Turin’s Shroud: Has the English Disease become the Italian Complaint?

[2 May 2005]

By Roger Holland

In the next few weeks, the best football teams in Europe will be competing in the final rounds of the Champions League—the continent’s premier tournament for club sides. The headlines have been dominated, though, by the spectacular hooliganism that brought an early end to the clash between Milan and Internazionale, in the San Siro stadium that they share. Specifically, Inter Milan fans littered the pitch with burning flares—one striking AC Milan’s goalkeeper—to protest a disallowed goal. Nonetheless, the real story of the quarter-final round was the two games between a third Italian side, Juventus of Turin, and Liverpool Football Club of England.

The story behind these games is truly a history of modern football hooliganism. The last time these two giants of European football met, 39 people died. The occasion was the European Cup Final of 1985, held at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, a venue that was utterly unsafe and unfit to host such an event. Teenagers from Liverpool without match tickets were able to kick holes in the stadium walls large enough to crawl through. A crash barrier within the stadium collapsed when the ground was less than a quarter full. The division between the Liverpool fans and a “neutral” area dominated by Italian supporters was no more than a flimsy chicken wire fence. And this fence was protected by perhaps the most incompetent riot police the world has ever seen.

The trouble began long before the game was scheduled to start. Italian fans in the “neutral” Z section of the stadium were intent on driving out any Liverpool fans in their midst. Liverpudlians walked in dozens down onto the pitch perimeter and across into the Liverpool enclosure to escape the attacks. Meanwhile, taunts and missiles were being thrown back and forth between two sets of hooligans across the garden fence that divided them. Eventually, there was an inevitable surge by no more than one hundred Liverpool fans. They burst easily through the dividing fence.

The police—in full riot gear and armed with batons—turned and ran. The Italian hooligans turned and ran. The ordinary supporters behind them had no choice. They also turned and ran, leaving the aggressive Liverpool supporters looking slightly embarrassed and highly confused in a large no man’s land of suddenly empty terracing. There was no one there to fight. The etiquette of hooliganism didn’t cater for the situation, so they ran backwards and forwards across the terracing unchallenged. It was an almost comic spectacle. Meanwhile, at the back of the crush caused by the fleeing supporters, 38 Italian supporters and an unfortunate neutral from Ireland were killed when a stadium wall collapsed.

This was the pinnacle of what had become known as the “English Disease”: football hooliganism. That same year, English football had included a full-scale riot by Millwall supporters at Luton (during which the police had been completely routed on national television), scenes at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground where home supporters had invaded the pitch to attack visiting Sunderland players, and probably the single most vicious encounters ever seen between the sworn enemies of Liverpool FC and Manchester United.

In light of the Heysel Stadium disaster, UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations)—for the first and only time in its existence—acted decisively and appropriately. English clubs—guilty of a long history of hooliganism on the continent—were given a lengthy ban from all European competition. Liverpool Football Club was banned for an additional two years. It’s an accepted truth now in England that these bans put English football back decades in comparison with its European neighbors. In the eight years immediately before the Heysel, English clubs had won the European Cup seven times. Liverpool alone had accounted for four of those victories and had reached the final again that year. In the sixteen years since the ban ended, only one English side has made it to the final.

The Heysel may have marked the end of an era of English sporting dominance over Europe, but it certainly didn’t mark the end of English football hooliganism. With a horrible irony, that honor went to a tragedy that occurred four years later at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground, where 96 Liverpool fans died during an English FA Cup Semi Final against Nottingham Forest. Hooliganism was not the issue at Hillsborough. Just like the Heysel, the ground was unsafe. Yet again, police mismanagement led to over-crowding in a central pen, which then caused the collapse of a crash barrier and the death by suffocation of the 96 victims. The police simply stood by and watched, having retreated to the halfway line in an attempt, presumably, to ensure that the dead didn’t rise and launch a terrifying zombie attack on the Nottingham Forest supporters at the far end of the ground.

