“Heysel: La notte del calcio” — Memories of a Football Disaster

Written by: Peter Alegi

Primary Source: Football is Coming Home

Thirty years ago, on May 29, 1985, I gathered with a dozen teammates in a living room in Rome to watch the European Cup final between my Juventus and Liverpool. Barely fifteen years old, black-and-white scarf around my neck, there was nothing more I wanted than to avenge our shocking loss to Hamburg in the final two years earlier.

There was reason to be moderately optimistic, partly because four months earlier we had beaten Liverpool 2-0 (Boniek 39′, 79′) to claim the 1984 European Super Cup.

Forty-five minutes or so before the scheduled kickoff in Brussels, I took my seat on the floor. A perfectly unobstructed view of the television screen. Within minutes, disturbing images of chaos at the run down Heysel Stadium started beaming in.

The voice of Bruno Pizzul, a kind of Martin Tyler of Italian football, conveyed bewildering news. Something terrible was unfolding. Death at the stadium? We switched on the radio. Confusion.

Then, slowly, an accumulation of anecdotal reports led to confirmation of an unspeakable tragedy: 36 people were dead (a figure later revised to 39). Almost all Juventus fans. Men, women, and children killed in a stampede and wall collapse in the corner Z sector as they fled a charge by Liverpool supporters.

My heart was in my throat.

We stared at the TV. Scenes from a battlefield. I couldn’t believe the authorities eventually decided to play the match. The show must go on, Scirea and Neal, the two captains, explained. A decision they probably did not agree with and that no one fully understood. The match kicked off an hour late, which I worried would get me home past curfew.

I don’t remember much of the game. The first half we followed mostly in stunned silence. Then the penalty, given for a foul on Boniek plainly outside the box. Platini, my hero, converted it. He ran, waving his clenched right fist in front of the Z sector. We, too, celebrated, I’m embarrassed to admit, though we did so meekly. The Juve players on the pitch showed far less restraint. Astonishingly, after the 1-0 victory, our players went so far as to parade the club’s first European Cup around the Heysel pitch–the unmistakeable stench of death in the air.

What I remember most vividly from that horrible night was a debilitating mix of anger, sadness, and emptiness.

On the thirtieth anniversary of the Heysel tragedy, and two weeks before Juve’s Champions League final against Barcelona in Berlin, Emanuela Audisio’s riveting short film (in Italian, no subtitles), “Heysel: La notte del calcio (1985-2015)” has been released online.

It brings out those same emotions and many more. The short documentary combines gruesome television footage with touching on-camera interviews with survivors, relatives of the victims, eyewitnesses, and Juve players like Marco Tardelli, Antonio Cabrini, and Paolo Rossi. The film’s brevity leaves it with little time to provide more details about what happened at the Heysel and why, as well as its aftermath, but it is nevertheless gripping, powerful, and worth watching.

In the film, Paolo Rossi, Italy’s 1982 World Cup hero, captures an enduring truth about that unforgettably tragic night in Brussels: “The match should not have been played. We cannot be proud of that Cup. I would not repeat the winning parade around the pitch. Those 39 dead deserve respect.” #RIP39

The following two tabs change content below.
Peter Alegi
Peter Alegi is Professor of History at Michigan State University. He is the author of Laduma! Soccer, Politics, and Society in South Africa (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004) and African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game (Ohio University Press, 2010). With Peter Limb, Alegi hosts the “Africa Past and Present” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @futbolprof.
Peter Alegi

Latest posts by Peter Alegi (see all)