Gendarme Nivel has no memory of that minute of frenzy in Lens, France, during which a group of German "fans" set upon him with their fists, combat boots, a plank of wood and an iron bar. He just happened to be there as Germany drew with Yugoslavia at the stadium near by.
The four on trial in Essen are accused of attempted murder, grievous bodily harm and breach of the peace. The court will have to decide whether they were trying to kill the gendarme. A fifth attacker, Markus Warnecke, was arrested in France and will be tried there.
"They beat their victim in a brutal way while he was lying defenceless on the ground," said the prosecutor, Joachim Lichtinghagen, in his opening statement yesterday. Christopher Rauch, 23, the youngest of the four and the only one without a previous record of football hooliganism, appeared to find the proceedings amusing.
Two of his mates, Andre Zawacki and Frank Renger, both fans of the Schalke club, were eager to expiate their guilt, expressing regret for their actions. "I want to apologise," said Renger.
Renger, who had at first denied his involvement, has given the most detailed description of their attack on the gendarme, who had just finished kicking a ball around with a little French boy named Mathieu. Renger, 31, had spoken in pre-trial statements of kicking Mr Nivel's face and chest as if they wre smashing a football. He had been completelysober at the time, he claimed, and still could not explain his fury at that moment. He might have been enraged by ticket prices, he suggested.
Another of the accused, Tobias Reifenschlager, had spoken of a "surge of adrenalin" during such attacks. This, he claims, had temporarily impaired his judgement.
The thrill of kicking somebody, especially a policeman, to near-death is well known to the hooligan fraternity. "It's a great feeling when you let yourself go and really start lashing out," one skinhead wrote in a book that provided a glimpse into the hooligan scene.
The sequence of events is now reasonably well known. Police had blocked off roads linking the stadium to the railway station, letting only ticket holders through. A group of disgruntled fans managed to slip into a side- street, where they encountered Mr Nivel and two of his colleagues.
"There's is only three of them - we can beat them to a pulp," they chanted. Two of the gendarmes managed to run away, but Mr Nivel, his gun unloaded, stumbled, and his helmet fell off. A rational explanation for what happened next is still lacking, and the trial is unlikely to shed any more light on the motives of a crime described by the Chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, as a "disgrace for Germany".
Whether Mr Nivel will ever turn up to give evidence is questionable. A shell of a man and unable to get about without help, he would find the journey to the court extremely taxing. His wife, Lorette, is expected to come, to see justice being done.
Little Mathieu, the boy now aged 10, who watched the attack, still has nightmares about that day. His mother says he is now terrified of Germans.Reuse content