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 fan, and it was a perfect storm of sorts, a long list of contributing factors leading up to a tragedy. The violent actions of Roma Ultras towards traveling Liverpool supporters at the previous European Cup final. A crumbling Heysel the club officially requested not be used for the match. Mixed areas filled by 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. Without proper separation, Juventus fans in the supposedly neutral areas were able to throw missiles into the Liverpool end. A group of Liverpool supporters responded, charging through the makeshift, chicken-wire fence that separated them while their Italian counterparts fled 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 the hundreds of Juventus fans who had tried to retreat en masse and found no exit. When it was over, 39 were dead and more than 400 injured. It was one of the worst examples of football hooliganism and terrace culture, helped along by organisational failures and a decrepit stadium.
A year after violence in Rome saw dozens of Liverpool fans stabbed by roaming gangs of ultras while hotels locked them out of their own rooms and the police stood aside, the most violent segments of English fandom were looking for revenge. Any Italian supporter who might happen to get in their way would do.
Heysel saw not only traveling Liverpool supporters eager to exact their revenge for events in Rome, 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 repeatedly of the heightened risk of violence, failed to take extra precautions and were nowhere to be seen until it was far too late.
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.