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London Evening Standard

Cesare Prandelli is famous for measuring his words very carefully. But when I ask whether his former club Juventus will beat Barcelona in Saturday’s Champions League Final he does not hesitate.

“Juventus have played an extraordinary championship,” says the former Italy coach.

“They won Serie A by 17 points over Roma. They won the Coppa Italia and now they are in the European final. I think the odds on Juve winning are just as good as Barcelona.”

Bookmakers clearly disagree. Barcelona are 8-13 while Juventus are as long as 5-1 but Prandelli believes there is one man who could upset these odds. “Andrea Pirlo is a football genius. I’m sure he’ll come up with something in Berlin on Saturday.”

For all Pirlo’s magic, Barcelona possess Lionel Messi, who has scored 58 times in 56 games this season and hit possibly the greatest goal of his career last week against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey Final.

But Prandelli insists: “Messi is Messi and Juventus are in the final with a great team. Because it’s a knock-out match, anything can happen. I repeat what I said: the odds are 50-50.”

Such praise from Prandelli for Juventus’ talismanic midfielder is not unusual. During Prandelli’s four-year reign as Italy manager, Pirlo was the heartbeat of the team and drove them to the final of Euro 2012. When Pirlo marked his 100th cap with a goal in a 2-1 win over Mexico two years ago, Prandelli said:  “Andrea Pirlo is football for us.”

The 57-year-old knows that Berlin’s Olympic Stadium is a good hunting ground for Pirlo. It was there in 2006 that the midfielder scored the first penalty in the shoot-out against France as Italy won the World Cup for the fourth time. “Having the final in Berlin is very important for Juventus.”

“Because it’s a knock-out match, anything can happen. I repeat what I said: the odds are 50-50”

It is all the more important as the final comes 30 years after the Heysel tragedy. Then, just before the start of the match, a charge by Liverpool fans led to a wall collapsing in the wretchedly maintained Brussels stadium. Thirty-nine people died including 32 Juventus fans. Prandelli, who played six seasons for the Italian club, was on the bench for the final. “I remember very well that, before the match, we heard there were some dramatic moments. But, because the changing rooms were beneath the stands, you could only see part of the terraces. So we didn’t see anything.

“Before the match, our president, Giampiero Boniperti came in and said, ‘There have been some fatalities’. There was no precise information. Some people were saying one person had died, others were saying that it was two, three. Boniperti said, ‘I’m not letting the team play in these conditions’. And so, at that moment, we thought we weren’t going to play. However, the Uefa officials then arrived with Gianni De Michelis [a minister in the Italian government]. They said we had to play as they didn’t know how to evacuate the stadium so we were forced to go out.

Genius: Pirlo competes with Sergio Ramos “In all honesty, during the first half, we thought we wouldn’t be continuing. But, at half-time, the same official came in and said, ‘This match is going to be played to the end. Whatever the result will be, there will be no replay’.”

The game was decided by a penalty from Michel Platini, which was awarded despite Zbigniew Boniek being tripped outside the box by Gary Gillespie.

What Prandelli and the players did not know was that bodies of the fans covered by blankets were piled outside the stadium as the match went on inside. Luigi Radice, then coach of Torino, was so horrified by the sight he refused to watch the game. “This is horrible, a shame, not football, the death of football,” said Radice. “Why have Uefa allowed the match to be played?”

When Prandelli boarded the team coach as it left Heysel, he saw Belgian soldiers and tanks circling the stadium.For Juventus, Heysel clearly casts a huge shadow over Saturday’s final. Last Friday was the 30th anniversary of the disaster and Juventus held memorial services in Brussels and Turin.

For Prandelli, this was necessary because of the way the tragedy has been treated over the years. “It’s right that we remember,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s been forgotten in our daily lives and in the world of football.

“It’s important that people realise that, because of a mistake, 39 lives were destroyed, thousands actually, counting the children, the relatives. That’s a real tragedy.”

Fourteen Liverpool supporters were convicted of involuntary manslaughter but Prandelli believes they were not the only ones at fault.

“It was absolutely an issue to do with the efficiency of the police,” he says. “The mistake was putting the supporters of the two teams together, that was terrible. It’s something that no longer happens in stadiums.

“There weren’t enough police officers acting as filters. There were families of Juventus supporters next to Liverpool fans. The events that happened were so bizarre they seemed surreal, like the match itself.

“Thirty years ago, the channels of communication were different and those who were watching on TV saw dramatic images. But not those who were at the stadium. Not all of them knew what was happening. We players didn’t see anything. The Juventus fans, they didn’t see what was happening. It was only after the match that the authorities started to realise that stadiums needed to be made safe for people.”

      

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