Editor’s Note: Liverpool aren’t the first English team to visit Rome in European competition, and it’s not the first time the Reds have travelled to the Stadio Olimpico, either. Yet their visit Wednesday for the Champions League semifinal, second leg, promises to be a tense affair both on and off the pitch: Liverpool hold a 5-2 lead from the first leg but are also dealing with the aftermath of an attack on a Liverpool supporter by Roma fans that left him in hospital.
Tony Evans was there in 1984 when the Reds went to play AS Roma in the European Cup final. Heading into this week’s clash, he shares his memories of a violent day before and after the match itself.
ROME, Italy — After a torrid day around the city, the streets around the Stadio Olimpico were eerily quiet. There seemed to be no Italians in the vicinity, only stunned-looking Scousers exchanging horror stories. It was 90 minutes before the European Cup final. AS Roma supporters had taken their places inside the stadium hours earlier, and in the eye of the hurricane, it was momentarily calm. Liverpool fans we met told similar stories.
Rome had a special place in Anfield’s history. The club won their first European Cup there, in 1977, when more than 25,000 supporters made the journey to the Italian capital. It was remembered as a joyous occasion.
But things had changed in the intervening seven years. This was May 1984. Roma were effectively playing the final at home, and Liverpool supporters experienced a different kind of welcome. Over the previous 24 hours, they had suffered harassment and violence. Firsthand tales of stabbings and beatings were too common to ignore. There was visible evidence of slashes and bruising. Even seasoned travellers to European matches found the experience daunting. Before the end of the night, many of the visiting fans would feel sheer terror.
I made my way inside and took my place alongside the other 8,000 Liverpool supporters in the Curva Nord. Just at that moment, the 61,000 Romans were quiet. It didn’t last long. Suddenly, the rest of the ground took what sounded like a deep breath, grunted as one and then chanted with a deep, terrifying growl.
It was the most unnerving atmosphere I have seen.
When Jurgen Klopp’s team go to the Italian capital in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal, they can expect a hostile reception. The events 34 years ago had a deep impact on the psyche of both clubs and their supporters, and the violence by a few Roma ultras in the street behind the Kop before last Tuesday’s first leg shows the level of hatred that has been handed down to generations.
The details of the game in 1984 are simple. Liverpool, already three-time European champions, opened the scoring. Roma equalized and the match rumbled on into extra time before being settled on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Bruce Grobbelaar’s wobbly-legged antics distracted the Italian club’s penalty-takers and entered football folklore.
The English side won their fourth European Cup, but that is only part of the story.
It was meant to be the biggest day in Roma’s history. It seemed as though the entire region had been decorated in the club’s deep red and yellow colours. In ancient Rome, the return of successful generals to the city was commemorated by a parade and ceremony known as a “triumph.” The revelry often turned riotous, and even before that 1984 match, it felt as though the Eternal City was already celebrating another glorious victory. Images of the European Cup were everywhere — on flags hung from tower blocks, painted on buildings and adorning windows.
The malice was palpable. At the airport, we were packed into coaches by sullen armed police who were present in huge numbers. It seemed like overkill. Then, on the city’s ring road, we began to understand what the authorities were worried about — and it wasn’t Liverpool fans.
A flotilla of Fiats darted about the convoy of coaches. Their soft-topped roofs were pulled back and youths stood up in the passenger seats and hurled bottles and stones and fired flares at our transport, making throat-cutting gestures after their throws. I’d been to a number of European away games over the previous six years but had never seen anything like this.
The feeling of foreboding got worse outside the stadium. There were too many stories of stabbings and slashings to discount. Often, in the era of widespread hooliganism, and the days before mobile phones, wild rumours about violence spread rapidly. They could almost always be ignored. This was different. It was clear we weren’t welcome at Roma’s party.
The players felt it, too. “It was the most intimidating sight I’ve seen in my life,” said centre-back Alan Hansen, describing walking out on the pitch before the match. “It was frightening how much those fans wanted Roma to win the match. It put fear into me.”
“Terrifying,” defender Steve Nicol said. “Then Graeme Souness led us over to the Curva Sud and looked them in the eye.”
“I wanted to test their anger,” the Liverpool captain said. After the final penalty, that anger exploded.
