SPORTS

The deadly reality of a soccer game

Glen Allen June 10 1985
SPORTS

The deadly reality of a soccer game

Glen Allen June 10 1985

The deadly reality of a soccer game

SPORTS

Glen Allen

Suddenly the term "soccer hooligan" became inadequate last week as drunken British fans, many armed

with knives, sharpened flagpoles and broken bottles, made bloody war on Italian spectators in Brussels during the final of the European Cup. Television commentators in Belgium to cover the European Cup soccer final between Turin’s Juventus club and the Liverpool Football Club found themselves having to describe one of the worst sports event disasters in recent history—one that resulted in 38 deaths. Those victims —and another 375 spectators who were injured—were mostly Juventus supporters. The dead were crushed or trampled in the mêlée that erupted when marauding troublemakers among the 20,000 Liverpool supporters charged into sections of Heysel Stadium where Italians awaited the start of the game. And as the victims lay dying, some crying "Morte, morter (Italian for death), play began—because authorities had decided that cancelling the match would have caused more rioting. Still, the anger and revulsion that greeted the latest outbreak of soccer violence made Juventus’s 1-0 victory seem obscenely irrelevant. Declared one Turin supporter:

“They crushed us like worms.”

Followers of the world’s most popular sport have unwillingly become accustomed to violence in the stands—an ugly trend that has been particularly noticeable in Britain. The death toll in Brussels prompted immediate demands for retribution—and measures to prevent further tragedies. While Pope John Paul II prayed in the Vatican for the dead and Italians expressed outrage over the deaths, Belgian and British police studied videotapes of the rioting in an attempt to identify its instigators. Meanwhile, British Prime Minsiter Margaret Thatcher convened an emergency cabinet meeting and promised to introduce legislation designed to curb soccer violence. Pronounced the horrified Thatcher: “Those responsible have brought shame and disgrace to their country and to football.”

But Thatcher’s apologies did not satisfy the Belgians, who had been the unfortunate hosts of an incident that the Italian press quickly dubbed “the soccer massacre.” As a result, the Belgian government barred British teams from the country “until further notice.” The English Football Association quickly followed that ruling with its own ban, prohibiting clubs from England from playing on the continent for one year, be-

ginning next season. Still, Brussels fire chief Col. Hugo van Gompel summed up feelings in Europe when he told visiting reporters: “Your British football fans are murderers—and you can quote me.”

But the death toll in Brussels raised troubling questions about Belgian preparedness to prevent the clash between British and Italian supporters. British Sports Minister Neil MacFarlane disclosed that three weeks before the game he had written to the Belgian authorities urging them to deploy enough police to prevent violence. MacFarlane also sent a telegram to Brussels the weekend before the cup final when he heard that the Belgians were taking his warning lightly. But when 60,000 supporters began filing into Heysel Stadium, there were only 1,700 policemen to control the crowds—and most officers were on duty at the stadium entrances. As a result, there were only 120 police stationed near the stands and no more than a thin line of 15 gendarmes between Liverpool and Italian supporters in the stadium’s ill-fated “Z” section. The police line dissolved in the mob, which tore down a wire fence to get at the Italians and sent them stampeding into a concrete wall. It collapsed, and many of the victims died in the rubble.

One horrified witness to the carnage was Massimo De Berardinis, owner of a Toronto hairdressing salon. De Berardinis, who was acting as an interpreter for Gianpietro Boniperti, president of the Juventus soccer club, was at the stadium during the riot. He charged that police reinforcements did not arrive at the scene of the worst fighting “until well after young and drunk and wild Britons had attacked the Italians.” Added De Berardinis: “The authorities were not prepared for this kind of tragedy. There were bodies lying around for at least an hour without medical attention. It was unbelievable, a nightmare. And yet we did not know what was happening at first and we could not believe it when they said more than 30 people had died. I asked myself why the Italians did not fight back. But if you are there with your wife or your children, would you fight back against a drunken man armed with a knife?”

Despite the shame felt by Britons appalled by their countrymen’s savage behavior, soccer violence is not a peculiarly British affliction. In recent years mayhem in the stands has occurred in stadiums from Latin America to the Far East, providing a fertile field of investigation for such sports psychologists as

Dr. Harold Minden of York University in Toronto. Said Minden: “The stands afford some fans an anonymity they cannot get outside the stadium. Often, mob hysteria is caused by a small group which knows how to manipulate a crowd. If you were to interview those people you would find a very scary bunch, full of inner hate.”

Indeed, sport and spectator violence have been uneasy partners throughout history. But in the 20th century sports hooliganism has been most closely associated with soccer. In 1964 fully 300 people died when a riot broke out in Lima when Argentina defeated Peru on a last-minute goal in a 1964 Olympic qualifying match. And five years later an argument over a soccer match between El Salvador and Honduras escalated into a four-day shooting war between the two Central American countries which claimed approximately 2,000 lives. In Peking rioters angered by the Chinese national side’s loss to a Hong Kong team widened their protest and demonstrated violently against the rising price of vegetables.

In Britain the professional version of the world’s most popular sport takes place before spectators standing in obsolete, uncomfortable and dangerous

stadiums. In the wood stadium of Bradford City in northern England last month, 53 supporters died when flames swept through the 77-year-old structure. Throughout the country the stadiums are the gathering places for ardent fans—and the young and disaffected as well. One group of Chelsea supporters calls itself the Anti-Personnel Firm. After they attack rival fans in the street, they leave gold-embossed calling cards on their victims. The inscription reads, “Nothing personal—you have been serviced by the Anti-Personnel Firm.” And as Manchester United fans wait for the kickoff, they sometimes chant the chilling phrase, “We hate humans.”

For his part, London psychologist George Gaskell said he finds it significant that support for local soccer teams is strongest in the British cities with the highest crime and unemployment levels. Said Gaskell: “Soccer provides a source of group pride for these largely deprived people.” But Belgian hosts of the European Cup final and Italian families mourning their dead last week would have preferred the British to have kept their dubious pride at home.

Peter Lewis

David North

Cy Jamieson