Belgium Heysel 25 Years Later

I REMEMBER those days like yesterday. That night, my schoolmates and I had to meet at Simone’s house. It had become a sort of custom, as the year before, coming back from a school trip, we had gathered there to watch the European Cup Winners’ cup final Juventus-Porto.

That night, Juventus won 2-1 in Basel and so we thought to repeat the event despite the fact that Simone was a Roma supporter and that he sometimes liked to bring bad luck.

I remember the sun that day, a little vivid, and I remember getting the flags. I was superstitious and my heart missed a beat when I decided to get a new flag instead of the old ragged one. Silly teenage fears. I was supposed to stay over with a friend Francesco at his home that night. He was also a Juve supporter. Our intention was to celebrate on the streets of Arezzo.

The living room was packed with youngsters having fun, imagining various match scenarios, eating. Two years had passed since that night in Athens (when Juventus lost the 1983 European Cup final 1-0 to Hamburg) — I was 13 at that time and I had cried. That failure was still heavy to bear.

I remember us staring at the screen. We could not understand what was going on and the commentator was not helpful either. That night I learned that in life bad things arrive without notice, suddenly, unexpectedly. And something bad had happened.

I had a lump in my throat, and even if we could not foresee the unbearable truth of the subsequent disaster, to me that match was no longer the same. The expectation, the excitement was gone, melted in the heat released by those images. There was a disturbing atmosphere, hard to understand.

I was numb when I was called to the phone: “Francesco, it’s me, mom… Roberto is injured.”

These are the few words I can remember. I mumbled, then put the phone down.

Actually Roberto was already dead.

(Roberto, a 31-year-old doctor, died while attempting to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to another casualty. He was awarded a silver medal for Civil Valour.)

Soccer - UEFA Cup Final - Juventus v Liverpool - Heysel StadiumThe news was confusing and the distance didn’t help. Today I think of Otello [Lorentini, the late founder of the Association For The Families Of Heysel Victims] but I can’t imagine what he went through. You can’t imagine a man who has to tell his wife, a mother, that they have lost the dearest person in this world during a football match – it is simply not something you can accomplish.

I don’t remember clearly what happened next. The match started, I was following it with embarrassment. I did not know what to think. Roberto was injured, my team was playing. For sure I did not celebrate when Platini scored the penalty; that penalty made me feel uneasy: its non-existent premise and the others’ exultation.

When we got out, the bianconeri of Arezzo were celebrating, the streets were blocked with cars’ carousels while I was walking head down, close to Francesco who was also unhappy with what he could see. The anxiety was mounting up.

When I woke up the next morning, I phoned my mother first thing: “Francesco, Roberto has died, he is no longer with us,” she said, her voice broken from crying.

Tears started pouring down my face while I put down the phone.

I went to buy newspapers in order to understand. It was worse at school. On one side there were people screaming at me that we were thieves, the evil ones, elated that there were 39 “hunchbacks” [nickname for Juventus’ people, sometimes used as an insult, translator’s note] fewer on the earth; on the other side the juventini were celebrating mockingly.

Soccer - European Cup - Final - Liverpool v Juventus - Heysel StadiumToday my censure is a final judgment. However at that time we were all silly teenagers, ignoring too many things. Teachers stated many stupid things while I was trying to hide my sorrow since I wasn’t able to share it with others in such an environment. I found an empty classroom, I sat down and started crying, mumbling Roberto’s name.

I still don’t know why exactly, but on that day I did not want to go home. I wondered about my father, shocked by what had happened and about the fact that I was unable to give him comfort, as I lacked the words and probably even the right to do so.

We left school an hour earlier and I decided to go and play football with my friends at the skating rink behind Porta San Lorentino. I felt the need to do something physical to avoid further thinking, and kicking the ball was the only way I knew and could do.

My mother got very upset when she discovered what I was doing, as my behaviour seemed callous to her: “It’s better for your father not to know,” she hissed. My father and I didn’t talk to each other that day, because we didn’t have a lot to say. I was about to leave for Brussels; I should have been with Roberto.

I was attending my second year in high school and I had just passed a retake test in English and Latin. I managed the first subject, but I wasn’t good at the second one.

At the end of the year I got bad marks; another summer to be spent on school books was awaiting me. That would not only mean a failure but to me, more significantly, it meant no Brussels, no Juventus. I still don’t know how it happened but a local newspaper published the entire story – my bad marks and all the rest.

Those words put together the worst that followed about the Heysel slaughter. In fact, it was a slaughter, a malicious one, and not a tragedy which generally implies accidental causes.

The funeral service was attended by the entire city of Arezzo. The sorrow disfigured people’ faces. Ever since, beside Roberto’s memory, and a different idea of soccer and Juventus, I’ve been carrying a deep feeling of unease for having played football the next day after school.

I am in debt to Otello Lorentini, if I finally manage to get rid of this feeling. He was Roberto’s father and head of the Association For The Families Of Heysel Victims, who raised his two nephews Andrea and Stefano, with heart and soccer: Nothing special for many of us, but extraordinary for someone who had lost his only child on a stadium terrace.

These are the reasons why I regard it as “my” book. In the first place, let me tell you that, as a man, I am not able to forgive the ones who celebrated, who went out in the streets, who virtually stepped over the bodies of those 39 people who had died at the Heysel.

Furthermore, I nurse grudges against the ones who delighted in those lives that had been taken away, against those whose graffiti appeared on the walls everywhere in Italy, for the insults I had — and still have — to bear for the fact of being a juventino.

No one knows that a small part of me died in Brussels with Roberto, but this thought doesn’t allow me to be less severe. Probably I don’t want to forgive. If you find an echo of yourself in these words, ask yourself if you are a man.

My emotions are heightened when I think back to the joy of bianconeri players for having scored the goal, to their mates on the bench that rushed onto the pitch in wild exultation, hugging each other, doing their lap of honour, drunk with rage and joy.Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 21.43.54

There are no excuses or sociological theories to support such behaviour; shame is the only fitting response.

They knew about the deaths; they knew everything. Whoever still dares to deny it, should go and re-watch himself in those images.

In the aftermath of this massacre, the daily Osservatore Romano wrote: “The Man on those terraces was outraged even after the many Cains scattered on the stands had already killed Abel. In order to calm down Cain, they disrespected Abel’s blood: the match was played even as the bodies were still lying there deformed by the violence they had suffered; people supported their teams, people exulted in joy.

“That day we were all defeated, and realising that some people regard themselves as winners is almost unbelievable; watching smiling happy faces for a victory without meaning is truly bitter. Wednesday evening on 29 May 1985, sport was beaten and humiliated.”

We all know that it was essential to play that match, but not to cheer.

A translated extract from Heysel: The Truth by Francesco Caremani

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