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Heysel still has its impact 25 years later

BRUGES, Belgium (AP) — After living through the Heysel Stadium tragedy first hand 25 years ago, FIFA medical chief Michel D'Hooghe knows the importance of planning.

For the World Cup in South Africa, D'Hooghe went through the long list of emergency preparations — available doctors, nearby hospitals, first aid — in case the unthinkable would happen, a disaster at a World Cup stadium.

"You cannot foresee everything," D'Hooghe said. "But I can assure you that never have so many precautions been taken. We have prepared for everything possible."

On May 29, 1985, 39 fans died — many crushed to death — when they tried to flee a rush by hooligans at the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus at Heysel.

That final was held in a decrepit stadium and entry was badly checked. Despite a strong police force, there was little-to-no security action to contain the deadly rush.

To have it happen at the European Cup final changed things forever. Twenty-five years later, the effects are still felt.

"At that moment, people opened their eyes," D'Hooghe said in an interview with The Associated Press.

As a Belgian federation official, he had to take care of a Liverpool club delegation. He still remembers the chaos was such that he only learned the number of casualties hours later when he arrived home in Bruges in the middle of the night.

"And as always, they only put a red traffic light after an accident has happened," D'Hooghe said.

Compounded by the Bradford disaster three weeks earlier in northern England when 56 people died in a stadium fire, and the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield when 96 fans were crushed to death against fences, soccer changed its ways in Europe.

Up to then, grounds were basically male bastions, often dank, brick, elementary structures rife with bad standing-only views, awful sanitation and almost no concession stands.

"The Heysel disaster really woke everyone up to the fact that it was not just about hooliganism but that it was about infrastructure and the management of crowds," said Simon Inglis, an architectural historian who wrote "The Football Grounds of Europe."

Move ahead to June 11, 2010, to the 94,000-seat Soccer City stadium and site of the opening match of the World Cup. The lessons still apply there, too.

Marc Meire also remembers Heysel and, as the civil engineer for the Grinaker-LTA contracting company, was in charge of building the World Cup's main stadium. He never wants anyone to go through something like Heysel again.

In 1982, three years ahead of the disaster, security at Heysel was not much better, and Belgian-born Meire still remembers how he got squeezed in a crush at the ground after a grudge match against the Netherlands.

"It is very uncomfortable when your feet loose contact with the ground and you can't breathe," Meire said. "I will never forget the scared face of a young boy squeezed between me and his helpless father."

So having built Soccer City, he knows where security fits in.

"It is top of the list. Arguably more important than spectator comfort and iconic design," he said. "Heysel made an impact on crowd control and access and evacuation. Hillsborough made us look at spectator fences."

South African soccer has had a tragedy, too. In 2001, 43 people died in a crush at a game between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, the country's best-known teams, at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

"The Ellis Park disaster, where people got trampled at the access gates, showed the necessity for second, wider access control," Meire said.

Wide perimeter fencing away from the stadium is another prime feature around Soccer City.

That stadium will also be the latest example of what designers have learned since the tragedies of the 1980s. Since the Heysel disaster, architects looked at stadiums in the United States and realized that the family and comfort had to be at the heart of the experience.

"Good access, comfortable seats, good sight lines, good ventilation, pleasant and attractive surroundings, etc., reduce the levels of frustration and anxiety, thereby increasing the tolerance levels," Meire said.

One thing is still missing.

"If the players can provide a clean spectacle," he said, "we will have winning combination."