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Butler: Heysel Tragedy: The Forgotten

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Noel Butler
5/30/2014 6:22:20 PM
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Twenty-nine years ago yesterday, 39 supporters who had set off for a football match in Brussels, Belgium would not return home to their loved ones.

I remember it vividly. A Wednesday evening, home in London watching the TV with huge anticipation for the annual showpiece event of the Euro soccer calendar - the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus.

The 1984 Italian Champions' team included Paolo Rossi, the striker who singlehandedly slayed the might of Brazil when scoring a hat trick against them in the quarterfinals of the 1982 World Cup.

Rossi wasn't even the star player. That was Michel Platini, the current UEFA President. Italy's Brazil 2014 manager, Cesare Prandelli was on the bench.

The 39 innocent supporters were killed in cold blood as they attempted to flee from the onslaught of hooliganism initiated by so called fans of Liverpool. It occurred on the terrace behind the goal where Juventus supporters were in the majority.

A wall which prevented the Juventus supporters from escaping collapsed with devastating consequences an hour before the game had been scheduled to kick off.

Thirty-eight died instantly, a 39th victim succumbing in hospital three months later. Thirty-two were Italians, four Belgian and two French nationals, even a supporter from Northern Ireland. Reports at the time stated over 600 fans were treated for injuries they suffered.

The victims came from a whole cross section of society. Included a couple of mailmen, a pair of chefs, three doctors, several students and store workers, a car mechanic, a soldier, a school boy, a farmer, a fashion photographer , a construction worker, a taxi driver and a school janitor. The youngest of whom was only 11-years old.

The Heysel Tragedy. One of soccer's darkest moments.

In the aftermath, UEFA deemed it acceptable for the match to go ahead. Their reasoning concluded it was in the public safety to do so. Cancelling the match they believed would have led to further mayhem.

For the record, courtesy of a second half Michel Platini penalty, Juventus won its first European title.

The subsequent investigation into the Heysel Tragedy brought no comfort to the grieving families.

The stadium was ill equipped to deal with such an occasion. In the weeks leading up to the final Juventus and Liverpool complained to UEFA, stating their concerns for the stadium.

Crumbling infrastructure, inadequate policing and security were key factors in preventing such a tragedy. All that separated the Liverpool and Juventus supporters on that fateful terrace was a chicken wire.

Criminal charges were made. Convictions for involuntary manslaughter were bought against 14 Liverpool fans in a court case that took over four-years to bring. They served very little jail time. Civil charges against those resulted in a scant award of $7 million to the victim's families.

The Belgian Football Union was put in the dock too. The BFU's most senior official given a suspended prison sentence for "Regrettable Negligence." UEFA itself was not immune - their president and another senior official receiving conditional discharges.

Two days after the tragedy and under severe pressure from Margaret Thatcher's government, the English Football Association announced it was banning its clubs from playing in Europe.

Within a week, UEFA announced that with immediate effect they were banning English clubs indefinitely. It would be five years before they would be permitted to enter European competitions. Additionally Liverpool were banned for a further three-years but 12 months later that ban was lifted.

In a highly moving pre-match ceremony on the pitch before their April 27th match against Chelsea, Liverpool recognized the 25th Anniversary of Hillsborough.  Brendan Rodgers led the tributes. Yesterday the club placed a floral tribute beneath the Heysel Memorial Plaque which adorns the Centenary Stand at Anfield.

Juventus marked the anniversary late last month in a ceremony at their memorial site for the victims. Yesterday a poignant statement was posted on the club's website - Heysel, the Day of Silence.

Hillsborough has always remained in the public consciousness. Heysel however has not. Look at UEFA's website today and you wouldn't even know such an inhumane tragedy occurred at their showpiece club event.

If anything positive came out of Heysel, it was that it signified the beginning of the end of wide scale rioting and hooliganism that had wrought havoc across the English game in the preceding decade. That is not to suggest that today the so termed "English Disease" has been completely eradicated.

As millions of supporters begin  gathering in the 12 host cities staging this summer's World Cup, they do so against a backdrop which  includes construction worker fatalities and anti-World Cup protests similar to those which occurred at last summer's Confederations Cup where an estimated 1,000,000 Brazilians took to the streets.

Come July 13th when the world gathers around its TV sets for the World Cup Final let us hope during these upcoming weeks the world doesn't lay witness to 1 more death in the `name of football'.

Heysel Memorial  (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
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