Although hooliganism was not a direct cause of the deaths at Hillsborough, it was an undeniable factor. English football grounds had been allowed to become caged death traps because of the perceived need to keep rival supporters apart and away from the pitch. Police had learned to treat all supporters like animals because some behaved that way.

In the aftermath of Hillsborough, football hooliganism in England has largely disappeared—though, of course, like the poor it will always be with us. Several reforms, the results of Lord Justice Taylor’s Inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster, have contributed to this. A mandatory introduction of all-seater stadiums (where once rows of bleachers permitted greater mobility in the stands), and a huge increase in the use of closed circuit television have meant that incidents of violence inside English football grounds are now rare. Deterrent sentencing, legislation such as the Football Offences Act of 1991, and the creation of a police Football Intelligence Unit have likewise all played their part.

While, in 1985, the English football culture was one that celebrated hooliganism, today, it is not. In Italy, however, the Ultra or tifosi culture—three parts glorious showmanship to one part knife-wielding violence—is stronger than ever. The Ultra groups verge on institutionalized hooliganism, something the supporters of Liverpool FC were fully aware of in the run up to their games with Juventus this year. Clearly, given the history the clubs share, the meetings could never be approached as mere sporting fixtures. The two games would, inevitably, be played out as new chapters in a tragic saga—football wrapped in a Turin Shroud.

As Juventus traveled to Liverpool for the first match, the city embraced its guilt over the Heysel tragedy. It bent over backwards to abase itself before the visiting club and its supporters. For its part, Juventus was highly amenable to these acts of contrition. Indeed, out of the public eye, many bridges had been built between the two clubs’ boardrooms over the past twenty years. But a substantial section of Juventus supporters—and not just the hardcore Ultras—were less impressed.

When the Italians arrived in Liverpool for the first leg of the tie, there were scuffles at the John Lennon International Airport as the Mayor of Liverpool attempted to welcome the visitors to the city. Arrests were made. The Ultras then occupied a pub on the Liverpool waterfront and sang songs celebrating the deaths at Hillsborough. At the game they ignored and disrupted ceremonies intended to combine an apology for the Heysel with statements of friendship between the two clubs, which included the carrying of a memorial on to the field by former Liverpool and Juventus striker Ian Rush and ex-Juve favorite Michel Platini. At one end of the Anfield ground a card-based mural carrying the slogan “Amicizia” (friendship) was placed and the Juventus fans were presented with a banner bearing the message “In memory and friendship.” The response of a large part of the 2000 visiting Italian supporters was to turn their backs and raise a single (middle) finger.

Of course, no-one can expect an injured party to accept an apology just because it’s been offered. But even the Italian media was harshly critical of the Juve fans—most of whom were too young to have been anywhere near the Heysel stadium 20 years before. The Turin-based daily La Stampa headlined its report on the Heysel tributes: “At the festival of friendship, ignorance wins.” Gazzetta dello Sport also gave lengthy coverage to the Liverpool Echo‘s front page apology for the Heysel and reported the efforts of Liverpool fans to “embrace” the visiting Italians: “It was an embrace that died against a wall of indifference, which was unfortunately colored black and white.” Black and white are the colors of Juventus.

In the days before the game in Turin, paranoia spiraled in Liverpool. Supporter websites reported hosts of visitors from Italy apparently intent on identifying hotel and travel plans. One group told of receiving trumped up party invitations from unfeasibly model-pretty Italian girls. News reports from Italy only added to the impression that the Liverpudlians might be walking into the lion’s den.

In Italy, club football was reeling from a series of violent incidents. The weekend before Liverpool was due to travel to Turin, there were four major incidents. In Rome, Lazio fans had chanted fascist slogans during a game against Livorno. Livorno supporters responded by fighting with police at a railway station. Meanwhile, at Ternana, supporters threw missiles at police and rival Perugia supporters alike, and, on Sicily, trouble flared at the game between Messina and Palermo. Then came the game between AC and Inter Milan, cut short in a shower of flares.

