Remembering Heysel

I was fortunate enough to be in the audience last night at the world premiere of Heysel '85: Requiem for a Cup Final at the Toronto Hot Docs International Documentary Festival. What a fascinating film!

Heysel '85 is Lode Desmet's account of the 1985 UEFA Cup final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, which featured a riot between fans from England's Liverpool and Italy's Juventus that resulted in the trampling deaths of 39 in attendance before the game began. Desmet revisits the tragedy on its twentieth anniversary to try and answer certain questions while asking others — namely, why was the game still played?

Courtesy of Hot Docs

Three themes caught my attention as they wound their way through the film, which I wanted to discuss here in my notes:

Communication

There was no central command post within the stadium for the game, and thus the communication from authorities outside of the stadium to officers inside the stadium was extremely slow and confused. Contrast this with the blazing speed at which word-of-mouth communication between Juventus supporters relating that fans had died — along with the inflammatory anti-Liverpool rhetoric that accompanied it. The contagion model of the network easily outpaced that of the hierarchical control element.

A second communication thread involved technology. One of the government ministers in attendance at the game owned one of the first mobile phones available in Europe. As a result, he was able to call U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was to attend the game, and warn him to remain at the hotel until further notice. On the other hand, we hear the plight of many frightened survivors who wished to contact loved ones at home, but couldn't access telephones anywhere. One radio station agreed to relay the names of survivors over the air, but the rest of the broadcast media in attendance refused.

Crisis Management

Who was in charge? In this extreme crisis situation it seemed to be no one. Perhaps most strikingly, this film documented the radical preservation of stakeholder self-interest in a crisis. Of course, the horrifying images of fans leaping over walls or crawling over the bodies being crushed and trampled by the onslaught of the crowd somehow make sense to the spectator of the film — wouldn't we do the same when fighting for our lives?

More troubling, though, are the admissions by various individuals who were present in a professional capacity, and who chose to continue with their professional duties in a self-interested fashion rather than help out in any way possible. In some ways, this could be considered a variation of Milgram's famous findings: in an uncertain crisis situation, with no orders to follow, some people will refuse to take action and instead revert to their professional identities: the sport sponsorship consultant guarding corporate billboards that could have been used as stretchers; the team bodyguard retreating from the violence to his charges in the locker room; the television camera crews busily archiving the event only metres from the mayhem; the players themselves continuing on with the UEFA Cup final only two hours later.

Violence

This is one of those words in the English language that seems to lose its meaning the more one speaks it, the more it is talked about. It is easy to forget, sometimes, the furious energy that the word intends to connote. Desmet does as well as a documentarian can to recapture the true violence that occurred that day. It was to prevent further violence that officials chose to proceed with the game, a questionable decision that constitutes the heart of the film.

In that light, Heysel '85 provides excellent fodder for the debate of "does sport incite violence or provide a pressure release to dissipate it?", and seems to offer evidence for the latter argument. The documentary stresses the fact that many Liverpool and Juventus supporters were getting on quite well before the game, posing for photos together and exchanging club memorabilia. Also, there were no further riots after the game, a 1-0 Juventus victory, which suggests that perhaps the violence was dissipated by playing the game and that the officials' decision was vindicated.

Of course, this begs the question: what would have happened had Juventus, whose fans constituted the larger and more vocal contingent, lost the game?

Desmet was at the premiere of the film last night, and spoke of allegations that the match was fixed in order to assure a Juventus victory (their goal came on a dubious penalty call). Though he never mentions these allegations in the film, they are definitely of interest: Sour grapes? Shrewd policy decision? Conspiracy theory? None of the above? All are true after the fact.

 

Ultimately, Heysel '85 is an important historical archive of one of the worst sporting disasters in history. I thoroughly recommend it for academics and casual fans alike.

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2 responses to Remembering Heysel

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  1. sportsBabel » Pixel to Pellicule says:

    [...] examine the micropolitics of stadium contagion when not transformed into the waveform blast rhythm, as with the chaos that was the Heysel Stadium disaster. Baudrillard suggests in The Transparency of Evil that Heysel confirms precisely "why the [...]

  2. Notes from Babel: ‘To win a World Cup you must be at your most virtuous’ : The Global Game says:

    [...] supplying a numbered grid system to aid listeners before the first live football broadcast. He also writes about the documentary Heysel ’85: Requiem for a Cup Final, one of the touchstones in postmodern [...]