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Football Tragedy, Part Three
Cancer – The Enemy Within!



And so we come to the third of the football Tragedies in the 1980s – the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985 in which 39 people died – 32 from Italy, four from Belgium, two from France and one from Northern Ireland.

It still remains football’s greatest taboo, a tragedy no one dare speak of because it reminds us of a painful and destructive past.

Not so much forgotten as relegated to the darkest abyss of the mind, triggered by the smallest reminder, the faintest memory, yet its return is also our greatest fear.

If you do not recall Heysel or need to refresh your memory, here is a clip of that tragic evening in May.

On hearing the news of the disaster the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher said:

“It isn’t that we’re numb,… We’re worse than numb.”

The condemnation was immediate and recriminations swift.

The headline in the Mirror newspaper the next morning was: “The Day Football Died.” English clubs were kicked out of Europe and the game changed forever.

Heysel was the culmination of years of ugly incidents involving football fans: The national team in Basle in 1981, Spurs in Rotterdam in 1983, Millwall fans at Luton in march 1985 and what seemed like every other week, one skirmish after another, until we ended up with Heysel – The venue chosen for the biggest annual game in world football, the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus.

There had been prior warnings that trouble could erupt but, as usual, these were ignored and initial scuffles quickly escalated into a series of terrace battles.

Then at 20:45 local time, something terrible happened.

The Liverpool fans charged into a solid mass of Juventus supporters, who were trapped by a crumbling concrete wall. An unstoppable force met with an immovable object and something had to give – the wall collapsed and dozens of Juve fans were crushed and trampled on in the stampede that followed, causing multiple injuries and deaths.

After Heysel, and probably before, Thatcher considered football fans, like the miners leaders and IRA terrorists she battled against, to be the enemy within. Four years later, following the Hillsborough disaster, the minister of sport, Colin Moynihan described hooliganism as a “cancer in an otherwise healthy body.”

Hooliganism became known as: “The English Disease” and like any disease it was regarded as undesirable both for the individual and society as a whole, incorporating enormous economic, physical and psychological costs.

During the 1980s, it was also becoming much more common, the terraces were increasingly inflamed with violence and cases continued to crop up with depressing regularity.

Hooliganism began to be viewed as a progressive condition with malignant tendencies spreading out into local communities; on match days, windows would get smashed and fights would break out in town centres and pubs. Different teams, different locations, and different causes, perhaps, but ultimately the same outcome; death and destruction.

The situation with cancer today, in many ways resembles what was happening with football hooliganism in the 1980s.

It is the enemy within – within society, within communities, families, within our hearts, within our minds as well as within our cells and genes.

One drug isn’t going to stop it just as one rule of law wouldn’t stop hooliganism, but we do need to understand it before we can even hope to control it.

I suppose I could give you a scientific narrative explaining cancer in purely clinical terms, but somehow this wouldn’t generate the desired emotion for this particular passage of play, and besides you don’t get the real feel for cancer from a textbook.

Cancer is something you live with and hopefully through, it is the hooliganism of the body and will always leave its indelible mark, once touched never forgotten.

Indeed, the renegade heavyweight rapper “Big B” produced a song which I feel succinctly sums up the “Big C” – it was called “Hooligan” and one line in particular hits the nail firmly on the head:

“Straight out of control, self proclaimed asshole – I am what I am, I’m a hooligan”

* Warning: Contains Offensive Language.*

Big B “Hooligan” :

Yep, that’s cancer, the one I know anyway. The one that destroys lives, hopes and dreams and doesn’t care who it hurts in the process.

Like many people, not just doctors, my life has been affected by cancer in so many ways. Some good, but mostly a real pain in the knackers way.

It has taken the lives of family members: Aunty Lil (lung & throat), Uncle George (Bowel). Aunty Violet (ovarian) Aunty Pat (Breast) Grandad Pops (NHL), Cousin Susan (Brain) and Aunty Maureen (Multiple Myeloma), and most recently of all Stepdad David (kidney & prostate), almost a full house of cancer diagnoses, yet, only one of them a smoker, non of them drank or would be considered obese, at least not by today’s standards. Ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, until an extraordinary disease sapped the life force from their bodies.

Then, as a GP, I’m tasked with the unenviable role of solving the crystal maze of diagnostic pathways to find the cancer before it has time to spread. Or, if it has spread, initiate the palliative care pathway to a dignified and hopefully painless death. It feels like I am doing both, on an increasingly frequent basis and piece by piece my heart is breaking with every new human tragedy I witness.

More than any other disease, there is something about cancer that channels our horror of the idea that we are all going to suffer a long and painful relegation from life. We have grown to fear it above all else, because it is the enemy within, something foreign growing inside us, loitering on our terraces, stealing our energy and destroying all that we hold sacred about the beautiful game we love.

And what makes it worse, these are not the opposition fans, but our own supporters violating the stadia and destroying the club they once held so dear – These are the Hooligans of cancer and let us never forget they are a part of us and any attack on cancer is ultimately an attack on oneself, which is what makes it both so difficult to treat and so unspeakably terrifying.

Cancer Slam Poem by Kiante Miles:


To be Continued!


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