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.—Kenny Dalglish
It was a bad time to be a football supporter, and it was a perfect storm of sorts; a long list of contributing factors building up to a tragedy. The violent actions of Roma Ultras against traveling Liverpool supporters at the previous European Cup final. A crumbling Heysel, a venue the club officially requested not be used for the match. Allowing mixed areas amongst opposing fans.
Not that any of that makes it better. Not that any of that stands as an excuse for what would follow.
Taunts and chants were exchanged outside the stadium; missiles were thrown into the Liverpool fans by Juventus supporters in the mixed, supposedly neutral area. A group of Liverpool supporters charged through a makeshift, chicken-wire fence separating them, their Italian counterparts fleeing towards a support wall that crumbled under the pressure of a panicked crush.
Steel surge barriers were left warped and deformed by the weight of hundreds of Juventus fans who had tried to retreat en masse and found no exit. When it was over, 39 were dead and over 400 were injured. It was one of the worst examples of football hooliganism and terrace culture, helped on its way by multiple failures of organisation and a decrepit stadium.
A year after violence in Rome, where dozens of Liverpool fans had been stabbed by roaming gangs of ultras while hotels locked them out of their own rooms and the police stood aside, there was a state of war between the most violent segments of English fandom and any Italian supporter who might happen to get in their way.
Heysel saw not only some traveling Liverpool fans eager to exact a measure of revenge but hooligans from some of England's most notorious supporter groups, from West Ham to Millwall to Newcastle, along for the ride, too. The Belgian police, despite having been warned of the heightened risk for violence, were nowhere to be seen until after the fact.
In the end, Juventus won the European Cup 1-0 that year in a game many would rather forget. English clubs would be banned from the continent for five years; Liverpool would be barred for six.
And 39 people who went to a football match never came home from it.