We saw the Italian fans crying, and they were banging on the side of our bus when we left the hotel. When we left Brussels, the Italians were angry, understandably so; 39 of their friends had died. I remember well one Italian man, who had his face right up against the window where I was sitting. He was crying and screaming.
You feel for anybody who loses someone in those circumstances. You go along to watch a game. You don’t go along expecting that sort of ending, do you? Football’s not that important. No game of football is worth that. Everything else pales into insignificance.
It was a bad time to be a football supporter, and it was a perfect storm of sorts,
with a long list of contributing factors building up to a tragedy—from the violent actions of Roma Ultras against traveling Liverpool supporters at the previous European Cup final to the crumbling Heysel stadium itself, a venue the club officially requested not be used for the match and a situation further worsened by allowing mixed areas amongst opposing fans. Not that any of that makes it better. Not that any of that serves as an excuse for what would follow.
Taunts and chants were exchanged outside the stadium, leading to missiles being thrown by Juventus supporters within that supposed neutral, mixed area, leading in turn to a group of Liverpool supporters charging through a makeshift chicken-wire fence at their Italian counterparts who fled towards a support wall that crumbled under the pressure as a panicked crush formed. The steel surge barriers in the area were left warped and deformed by the weight of hundreds of Juventus fans who had tried to retreat en masse and found no exit. It was a match that ended with 39 dead and over 400 injured. It was one of the worst examples of football hooliganism and terrace culture, given a chance to spring to life after multiple failures in organisation and a bloody set of circumstances.
A year after violence in Rome, with dozens of Liverpool fans stabbed by roaming gangs of ultras while hotels locked them out of their own rooms and the police stood aside, there was an unspoken state of war that existed between the most violent segments of English fandom and any Italian supporter who might happen to get in the way. As a result, Heysel not only saw sections of Liverpool's support eager to seek out some kind of symbolic revenge, but hooligans from other, more notably violent English supporter groups from West Ham to Millwall to Newcastle coming along with an eye towards evening the proverbial score. The Belgian police, despite being warned of the heightened risk of violence, were nowhere to be seen until after the fact.
In the end, Juventus won the European Cup 1-0 that year in a match many would much rather forget. English clubs would be banned from the continent for five years; Liverpool would be barred for six. And 39 people went to a football match and didn't go home.