p.m. kickoff, the mostly young Liverpool fans began to taunt the Juventus followers. Emboldened by alcohol, many backed up their insults by hurling rocks and bottles over the wire fence that separated them from the Italians. Suddenly, as if acting on some invisible signal, the screaming British crowd exploded across the standing-room terraces. They swarmed into the adjoining section, heaving rocks and bottles. The human tide crushed and maimed people in scenes of sheerest horror. Television cameras provided watching millions with close-up pictures of fans caught beneath a human pile; of hands held out in vain supplication; of the injured and dying crying out pitifully for help.

    By the time the riot had subsided and the wave of raw violence had passed, 38 $ people lay dead; more than 400 had been injured. Amid the scene of death and destruction, people wandered aimlessly about the field, injured and in shock. "I've seen too much," moaned one bloodied Italian fan, tears streaming down his cheeks. "I've seen death."

    The 30th annual playing of the European final was one of the bloodiest sporting events in modern memory. It outraged Europeans and raised agonizing questions about why Europe's soccer stadiums are increasingly coming to resemble gladiator pits. The behavior of the English fans, who were blamed for starting the riot, resulted in much soul searching in Britain about why a land famous for patience and civility produces the most violent soccer crowds. A shocked and angry Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that the country was "worse than numb" over the riot. Said she: "Those responsible have brought shame and disgrace to their country."

    The rampage began as 60,000 spectators were filling the 55-year-old stadium, five miles from the center of Brussels, to witness one of the premier events of the international soccer calendar. An estimated 400 million viewers in Europe and Africa were tuned in for what promised to be a feast of first-class football, as soccer is known outside North America. Many of the Liverpudlians, dressed in the bright red colors of their home team, were gathered in Section Y, separated by a flimsy wire fence and a stairway from the mostly Italian spectators in Section Z, an uncovered sloping stand. The Liverpudlians, many of them drunk, began pushing against the fence. Suddenly, weakened by the weight of several hundred heaving bodies, the divider collapsed. "It was like watching guerrillas in a battle," recalled Giampietro Donamigo, an Italian fan. "They came forward in waves toward the fence, throwing bottles . . . Some answered back with threats, but most of us were terrified. We tried to move away."

    As the Liverpool crowd poured across the stand, the Juventus fans panicked. Hundreds made a rush for the nearest exit, beyond a low wall at the bottom of the sloping spectator terrace. Some managed to clamber over the wall, dropping to the ground on the other side. Hundreds more were trapped, crushed by the weight of the crowd. Then, with a sickening crack, the concrete wall collapsed, killing some and spilling others onto the field in a murderous cascade of bodies and fractured concrete.

    "There was a mass of crushed bodies," said Renzo Rocchetti, a Juventus supporter from Milan. "I saw people trampled to death under the feet of the frightened mob, stepping on their bodies, including many babies and children." Remarked an off-duty British policeman among the Liverpool supporters: "Those poor bloody Italians went down like a pack of cards."

    Most of the 1,000 Belgian police assigned to the game were outside, trying to control drunken groups still attempting to pour into the stadium. Inside, helmeted Red Cross medics dodged bricks, bottles and smoke bombs as they worked among the dying and injured, frantically trying to resuscitate people who had been suffocated beneath piles of bodies. It was 30 minutes before ambulances arrived, and at first the dead were carried out of the stadium on sections of crowd-control barriers, some covered with flags and banners that only minutes earlier had been waved by cheering fans. The dead, their faces and limbs a grotesque purple, were taken to a makeshift mortuary outside the stadium, where priests administered the last rites.

    In Turin, the home city of at least 10,000 Juventus supporters in Brussels, there was an outpouring of grief. Among the dead was Restaurant Owner Giovacchino Landini, 49. "Why did it have to be him?" cried his daughter Monica, 22. "He was too passionately fond of Juventus." Of the dead, 31 were Italians, including a ten-year-old boy and a woman. Also killed were four Belgians, two Frenchmen and a Briton who was a resident of Brussels. All the dead were asphyxiated or crushed. Ten spectators, all British, were arrested, none for alleged offenses committed inside the stadium.

    Fearful of triggering an even more terrible riot if they called off the match, Belgian officials and members of the Union of European Football Associations decided that it should be played. "Call it a surrender to fear if you wish," said Association Treasurer Jo Van Marle. Italian Prime Minister Benedetto ("Bettino") Craxi, in Moscow for discussions with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, telephoned Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens after the riot to protest the decision. Said Martens: "I told him that the decision to begin play was taken purely for reasons of security." The crowd, which was largely unaware of the magnitude of the tragedy, watched the macabre match as helmeted riot-control police stood guard and ambulance sirens wailed.*

    Across Europe, along with the grief and shock, came the recriminations. In an editorial, the Times of London declared: "It is hard to resist the conclusion that the game of soccer is as good as dead." Some laid the blame for the Brussels tragedy squarely on the estimated 16,000 Liverpool followers at the match. Many had spent the afternoon before the game drinking in the streets and bars of Brussels. The Belgian government acted swiftly by banning all British teams -- from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland -- from competing in Belgium "until further notice." England's Football Association then announced that it was withdrawing all English soccer teams from European competition for the season starting in September. "It is absolutely unbearable to continue to admit the English hordes on soccer grounds," said Jean-Michel Fournet-Fayard, president of the French Football Federation.

