Heysel: The long road towards closure

Time is a great healer. So it is said.

Heysel: The long road towards closure

Thirty years on from that dreadful night in Brussels when 39 football fans were crushed and trampled to death in front of our eyes, it would be nice to say all the hurt has ended and the scars are gone. But that would be to cover up a shabby truth.

Over the past few days in Italy, Juventus and Juventus fans have paid their respects to those who died, while journalists and eye-witnesses have been remembering and reliving what happened at Heysel.

“No-one truly dies if they live in the hearts of those who remain, forever,” read the huge banner displayed across one end of the Juventus stadium in the 39th minute of their match against Napoli last Saturday. It was a moving message, strongly felt and genuine.

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The whole ground stood in tribute.

Yet for many years the families of the victims felt neglected, denied justice just like the families of the Hillsborough victims in England.

As with Hillsborough, those to blame for the tragedy, primarily the hooligans, but also the police, the Belgian authorities and Uefa, were never adequately held to account.

Almost as hurtful, for years the club itself seemed almost embarrassed to be associated with the events and the memories were kept alive by a dedicated few, notably the Association for the Families of the Brussels Victims, based not in Turin but 250 miles south, in the small city of Arezzo.

I still vividly remember meeting Otello Lorentini, president of that Association, one bright October day 10 years ago when the Juventus primavera played Liverpool’s youth team in Arezzo to commemorate the tragedy.

Primavera is the word Italian clubs use for youth teams, but it also means Spring, and the occasion was intended to symbolise hope for a better future.

As the Irish Examiner reported at the time: “The oldest player on the pitch, Liverpool right back David Raven, was two months old at the time of the Heysel tragedy. Every other player was born after the event, as indeed were 90% of the spectators, nearly all youngsters from local clubs, dressed in smart training gear endorsed with their sponsors’ logos.”

Why Arezzo?

One reason is that the Heysel victims were for the most part not ‘regular’ Juventus supporters. Like most Juve fans they came from different parts of the country (and abroad). Two of them, Giuseppina Conti and Roberto Lorentini, Otello’s son, came from Arezzo, and both suffered especially awful deaths.

Giuseppina was a young woman of 17 who suffocated when she fell and was overwhelmed by the fleeing crowd.

Roberto, aged 31, was killed going to the aid of a child, most probably a boy of 11 named Andrea Casulla. Roberto went back into the crowd after escaping the initial panic and both he and Andrea were then crushed to death after a further charge across the terraces.

“Bye Mum, I’ll be back with the cup,” were Giuseppina’s last words to Marisa Conti as she left for Brussels with her father Antonio.

The memory is still painful, there are pictures of her throughout the family home, but her parents and their son Francesco, born after his sister was killed, are now more at peace than seemed likely back in 2005.

“In the last few years relations with Juventus have changed a lot,” says Francesco. “There’s more involvement from the club and we were also invited to the opening ceremony for the new stadium.”

Much of that change is down to Otello Lorentini and a few other activists, but credit is also due to Andrea Agnelli, who took over as president of Juventus in 2010 and has presided over a revival on and off the pitch.

Otello is no more. He died in May last year at the age of 89, having spent nearly a third of his life campaigning for justice for the 39 and also against violence in football.

But the association lives on through his grandson Andrea Lorentini, who was just three when his father was killed.

Among others who have kept memories alive and sought to ensure that lessons are learned is local journalist Francesco Caremani, whose book “Heysel – The Truth”, written in 2003, has just appeared in English. It is not only a tribute to the victims but also an account of a painful and painstaking quest, conducted against a background of indifference and attempts at a cover-up.

Seems familiar? It should do. As Francesco Caremani says, if England had learned the lessons of Heysel then Hillsborough might never have happened. For too long Heysel was the tragedy that no-one spoke about, and violence still plagues football.

As Otello Lorentini told me that day 10 years ago: “This is a moment for reflection, before we move on to new objectives.”

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