On 21 June 1998, German hooligans went on the rampage through Lens in northern France, leaving local policeman Daniel Nivel in a coma. Two decades later, Nivel is still living with his disabilities.
Germany have just drawn 2-2 with Yugoslavia in their second match of the 1998 World Cup, leaving both teams with a solid chance of progressing from Group F.
The 41,000-capacity Stade Félix-Bollaert, home of the reigning French champions RC Lens, is packed out, leaving tens of thousands of German supporters ticketless in the center of France’s northernmost and smallest World Cup venue, only a three-hour drive from the German border.
Among the traveling German fans are hundreds of right-wing hooligans and chants of "Wir sind wieder einmarschiert!" (We’ve invaded again) echo through the streets of a town that was twice occupied by German troops in the first half of the century.
But they are left disappointed after rumors that Yugoslavian and English hooligans are also in town prove untrue. In the summer heat, tensions rise post-match and running battles with French police ensue.
With the narrow streets cordoned off by the gendarmerie, one group of hooligans takes a diversion down the Rue Romuald Pruvost, near the main station. At the end of the street is a junction guarded by three gendarmes who, moments earlier, had been kicking a ball about with a young boy.
"We’ll get through there, there’s only three of them, we’ll knock them out," cries one of the hooligans, according to witness Walter E., speaking a year later in court.
Overwhelmed by the situation, two of the gendarmes flee. But Daniel Nivel, a 43-year-old husband and father of two, is struck to the floor by a hooligan wielding a road sign. Kicks and punches rain down on him and he loses his pistol which is picked up by one his attackers and used to beat him further.
"I saw the policeman’s helmet fly off and, as if electrified, I started kicking him in the legs," defendant Frank R. would later testify in court.
"One person knelt on him and hit him with a wooden plank. Another stood watch and said it was safe to keep going. Perhaps it was frustration that the police had cordoned everywhere else off. It was like kicking a football."
"It wasn’t just a kicking," said witness Walter E. "They were stamps."
“A disgrace for the whole country”
The assault lasts a full two minutes. After the hooligans disperse, Nivel is left motionless in a pool of blood on the pavement in front of house number 74. He spends six weeks in a coma in hospital in nearby Lille.
The incident causes outrage in France and back home in Germany, where Chancellor Helmut Kohl speaks of "a disgrace for our whole country." The German mass-circulation daily BILD runs with the headline: "Wir schämen uns!" – we are ashamed. The president of the German FA (DFB) at the time, Egidius Braun, even considers withdrawing Germany from the tournament.
A fundraising tournament is organised in Hanover and at Germany's next game, against Iran in Montpellier, German supporters paint banners with messages such as "Pardon, France" and collect hundreds of thousands of deutschmarks for Nivel and his family.
But all the money in the world can't heal Nivel’s injuries. When he awakes from his coma, he is paralysed down one side of his body and can barely see, speak or smell. He will never work again.
30th April 1999. Essen, Germany.
Ten months later, four of the attackers appear in court in Essen. But they initially show little remorse.
"The only remorse they felt was for themselves," recalls Nivel’s lawyer, Harald Wostry, in an interview with German football magazine kicker. "Remorse that they’d been stupid enough to allow themselves to be photographed."
Only the appearance of Nivel himself five weeks into the trial brings about a change of heart.
"I kicked you once or twice and I’m ashamed of what I’ve done to you," admits Frank R. "I want to apologize, even though it won’t help you."
"I heard your plea for forgiveness, but I just can’t," responds Nivel’s wife, Lorette. "My husband and my family have suffered too much, and we will do so for the rest of our lives."
But André Z., accused of striking the potentially lethal blows with the steel butt of Nivel’s pistol, remains silent, still hopeful that he won’t be clearly identified.
"Everybody knew who the attackers were, but it was difficult to prove it in court," Wostry remembers.
The key witness
One man who could identify the men on the harrowing photographs is Burkhard Mathiak – a social worker with the Schalke fan project in Gelsenkirchen. Mathiak had still been inside the stadium when the attack happened but, having dealt extensively with Schalke's hooligan scene, he recognises André Z. immediately.
Yet giving evidence in court is no easy step for Mathiak, whose proximity to Schalke's hooligans means putting his own safety and that of his family at stake.
"Sometimes I would have young lads from Schalke's main scene sat in front of me talking about what they would do to the witness if they found out who it was," he told German sports publication kicker.
"I had two young children and it left my job situation unclear."
Finally, in November 1999, Mathiak testifes. André Z. is sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempted murder and grievous bodily harm. Tobias R. of Hamburg, Christopher R. of Magdeburg and the remorseful Frank R. of Gelsenkirchen receive sentences of between three-and-a-half and six years.
As he hands down the sentences, Judge Rudolf Esders says: "The defendants are not monsters; they are people. But on that fateful day, they behaved like monsters."
For Daniel Nivel and his wife Lorette, the ruling brings little closure.
"Even a few more years wouldn't have changed anything," Lorette says. "On June 21, 1998, they destroyed my husband’s life and that of our entire family."
Nivel still lives with his family in a quiet town outside of Lens. Asked once by French television if he could ever forgive his assailants, he manages to utter four short words:
"Non, jamais … pourquoi moi?" – "No, never … why me?"