The players went off to celebrate, but on the terraces, a different fate awaited. I have a picture from that night of myself, my brothers and friends, taken on the Curva Nord. They are celebrating while I’m looking into the distance with a stunned expression on my face. I know what I was thinking: “Now we have to go outside.”
The Roma fans left quickly, few waiting around to watch Souness lift the cup. Before they went, they piled their European Cup banners and scarfs on the terraces and set them alight. The flames, smoke and acrid smell gave the night an apocalyptic feel.
That theme continued outside. A road overlooked the sloping exit to the ground, and mobs of Roma fans had stationed themselves on the higher ground. They set fire to rubbish in barrel-like metal bins and rolled them down at us. Other locals charged the crowd. You could see the thin, stiletto knives in their hands, and a stampede broke out to escape the terror. The police did little to help; instead, they fired tear gas into the panicking Liverpool fans. Only the arrival of Lazio ultras, come to gloat at their rivals, distracted their Roma counterparts long enough for many of us to make our escape as they fought each other.
It was a relief to get back to the coach. Everyone was shaken, and the result of the game was almost forgotten. A couple of fellow passengers had shallow slash wounds but chose to go home and get treated rather than heading to local hospitals.
I needed to urinate. There were unkempt bushes beside the road, and I ventured in to find a private place. A mate said he’d come with me, and it was just as well: Not long after, my friend hissed a warning. Two youths were sneaking up behind me. One was wearing a Roma ski hat, the other carried a knife. We both faced up to them and shouted, calling other friends from the bus. They backed off quickly into the darkness. It was a lucky escape.
On the journey back to the airport, the coach was again subjected to a constant barrage of missiles. Gangs stood on overpasses and hurled bricks at the vehicles.
Meanwhile, at the Ponte Duca D’Aosta, there were numerous stabbings. George Sharp, a friend’s father, was knifed in the kidneys and nearly bled to death. When his 16-year-old son Ian tried to get a policeman to help, the man smashed his baton across the teenager’s nose instead. Only the prompt action of another officer saved his dad’s life.
Rome erupted with rage. Another friend, who had an Italian father, travelled to the game with his cousins from Turin. They parked their car next to a Volkswagen that had a European Cup painted on the bonnet. When they returned to the car park after the match, the Volkswagen’s owner had ripped the bonnet from the vehicle, hurled it to the ground and was stomping on the metal hood.
This level of fury continued through the night as those staying in central Rome faced a terrifying journey back to their hotels. At the hospital, Ian Sharp sat among bleeding Scousers and waited for news of his father. None of the doctors or nurses spoke English; the schoolboy sat and watched as the wounded were treated and the patients thinned out. By the morning, he was alone. A nun arrived and began praying. He feared the worst.
The failure to win the European Cup on their own ground had a lasting effect on Roma and their fans. The story of Agostino Di Bartolomei illustrates the impact.
The Roma captain had come through the team’s youth system and was considered to be the representative of the Curva Sud on the pitch. Di Bartolomei had a reputation for being tough: It was alleged that he carried a pistol in his bag. On the 10th anniversary of the final, he shot himself in the chest. The 39-year-old had suffered from depression and had financial problems, but the timing of his suicide was no coincidence to the Roma ultras.
For Liverpool, the ramifications were even uglier. A year later, they played Juventus in the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels. After their experience with Roma’s hardcore fans 12 months earlier, Scousers were determined not to suffer in a similar manner. There was little thought of revenge, but the mindset was one of suspicion. The hostile mood played a significant part in a chain of events that led to the deaths of 39 people at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Rome is the largely forgotten catalyst for that tragedy.
Even in 2018, the Italian capital continues to be a dangerous place for visiting fans. Locals have elevated stabbing rival supporters in the buttocks to a cultural symbol. They even have a word for it: “puncicate,” the practice of knifing opposition fans in the backside, an attack designed to wound but not kill. It is supposed to have derived from medieval dueling with swords, and it happens on or around the D’Aosta bridge.
All visiting supporters are at risk this week, but there is a special disdain reserved in Rome for Liverpool. It is unlikely that the second leg of the semifinal will see anything like the violence of 1984 — though the Reds’ visit in 2001 saw six fans hospitalised for stab and slash wounds, and five Man United fans suffered a similar fate in 2007 — but anyone travelling to the Italian capital for the match needs to be very, very careful.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.