Hooliganism: The Ultras Destroying Peace at the Match (Part One)

What is Hooliganism?

Hooliganism. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is simply defined as “rowdy, violent, or destructive behavior.” Unfortunately, too many out there are familiar with that word these days due to the many incidents of the past. Also unfortunate is the fact that hooliganism is usually related to our beloved sport of soccer. Hooliganism is a drastic issue across the world. With soccer on the rise in the United States and Canada, hooliganism is too. In this series, American Soccer United will examine a tragic example of hooliganism, supporters groups, and what we can do to prevent hooliganism in the future.

Part One: The Heysel Disaster and the Roots of Hooliganism

Via Getty Images
The Heysel Disaster.

When hearing the word “hooligans,” the first thing that comes to the minds for many is the Heysel disaster in Belgium. Why? Simply because it was a European Cup final and it was a central event in soccer. However, what was supposed to be a memorable and entertaining event ended as a black day in soccer history.

The final between the Italian giants of Juventus and northern English powerhouse Liverpool was held in Heysel, Belgium, on May 29,1985, in an old stadium built in the 1930s. Leading up to the match, it was obvious that the stadium was in a poor state. Before the game could even be televised, the eternal stain on fan culture at a match had been made. The scene of the match was utter shambles. Helpless fans were in a total state of confusion. Time seemed to stand still as supporters of both clubs waited for police reinforcements to be helicoptered into the stadium to secure the scene. Belgian emergency medical services were overwhelmed with a significant mass casualty situation. The injured and dead lay scattered in the stands and on the field as if the stadium was involved in a war. As the stadium stood with severe damage and bloodshed, the aftermath of a perfect storm of hooliganism remained.

In the fray, 39 Juventus fans were killed. 32 were Italian, four were Belgian, two were French, and one was Irish. 400 more were injured. The tragedy happened even before the match started. How did it happen? Liverpool ultras broke through security fencing and charged Juventus fans who were there simply to watch a historic game. Supporters ran, but not all escaped the nightmare. Sadly, the 39 dead were brutally killed by being trampled, crushed, or by a nine-foot stadium wall that had collapsed onto victims below. After the Heysel Stadium disaster, English clubs were banned from all European competitions until 1995 due to Liverpool hooligan actions. Ten years after the tragedy, with penalties and new procedures enforced, England received all of its European places back in competition.

So how could something like this have happened in the mid-1980s? To begin down the long list of preventable mistakes, the venue had outdated construction, facilities, a poor spectator traffic route, and a seating plan set for trouble. The security personnel was also unprepared for what was to occur. At the Heysel Stadium, there wasn’t the proper spacing between rival clubs’ fans and properly secured sections in the stadium like today. The gross underestimation for an event of that magnitude was criminal. Leading up to the event, eyebrows were raised towards the venue. Peter Robinson, the Liverpool FC Chief Executive at the time, had his own concerns about the stadium. After all, it was a time in which stadium policies about alcohol, ticket sales, security, and seating capacity were very unsettling. In conjunction with that, hooliganism was growing near its highest point in the UK. Groups of hooligan organizations, known as “firms,” attended games, but not as fans for the love of team or sport. They intended to get drunk, cause chaos, attack rival team fans, and to possibly fight with opposing team “firms.” All of that made a recipe for disasters to come. It should also teach us an important lesson for us here in the United States that we should always keep in mind. We should remember the famous quote: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”


This is part one of a three-part series by Lew Tasso and Aidan Reagh

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