Sunday, 29 May 2016

Book Review: Heysel - The truth

Francesco Caremani (R) after handing me a copy of his book

Before I met Francesco Caremani, I already knew that he brimmed with humanity.

The Italian journalist had sent me a Facebook request, accompanied by a warm message on my wall, upon learning that we had both been named finalists in the same category at the inaugural Sport Media Pearl Awards. Later, as I gradually became Facebook friends with most of the actors who were to play a role at the awards, I discovered that Mr Caremani had been to almost all of their walls to drop messages of gratitude for their acceptance. ‘See you in Abu Dhabi,’ he’d added to the messages, always signing off with a happy-faced smiley. It wasn’t much to go on, admittedly, but I cannot deny that he immediately struck me as someone who cares about people.

I met the man at the vast lobby of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel, on the second day of the awards programme, just before an Abu Dhabi City tour planned for all finalists. He was all smiles and good wishes, emitting an aura of positivity that was contagious. Later, he engaged me in a conversation about how passionate he is about his club, Juventus, and how proud he thought I must feel as a Ghanaian regarding the impact Kwadwo Asamoah has had at the club.

The next day, Mr Caremani surprised me at a conference organized on sport journalism. He approached me, reached into his bag and pulled out a book. He smiled at me as he handed it over. “This is my present to you as a fellow finalist,” he said. “I learnt I’m the oldest finalist in our category and I feel a responsibility as a big brother be good to you and Johannes (Johannes Nedo from Germany). Have it, please. It is a new edition of book I wrote about my club. I hope you like it and at least will give you something to remember me by.”

L-R: Anaman, CaremanI and Nedo - the three nominees for 'Writing - Best Column' at the 2015 Sport Media Pearl Awards in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E

I was taken aback. Touched? Absolutely, I was – but I also felt a sudden rush of guilt. I hadn’t thought of bringing anyone any presents – it had barely crossed my mind. And I felt bad. I apologized that I couldn’t return his gesture. “Don’t worry at all,” he said. “Occasions like this is about friendship and celebration, and so it’s the least I could do. I’m glad to have met you and everyone. I wish you the very best at the awards tonight too, whatever happens. We are all winners.”

The book, titled Heysel: The True Story, puts under the microscope, the infamous disorder that burst to life among spectators just before the 1985 European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. Indeed, what happened that day, 31 years ago - the 29th of May, 1985 – was a tragic blot on the integrity of the sport, a mad, bad and sad sequence that proved ultimately fatal, terminating the innocent lives of people whose only crime had been to love the sport so much as to turn up in a stadium to cheer their beloved club on. “What happened was avoidable. It could have been avoided. It should have been avoided,” Mr Caremani’s colleague, Roberto Beccantini, writes aptly in the foreword.

As a Liverpool fan, I was fairly familiar with the dark events of Heysel, just as I was acquainted with that of Hillsborough which occurred four years afterwards, but I admit that unlike Hillsborough (which is understandably always viewed from Liverpool's perspective due to the 96 victims being fans of the club), Heysel was always bit of a haze for me. Perhaps my knowledge of that tragic event was vague because its devastating effects swayed more towards Juve than Liverpool. And so it was an opportunity for me to learn. And boy, did I learn - and more.

What makes the book so rich in content is not only the enormity of the research and insight that under-girds the story, or the way Mr Caremani’s humanity is embedded in every opinion expressed, but also how he tells the tale with a sense of genuine care that can only come from someone who has a first-hand association with the tragedy. Among the people who lost their lives that day, two of them – Robert Lorrentini and Giuseppina Conti – were natives of Arezzo, the town where Mr Caremani was born and bred. The misfortune was close. And it was felt.

Indeed, Roberto was a close associate of Mr Caremani. He was a loved one, a friend of his family.
But for the unusual luck of a failed school exam (and his parents grounding him for it), Mr Caremani - then still a teenager madly in love with Juventus– admits that he would have been in Brussels that night. Unfortunately, Roberto managed to make the trip – and it eventually turned out to be the proverbial ‘journey of no return’ for a 30-year-old man who had his whole life ahead of him, one who had to leave behind a wife (Arianna), two sons (Andrea and Stefano) and a loving father (Otello Lorrentini, who later later founded and spearheaded the Association for the families of Brussels victims).

