It was 30 years ago, but Simone Stenti’s memories of standing in Block Z at the Heysel Stadium have not faded. “I saw a hooligan try to climb the fence, and a policeman went there with a truncheon and tried to stop him but the hooligan took the truncheon and beat the policeman,” he tells The Independent. “It was the moment we understood we had to get out of there. The sky was filled by stones, bottles, sticks and rubble.”
The details remain chilling but what is striking about the Italian response in the years after Heysel is that, in Stenti’s words, it was “hidden” for so long. Last Saturday, at Juventus’s home match against Napoli, he saw a giant banner unfolded in the Curva Scirea bearing the number 39 and the word “Rispetto” – respect – as fans in that same end held aloft white cards carrying the names of the victims.
It sounds unremarkable compared with Liverpool’s annual Hillsborough memorial service but in Italy, where Juventus have stood accused in the past of distancing themselves from the disaster, it was a significant moment, as Stenti, a Milan-based journalist, explains. “The number 39 was hidden. When it was used, it was used by rival fans to insult. Ninety-six is a number displayed with pride by the Liverpool fans but, until Saturday, 39 was seen as a number of shame. But it is not a shame – they were all innocent.” One of the best guides to the trail of events following the horrific events of 29 May 1985 is a book, Heysel: The Truth, by another Italian journalist, Francesco Caremani. He was a family friend of Roberto Lorentini, a 31-year-old doctor killed at Heysel while trying to save an injured boy, who subsequently received a silver medal of civic honour for bravery. Lorentini’s father, Otello, founded the Heysel Victims’ Families’ Association which led a legal battle in the Belgian courts against those responsible. “He founded the association and pushed for a trial against the hooligans, the Belgian authorities and Uefa,” Caremani explains to The Independent.
There are grim parallels with Hillsborough in the story of Lorentini’s fight. Roberto’s death certificate said 11.50pm, even though his father had held his son’s lifeless body in the stadium. “I received a paper from Brussels stating that my son died an ‘accidental death’,” Lorentini said in Caremani’s book. “I couldn’t stand that.”
After a five-year court battle, in 1990, following a successful appeal Uefa was found civilly liable, with its general secretary, Hans Bangerter, receiving a three-month suspended sentence and fine. “The sentence was very important to make Uefa responsible when it came to staging events,” Caremani says.
From a distance of three decades, the mistakes are shocking: from the sale to unknowing Juventus fans of 5,000 tickets for the neutral Z Block next to the Liverpool supporters, to the decision to release 28 policemen from that sector to deal with a petty theft, leaving fewer than a dozen to face the onslaught. There was the state of the stadium, as another survivor, Claudio Chiarini, recalls: “The stadium was crumbling and decrepit. It was a completely inappropriate choice.” Chiarini remembers the sight of Liverpool fans carrying crates of beer into the ground unchallenged, the way they broke off chunks of terracing as missiles, and the flimsy chicken-wire fence easily torn down when they attacked.
This evening, Juventus will remember the victims at a special Mass at the Gran Madre di Dio church in Turin, yet according to Caremani, it took the arrival of the Andrea Agnelli, now 39, as president for the club’s attitude towards Heysel to change. Although there was a small ceremony involving Lorentini and then team captains Alessandro Del Piero and Sami Hyypia when Juventus faced Liverpool in Turin in the 2005 Champions League, that year’s memorial service and match involving the two clubs’ youth teams was an initiative by the victims’ families’ association and took place in Arezzo. “For 25 years the victims, the families were completely alone – they were alone in the trial and nobody helped them financially,” adds Caremani.
And though the new Juventus Stadium features a memorial to the victims, the awkward relationship between the families’ association and the club continues. In the lead-up to this 30th anniversary, Domenico Laudadio, creator of an online Heysel memorial, wrote a theatrical monologue about the tragedy which the club watered down so much that the association cancelled the project.
“They don’t want to speak about Heysel and responsibility because I think it is a club with an image, a brand, with relationships with Uefa, with Liverpool, with Belgium,” Caremani says.
But Stenti takes heart from last Saturday’s emotional stadium tribute. “We clearly know what happened and who was responsible. Now we can only commemorate the dead and remember them as civil heroes because in Italy nobody knows who they were.”
‘Heysel: The Truth’ by Francesco Caremani is available to buy on AmazonReuse content