Soccer

It Took 39 Deaths at Heysel Stadium for Europe to Crack Down on English Soccer Hooligans

On Friday, the international soccer community marked the 35th anniversary of the Heysel Stadium riot in Belgium that killed 39 spectators and injured 600 before the 1985 European Cup championship match between Liverpool and Juventus.

The tragedy led to improvements in stadium design and security in Europe, resulting in fewer serious incidents of hooliganism in major competitions.

A situation ripe for a potential disaster

Belgian police officers try to repair the fence separating fans from Juventus and Liverpool. |   Peter Robinson - PA Images via Getty Images
Belgian police officers try to repair the fence separating fans from Juventus and Liverpool. | Peter Robinson – PA Images via Getty Images

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The final of the UEFA European Cup, a competition for the continent’s leading club teams, was conducted between Liverpool and Juventus at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. The stadium held approximately 58,000 spectators but was in disrepair, with concrete slabs cracked and chipped. Fans were able to pick up rocks to use as weapons.

Fans of the two teams were supposed to be limited to the areas of the grandstands behind the end lines at opposite ends of the field to minimize contact between the groups, but some tickets for the more desirable sideline sections found their way into the hands of supporters for both squads.

Approximately an hour before the game, a large group of Liverpool fans broke through a fence and into one of the neutral areas, prompting Juventus fans to flee. They rushed toward a concrete wall that collapsed, crushing the primarily Italian supporters in front of them.

The scene was chaotic as medics worked to aid the injured while outnumbered police tried to restore a degree of order. Fearing additional violence if the game was called off, UEFA officials allowed the championship contest to proceed.

Juventus won, 1-0, on a goal early in the second half, and the crowd dispersed afterward without additional trouble.

The investigation and criminal charges

Workers clear the debris at Heysel Stadium after the European Cup final. | David  Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images
Workers clear the debris at Heysel Stadium after the European Cup final. | David Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images

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The 18-month investigation into the Heysel Stadium incident that killed 39 people placed primary blame squarely on supporters of the Liverpool team, one more episode in a lengthy history of violence by English fans at international competitions.

Twenty-six Liverpool fans were charged with manslaughter and extradited to Belgium in September 1987 for a trial that started 13 months later. In April 1989, 14 fans were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three-year prison terms. Prosecutors appealed for longer sentences, which were granted for 11 defendants; one of the 14 was subsequently acquitted.

A Belgian soccer federation officer and a police captain also received short suspended sentences for criminal negligence.

The Heysel Stadium tragedy led to changes

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UEFA reacted immediately to the Heysel incident by banning English squads from club competitions, with FIFA following suit to extend the penalty to all international competitions other than friendly matches. The ban lasted for six years for Liverpool (the original ruling was eight years) and five years for all other English teams.

The punishment had the additional effect of reducing the number of English teams granted spots in the season-long European competitions for several additional seasons.

English authorities, realizing how fortunate they had been to have avoided such tragedies on their own soil, introduced measures making it easier to ban troublemakers from games. They also required that standing room at stadiums used by upper-division teams be replaced with seating and that fences surrounding the field be removed.