Otello Lorrentini plays a huge role in the book: his accounts, materials and activism guides its narrative, and as Beccantini writes, he serves as "a sort of Virgil who accompanied the author into the underworld both during and after the tragedy." Mr Caremani's gratitude and admiration of Otello is visible throughout the book. The author is inspired that a man can overcome and transcend his own colloquial pain to devote his life to seeking justice and meaning to the lives of others. "This is my life," the late Otello told the author. Mr Caremani is also awed that Otello managed to "raise his two grandchildren (Stefano and Andrea) with heart and soccer - nothing special for many of us, but extraordinary for someone who lost his only child on a stadium terrace."

Mr Caremani, who received the news of Roberto’s death with tears and fears the morning after, says a part of him died with his friend, and it sparked a lot of emotion that has endured till today. "The funeral service was attended by the entire city of Arezzo," he remembers. "The sorrow disfigured people's faces."

Along with 38 other people, Roberto was cruelly slaughtered at the altar of football. Together, they all paid a heavy price for their passion at the dreaded Block Z area at Heysel – and even more unfortunate was the fact that their lives were made to seem insignificant in the aftermath of the game, as many Juventini insensitively celebrated a subsequent win made possible by a penalty converted by the great French play-maker Michel Platini, an act Mr Caremani equated to "virtually stepping over the bodies" of the people who had died at the game. Mr Caremani agrees that it was "essential" that the match was played to avoid further carnage, but argues that cheering was wrong on the back of what happened. To him, the victory was meaningless, the celebrations shameful. He wants the victory erased from the records of the Bianconeri and the cup returned back to UEFA. He detests the mocking of the dead, the celebration of the win, and the trivialization of the tragedy. His stance is non-negotiable, exposing an essential truth: life is larger than football, and it can never be vice versa. Human life can and should never be sacrificed in the name of the sport.

Mr Caremani exhaustively investigates the saga through interviews exploring harrowing personal accounts, analysis examining public accounts, as well as a chronicling of the inquiry process, the legal actions, the punishments, and the wide spectrum of events that characterized the ensuing years in the tragedy’s wake. And this is done with a tone that takes no prisoners with the truth, a voice that fails corruption and hails morality. The probe is deep and honest, without pretence and without partisan protection. What Mr Caremani has managed is the creation of an easily accessible one-stop library of information on the tragedy; and as a Ghanaian, this feat made me embarrassed about the absence of a similar piece of work for our own tragedy: the May 9, 2001 disaster at the Accra Sports Stadium which saw 127 people perishing in the wake of crowd commotion and police irresponsibility, during a clash between arch rivals Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko, Ghana's two biggest clubs.

The book is sprawled out upon a difficult canvas. The details are cold, requiring a bold person to get the story told, and Mr Caremani lives up to this billing with bravery, achieving a touching ode to the victims of Heysel. It is an emotional, engrossing read, one that highlights the futility of valuing football ahead of human life, one that expresses a relentless search for justice, responsibility and due procedure within a global sport that is supposed to be a force of happiness and hope and not of doom and gloom. There are lessons, reflections and realizations, through the pain of people slain and through the mistakes of stakeholders. The predominant hope that courses through the narrative is simple: never again.

There is a beautiful paradox at the end: the book manages to zoom in on the events of Heysel, but in the process, it also simultaneously manages to zoom out on the same subject to reveal a bigger picture: the fundamental sacrosanctity of humanity.

"That is why this book has its purpose, as memory confers dignity on the grief, whereas oblivion destroys and rage shrivels it and what is around it. I do understand that the Heysel disaster (over 30 years on) is now far from people's hearts and minds, but such dramatic events should never be forgotten, as behind every drama there is a real person who deserves to be respected for having been alive, a human being with loved ones, with dreams and with hopes, who walked the earth." --- Francesco Caremani


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