Tuesday 5 April 2005. A special moment in the history of European football as Liverpool fans atone for the horrors of the past with a heartfelt and emotional display of sorrow and friendship.
Tuesday 12 April 2005. Football’s new-found piety is shattered with some of the most shocking scenes of football violence in recent memory. Two events – exactly a week apart – reveal both the heavenly heights and the darkest depths that football can reach.
Leaving Anfield, following Liverpool’s Champions’ League quarter- final against Juventus, you had the sense that football had finally turned its back on its ugly history. The raw, bleeding honesty of the massed ranks of red and the desperate desire never to return to the nightmare of 1985 could be seen on the face of all. For a sport that too often is guilty of providing a voice for the most vile aspects of human nature these were special moments. As you filed out of the stadium that night the sense of ecstasy and optimism was almost overwhelming.
The potential of this great sport, you realised, to reach across barriers and to create ties of friendship, even from the darkest caverns of hatred, was unparalleled.
How naive. Barely a week on and a different quarter-final ends in chaos: a footballer is in hospital with first degree burns, and the pitch is ablaze with the orange flames of innumerable flares. Images more reminiscent of a war zone than a sporting event. Yet again the thugs were allowed to triumph and football’s dream was cut cruelly short. It seems every time football attempts to haul itself away from its terrible memories there are always a few ready to send the sport spinning back into the dark ages.
The only antidote to football’s disease is swift, strong action from the authorities and in this case UEFA have failed in their duty. A meagre fine and a four game ground closure will have no effect upon the actions of the Ultras, the real authorities of Italian football. UEFA have been quick to stress the fact the £133,000 fine which landed on Inter’s desk on Friday is the largest they have ever handed out but it is a paltry sum compared to the vast amounts of money the famous club makes on a single match day. Ground closure is a similarly ineffective punishment. The San Siro has been closed before – after Inter fans threw a rival fan’s scooter from the stand – but this has in no way deterred supporters from further violence. The Olympic Stadium was closed in December after referee Anders Frisk was badly injured by a coin thrown from the crowd, yet Italian football continues to struggle in a sea of violence, racism and anti-Semitism.
UEFA have clearly not learnt from the lessons of the past. Football hooliganism in England is now effectively controlled by the authorities, but this was only the result of tough action in the wake of the Heysel disaster.
UEFA had no choice but to act in the face of such evil events, but the ignorance of the authorities to English thuggery throughout the 80s was a contributory factor to the horrors of that European Cup Final. Earlier and tougher action against the hooligans could well have averted the deaths of 36 football fans and, while it is all too easy to moralise in hindsight, here UEFA have the opportunity to learn from the errors of the past.
No-one is saying that Italian clubs should face the same punishment that English clubs met in 1985 – hooliganism in Italy has not yet plumbed the depths witnessed in Heysel – but a slap on the wrist is no longer an acceptable response to football violence on the continent. Far be it for an English football fan to moralise over others – the efforts of recent years does not excuse or eradicate the memories of the past – but UEFA, along with the Italian authorities, need to wake up and take serious action against the parasites destroying the game. Football is the most passionate sport in the world and when channelled effectively, as at Anfield three weeks ago, can produce some of the most spectacular, and moving, sights in sport. Indeed, the fervour of the Italian fans is one the most impressive aspects of Serie A. It is the duty of the authorities, not to spend wasted hours conjuring up ridiculous new legislation, but to ensure this passion does not go too far.
Whether this be through points deductions, enforced bans or closer co-operation with police, it will certainly be more effective than the token gesture that was their latest attempt.