BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Hundreds of English soccer fans attacked rival Italian supporters before the kickoff of the European Champions Cup final Wednesday, sparking a riot that killed at least 36 people and injured some 250 others, officials said.
A senior ambulance official on the scene said the death toll might go as high as 50 in the riot, the most deadly in European professional soccer history. Of the 250 injured, at least 50 sustained serious injuries, the Red Cross said.
Many of the victims were trampled when crash barriers in the 70,000 capacity Heysel stadium collapsed, tearing down the concrete stands and sending fans pitching forward in a pile of struggling bodies, police and witnesses said.
'Most of the victims were trampled under foot,' said one witness quoted by Belgian television. 'It was terrible. People were lying dying on the stands before our eyes.'
Police broke up the clashes one hour after they began -- only to be attacked themselves by English fans hurling flying poles and other missiles.
In order to maintain calm, sporting officials agreed to allow the game -- pitting England's Liverpool team against Italy's Juventus team - to go on as scheduled but fighting erupted again before play could begin. Finally, police quieted the crowd and the championship began 1 hours late.
In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said Liverpool fans responsible for the riot brought shame to Britain.
A Thatcher spokesman said the prime minister watched the fighting on television and 'shares what would be the universal horror at the scenes.'
'Those reponsible have brought shame and disgrace to their country,' Thatcher said.
The initial fracas erupted one hour before kickoff when Liverpool fans began hurling flag poles, beer cans and other projectiles at Juventus supporters, officials said. It was not immediately clear what caused the Liverpool fans to turn violent.
Some Juventus fans fought back while others tried to escape the assaults by climbing over high fences to reach the field. The two sides fought for almost an hour before the 700 police and 1,000 state troopers on duty separated the battling mobs, officials said.
English fans then turned on the police, who retreated under a barrage of missiles, police said.
As the fighting raged, paramedics set up an emergency field hospital in a parking lot from which they ferried the wounded and the dead to city hospitals. Dozens of fans were carried to safety either by their friends or on stretchers by the Red Cross.
After police restored calm and officials decided to allow the game to go on, a Belgian soccer official said Juventus 'at first refused' to play.
'We and all other league officials pleaded with them to avoid the enormous difficulties that would result from a cancellation of the match,' the official said.
Minutes later, the two team captains called on the crowd over the public address system to allow the game to be played.
But as the men called for calm, English fans stormed onto the field, throwing poles and sticks at police and tearing down steel barriers for use as missiles.
More wounded were carried off the field after the renewed fighting.
As players came onto the field -- surrounded by riot police with crash helmets and plastic shields -- the fighting continued until the field was cleared.
Then, the two teams posed for photographers and the game began.