columnist Richard Buxton reflects on UEFA's latest insensitivity towards
Liverpool football club.
It appears that UEFA have decided to put Liverpool
supporters through the mill yet again. Not content with labelling them the lowest
of the low and changing the venue of one of the Reds' Champions League away
fixtures at very short notice, they have now refused to rule out the
possibility of forcing the club to play on April 15 – a highly emotional day
for anyone associated with Liverpool Football Club.
On that date 20 years ago, ninety six Liverpool supporters
set off to Sheffield for the FA Cup semi final with Nottingham Forest at
Hillsborough stadium. Those same 96 people did not return home. They died
watching the team they loved on terrace that was rammed beyond capacity in the
Leppings Lane end of the ground. This was the darkest day in the history of the
club. Red and blue stood side by side as the city of Liverpool was united in
grief for the victims. Every year on April 15, supporters join survivors and
the bereaved families of those who perished to pay their respects in a memorial
service at Anfield. At 3.06pm, the exact time that the game was halted, a
minute's silence is held. Local radio stations halt broadcasting for the moment
of reflection followed by the playing of ‘You'll
Never Walk Alone' by Gerry and the Pacemakers – the club's anthem.
Hillsborough is not just a painful memory for the survivors
and those who lost loved ones as a result of the disaster, whether it were in
the tragedy itself or the aftermath, its shadow still hangs over the Anfield
and city of Liverpool to this day. It touched the lives of people not only in
England but across the world. One of the most notable examples was during a
European Cup semi final between AC Milan and Real Madrid – Liverpool's opponents
next week – held four days after the disaster. Six minutes into the game, the
referee stopped play and a minute's silence was held as a mark of respect.
Halfway through it the home supporters in the San Siro began to sing ‘You'll Never Walk Alone'.
UEFA, however, do not care. To them Liverpool's past is irrelevant.
They are now seen as a blemish on the good name of football. This animosity dates
back to May 1985 and more specifically the Heysel disaster. Thirty-nine people,
predominantly Juventus supporters, were killed following the collapse of a wall
inside the stadium before the European Cup final between the two sides amidst
violent confrontations on the terraces. UEFA laid the blame solely at
Liverpool's door but days after the disaster their chief observer Gunter
Schneider remarked 'Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no
doubt.' Schneider's statement is backed up by several UK based Juventus fans
who were at Heysel and claim that fans of several English clubs were in
Brussels solely for the match that night and that they were not all Liverpool
followers. Despite this observation Liverpool and their supporters were seen as
the sole culprits and had the blame bestowed upon them by other English clubs
who were banned from Europe for five years. Liverpool received an additional
year in exile for their 'part' in the disaster.
Their love-hate relationship with UEFA has intensified as
recent times have proved. Cynics have pointed to UEFA president Michel Platini
– vice captain of Juventus and the only scorer in the '85 final – for the seemingly
anti-Liverpool stance the federation has taken since his appointment in 2007.
Scathing comments he made about Liverpool in 2005 shortly before the 20th
anniversary of Heysel have been highlighted to prove this theory. The comments
came less than a fortnight after he had walked onto the Anfield pitch to a
standing ovation before the Champions League quarter final between the two
clubs to receive a plaque on behalf of Juventus from Liverpool as part of a series
of apologetic gestures. In the days that followed Heysel, Platini himself was
criticised heavily for his lack of restraint in celebrating the win given the circumstances
in which the game had taken place.
Twenty two years on from the horror of Heysel, Liverpool and
Platini came face to face again at the showpiece of his inaugural year as
president. Athens' Olympic Stadium provided the backdrop for the Champions
League final with AC Milan – a repeat of the final two years previous in
Istanbul. As with Heysel, events off the field of play overshadowed the
Italians' 2-1 victory. Basic facilities for accommodating a game of such magnitude
were not in effect with no toilets inside the stadium and no turnstiles to
admit fans in operation. This led to chaotic scenes outside the stadium with
thousands of supporters with legitimate tickets stranded outside. Director of Communications
William Gaillard claimed the next morning that the problems in Greece were
typical of the behaviour of Liverpool's supporters, claiming that federation
had 23 incidents on file of similar behaviour dating back as far as 2003. He
also branded the club's supporters the worst in Europe despite previously
stating that Liverpool had 'a tradition of good behaviour' and less than a
fortnight after he had admitted that that the stadium was not built nor
equipped to stage a showpiece final. In this scathing attack he asked, 'What other set of fans steal tickets from
their fellow supporters or out of the hands of children?' He added 'We know what happened in Athens and
Liverpool fans were the cause of most of the trouble there'.
Club representatives and politicians all lobbied UEFA to
retract their statement with evidence disproving the claims with the then UK
sports minister Richard Caborn meeting with Platini to clear Liverpool's name.
Following the meeting the Frenchman reneged on Gaillard's comments by saying,
'No they are not the worst behaved in Europe. It's official, they are not the
worst behaved.' The retraction was a major embarrassment for UEFA and one that
has seen them viewed in a questionable light ever since.
For the second time in eighteen months UEFA angered
Liverpool's supporters this time with their decision to suspend Atletico Madrid
– one of the club's opponents in this year's Champions League – from playing
European games at the Vicente Calderon Stadium. The decision came after racist
chanting by Madrid's supporters at Marseille players during their Group D match
at the beginning of October. In addition to a €500,000 fine, Atletico were
ordered to play remaining two home ties against Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven at
a neutral venue at least 300km away from the Spanish capital with Valencia and
Seville touted as the probable locations. The decision and its timing incensed travelling
fans who had pre-booked flights and accommodation for Madrid. Atletico appealed
on the ruling and due to the last minute change of venue inconveniencing the
thousands of Liverpool's travelling contingent, UEFA wavered the ban for the game.
Despite this the federation was severely criticized for announcing the initial
decision to move the game eight days before the tie took place.
The possibility of Liverpool playing on April 15 is one that
concerns the club who had to appeal to the Premier League over a similar
situation in 2006 when their visit to Blackburn Rovers was scheduled for that
date – 17 years to the day of the tragedy in Sheffield. Supporters believe that
the club should never play on that day out of respect for those who died
following the team they loved and were outraged by the league's decision. The
game at Ewood Park was put back 24 hours and the situation was avoided. However
it could rear its ugly head again after UEFA announced that the quarter final
stages of the Champions League will be held on April 14 and 15. Should
Liverpool beat Real Madrid in the knockout stages they may be forced to play on
the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough. With this in mind the club have written
to UEFA to ask for them to consider allowing the Reds to play any potential tie
a day earlier as a march of respect. European football's governing body claimed
they could offer ‘no guarantees' that the Reds will not have to play on April
15 which has upset and incensed the club's supporters.
Would UEFA demand that Juventus,
Platini's former club, play on the anniversary of the Heysel tragedy? Would
Olympiakos be told not to mourn those who died in the Karaiskakis Stadium
disaster all for the sake of a game? Likewise with Manchester United and the
Munich air disaster. It's hard to tell unless those clubs are in a similar
situation to the one Liverpool could be in should they progress in the Champions
League. Football is a game that is loved with a passion but remembering the
loss of human life in a football ground twenty years ago is more important to some
than the stellar names and epic draws that Europe's premier club competition