In the wake of the trouble in Milan, security was stepped up once again for the match in Turin. Alcohol sales were banned, and eleven hundred police and special forces were brought in to prevent the outbreak of anarchy. Turin will host the Winter Olympics in February 2006 and local authorities were not prepared to have their preparations for that showcase event blighted by a repeat of the behavior in Milan.

Meanwhile, the dominant Juventus Ultra group, “Fighters,” had recently been overthrown when most of their leadership was arrested for fighting on the pitch during a game in Parma and subsequently banned from all Italian football. New bosses took their place, however. The “Drughi,” led by an Ultra who’d recently been released from prison after serving a 16 year sentence for robbery and murder, take their name from Alex’s gang of droogs in Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange and were determined to make their point against Liverpool.

Conflict was inevitable.

The alcohol ban was widely ignored by the bar owners of Turin. Police arrested eight Juventus Ultras for violence and possession of arms after a gang of 20 ran amok in a Turin bar and Liverpool supporter Aaron Want, 28, was hit on the head with a baseball bat. Elsewhere, Juventus fans armed with bottles and clubs arrived at a city centre hotel seeking Liverpool fans. Words were exchanged, missiles were thrown, but no fighting occurred and the Ultras fled when the police arrived.

Meanwhile, outside the Stadio Delle Alpi, a gang of about 150 Ultras pelted Liverpool supporters arriving at the ground with flares and bottles, set a car on fire, and then clashed with the police who responded with batons and tear gas. Inside, the Italians chanted “Assassins.” One of their banners was directed at Liverpool fans, reading “Reds Animals.” Another proclaimed “Easy To Speak. Difficult To Pardon. Murderers!” A third celebrated the deaths at Hillsborough: “Sheffield—Proof That God Exists.” Seats, bottles, coins and flares were thrown at the visiting Liverpool fans, who promptly threw them back. One British newspaper described it as “projectile tennis,” but because of the distance between the two sets of supporters, no one was seriously hurt. After the final whistle, Liverpool supporters were held back in the ground for over an hour while the police dispersed the Ultras.

The result of the game on the pitch was a goalless draw that saw Liverpool—a side struggling to regain its previous greatness—advance to the semi-finals at the expense of an excellent Juventus team that had been universally expected to win. This unlikely victory coupled with a safe return for all the traveling fans gave double cause for a celebration back in Liverpool where, no doubt, everyone hopes it will be at least 20 more years before the next game against Juventus.

In the semi-finals, Liverpool will play Chelsea—the club of the year in English football. Despite losing three times to Chelsea already this season, Liverpool fans are confident that their name is on the European trophy and are looking forward to a spectacular revenge. Meanwhile, Italian football has nothing to celebrate, except UEFA’s apparent inability to take resolute action against the trouble makers.

Despite the ferocity of the trouble that had caused the game in Milan to be abandoned, UEFA has chosen not to ban Inter, but instead to fine them 300,000 Swiss Francs and order them to play their next four European games behind closed doors. There is not a football fan in England who does not believe that an English club guilty of such behavior would have been banned for at least a year. After all, this was not an isolated event. In 2001, Inter had been ordered to play two European matches away from the San Siro and fined 100,000 Swiss Francs after similar crowd trouble at a UEFA Cup tie with Spanish side Alaves. And in September 2004, Swedish referee Anders Frisk was hit in the face and bloodied by an object thrown by an Ultra in Rome during a Champions League game between AS Roma and Dinamo Kiev. UEFA’s only response was to order Roma to play their next two games behind closed doors.

The Italian courts, however, are less forgiving. Already, a Juventus supporter, Andrea Tommolini, a lifeguard from Teramo, has been handed an eight month prison sentence for his part in the violence that preceded the game against Liverpool. But unfortunately, it looks like yet more people are going to have to die at a football match before UEFA will get serious about the Italian Complaint.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/050502-football/