The Heysel Disaster: The incident that shook English Football

Not only did it shake the foundation of European football, but it was also one of the incidents that led to the formation of the PL.

Fans at the Heysel Stadium in 1985. (Image: Twitter)

When we speak of some of the worst footballing tragedies, two rather prominent events come to mind. These are the Hillsborough Disaster and the Munich Air Disaster. However, on May 29, 1985, a similarly horrific incident took place in the capital of Belgium, Brussels. What is even more astounding is that this particular incident has not received satisfactory coverage, despite it happening in the biggest game of European football at the time. Not only did it shake the foundation of European football, but it was also one of the incidents that led to the formation of what we now know as the Premier League in England. While it was a few unruly fans that caused the disaster, it remains longstanding proof of UEFA’s failure to organise and guarantee a safe atmosphere for supporters.


The 1984-85 season was nearing its end, with the biggest match in European football all set to be played out. It was Liverpool against Juventus, and at the time, they were the two best clubs in the world. Juventus was stacked with Italian players that had lifted the 1982 World Cup and French playmaker Michel Platini who is one of the greatest midfielders of all time. Liverpool, on the other hand, had been the most dominant side in Europe in the last decade. They had won six domestic league titles and four European Cups at the time. It was truly the best match European football had to offer at the time.

What was yet to be decided was the venue. The Santiago Bernabeu and the Camp Nou were both available. At the time, they two had been renovated since the 1982 World Cup was hosted by Spain, so both stadiums were perfect in every manner to host a game of such magnitude. However, UEFA officials snubbed both stadiums and instead, decided on the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. The stadium was already 55 years old at the time, and poor maintenance had seen its foundations and structural integrity compromised. It was later revealed that a mere 30-minute inspection was conducted before taking the decision. This was just the first of the two major blunders UEFA had committed leading up to the disaster.


The seating arrangements for the fans were such that no two groups of supporters would be seated in stands beside one another. In today’s game, that is something not seen anymore. Fans of opposing clubs usually sit in adjacent stands and usually, no problems are reported. However, football fans in the 80s were violent, far too violent. The English game was rife with hooliganism and Italian supporters were not a peaceful bunch either.

As per the layout, there were a total of eight stands. There were three stands behind each goal. One set of stands was supposed to hold only Juventus supporters. The other, Liverpool. The rest of the stands were supposed to hold neutrals who had just come to enjoy a game of football. However, there was an issue with the Liverpool stands.

The Liverpool supporters were only allowed two of the three stands behind the goal, the third was reserved for neutrals. However, UEFA, without thinking about the consequences, handed over the tickets to the neutral stands to various Italian travel agencies. This was UEFA’s biggest blunder led by corrupt officials.

Naturally, most of the fans that bought those tickets turned out to be Juventus supporters, and the two sets of fans were separated by a weak barrier, and only eight personnel of the Brussels police. Flares, bottles, and stones were exchanged between the two sets of supporters. The stones were something available in abundance as the Heysel Stadium was old, unrenovated, and crumbling.


An hour to go ahead of kick-off, scores of Liverpool fans broke the barrier and stormed the Juventus supporters. Eye witness reports suggest that many of the Liverpool supporters had weapons such as knives and batons. The Juventus supporters were naturally scared for their lives and made a dash towards the perimeter wall at the end of their stand. The wall could not withstand the pressure and eventually, the lower part of it crumbled under the weight.

A few fans managed to escape as a result but several were buried under the stones. Hundreds were trampled upon and run over, and for a few, it proved fatal. A total of 39 Juventus supporters lost their lives and a further 600 were injured. To this day, it remains one of the darkest days in the history of Juventus and Liverpool.

What was even more outrageous was that despite the players’ protests, UEFA went ahead with the match just a few hours after the tragedy. A Michel Platini penalty won Juventus the game and their first ever European Cup, but that was hardly talked about.


Shockwaves were sent around the footballing world as UEFA finally gave in to widespread criticism and banned all English clubs from European football for the next five years. Liverpool were handed an extra one year ban from Europe. The decision drastically affected the English game. Star players started leaving England to countries like Spain and Italy in search of European football and the English League was starved of the funds from the European competitions.

A total of 14 Liverpool fans were sent to prison for several years over charges of manslaughter as well. However, the English FA took stern action after the disaster. A heavy crackdown on the culture of hooliganism saw it driven almost completely out of the English game. Focus was also given to the modernisation of stadiums to ensure the safest atmosphere to the fans.

The Heisel disaster, and the subsequent Hillsborough disaster four years later in 1989 saw English clubs completely abolish standing and arranged for seating in each and every stand, which is the norm seen today across England.

Safer stadiums, a repaired international image, higher broadcasting revenues, and globally marketable football finally saw the formation of the Premier League in 1992, which is currently the richest, and arguably the best domestic football league in the world today.

Sportslumo Desk

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