    While not underplaying the responsibility of the British fans for the tragedy, commentators and sports officials charged that Belgian police had been lax in preparing for the possibility of violence, especially considering the reputation of British club followers. (Last year, for example, an English fan was killed by an irate bar owner and 141 were arrested in disturbances connected with a match in Brussels.) The police were also criticized for not segregating the fans of the opposing teams more effectively and for not searching more thoroughly for weapons as the crowd entered Heysel Stadium. Others claimed that there had been too few police on hand, even though 1,000 would seem to be adequate by the standards of most sports events. To many watching the rampage on television, the police in the stadium appeared somewhat lame and ineffectual. Said one Liverpool fan: "The police were just too scared."

    Soccer, the world's most popular sport, for decades has unleashed ferocious scenes. In 1945 George Orwell, deploring the bloodlust of soccer crowds, wrote that "serious sport" is "war minus the shooting." In Lima in 1964, some 300 spectators were killed in riots sparked by a disputed referee's call. In China, where civil disorder is rare, hundreds of fans rioted in the streets of Peking last month after the home team was knocked out of the World Cup by Hong Kong. Even as crowds were headed for the stadium in Brussels, families in Mexico City were mourning the victims of a stadium riot last week in which eight people, two of them children, were crushed to death.

    The penchant of English fans for rock-hurling mayhem has become an increasing problem at home, and one of the country's sorriest exports. In the past three months alone, England has witnessed three major soccer riots that have left one dead and scores injured. At matches abroad, rampaging fans have become ambassadors of bad will, bashing heads in France, trading tear-gas volleys with police in Italy and urinating on spectators in Spain. In 1975 Leeds United, a team whose followers have one of the worst reputations, was barred from playing on the Continent for four years after Leeds fans raised a storm of violence at the European Cup Final in Paris. In 1977 Manchester United was briefly kicked out of the European Cup Winners competition after its fans rioted during a first-round match in St. Etienne, France.

    Prime Minister Thatcher responded to the violence in Brussels by summoning a number of her country's football officials to confer with her on the problem of fan violence. She announced that Britain would be contributing $317,500 to a special fund for victims of the riot and families of the dead. Last March, Thatcher set up a panel that included members of her cabinet to study soccer violence after fans went on a rampage in Luton, England. The Prime Minister said last week that she will now meet sooner than planned with the group to review progress on implementing some of the measures that have already been agreed to, including a voluntary ban by clubs on the sale of alcohol in stadiums. A similar measure has led to a sharp decrease in violent episodes over the past five years in Scotland, where soccer brawls were once a favorite pastime. Faced with declining attendance and rising demands for expensive security precautions, team owners in England have so far been unwilling to give up the revenues from drink concessions. Now that the teams are banned from European competition, their losses are certain to be even greater.

    Stadium design has also been cited as a reason for the frequency of English soccer violence. Trouble at games often starts among the working-class youths who fill up the low-cost, standing-room areas known as terraces, similar to the areas occupied by the Liverpool and Juventus fans in the Brussels stadium. Sir Philip Goodhart, a Conservative Member of Parliament, believes that one reason there is less fan mayhem at sporting events in the U.S., a nation that many Britons regard as violence prone, is that its stadiums have fewer standing-room sections. Says Goodhart: "It is very difficult to riot when you are sitting down."

    To be sure, there are those who feel that soccer violence is largely a symptom of deeper social and economic problems, perhaps even a direct result of Britain's 13.5% unemployment rate. In Liverpool, for example, 25% of the labor force is out of work. "We have football," says Psychologist Peter Marsh. "Other societies have street gangs." A 1980 study of soccer hooliganism in Britain found that four-fifths of those charged with soccer- related crimes were either unemployed or manual workers. Says Sociologist John Williams of the University of Leicester: "We must go into the community to find out why young people find status in this kind of violence."

    A different picture of some soccer rowdies emerged two weeks ago in a British courtroom, where 25 supporters of Cambridge United were sentenced to prison terms of up to five years for soccer-related assaults. Members of a "hooligan army," as they were called by the press, they were organized into a paramilitary group and were affluent enough to buy "uniforms" consisting of costly designer sweaters, jeans and track shoes. Indeed, much of the trouble at soccer games seems to be started by similarly well-organized gangs of about 200 members that attach themselves to their home teams. Many of the groups have their own chants, symbols and even weapons of choice. The infamous Bushwackers of Millwall, a tattered docklands area of London, wear surgical masks during matches to hide their identities and favor small Stanley cutting tools to carry out their assaults. Some Liverpool supporters who attended the Brussels game insist that many fans dressed in the crimson of Liverpool spoke in the Cockney accents of Chelsea and West Ham, London neighborhoods whose clubs are known for their marauding followers. In fact, Liverpool fans had a reputation among the British for relative propriety.

    As the search for causes of the violence in Brussels went on, those touched by the tragedy made an effort to come to terms with their feelings. At a Requiem Mass held in Liverpool's Roman Catholic cathedral, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, summed up the feelings of shocked and puzzled citizens. "If it comes to responsible human conduct and moral behavior," he said, "the answer lies in ourselves." At a service held in a hangar at a Brussels military airport on Saturday, Belgian Prime Minister Martens paid his final respects to 25 of the riot victims. He spoke of the need "to put an , end to this mad race toward violence." Then, as more than 100 relatives of the dead tearfully filed past the coffins covered with flowers, three priests gave their blessings. Unless ways are found to ensure that such tragedies do not recur, those flowers could become a memorial for European soccer itself.

    FOOTNOTE: *For the record, Juventus won, 1-0, with a penalty kick in the 58th minute of play.