More than 50 million players in 155 countries compete in the sport that Pelé, Brazil’s former soccer superstar, calls “the beautiful game.” Last week in London, England, Pelé’s successor as the game’s most celebrated player, Argentina’s Diego Maradona, helped kick off a yearlong centennial celebration of the English Football League, the world’s oldest and largest professional soccer league. On Aug. 8, Maradona and an international squad of all-stars played
an exhibition match against a select English League team before 61,000 spectators at the sport’s shrine, Wembley Stadium. The final score: the English Selects 3, the All-Stars 0. But on the eve of the centennial, the continued threat of fan violence and persistent financial problems raise grave doubts for the charter league’s longterm future.
In fact, English football has not fully recovered from the terrifying incidents of 1985. On March 13 of that year, during a Football Association (FA) Cup match at Luton stadium north of London, supporters of one team, London-based Millwall, rioted. The instigators —known as bovver (bother) boys or hooligans—rushed onto the field and battled with police. The game was completed, but 47 people were injured—including 33 police offi-
cers—and 31 people were arrested. Two months later, on May 11, a stadium fire claimed 56 lives during a game at the dilapidated Bradford City grounds.
The tragic climax came minutes before the May 29 European Champions’ Cup final between Liverpool and Italy’s Juventus at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. With fans in more than 80 countries watching live television coverage, 39 people were crushed to death when a stadium wall collapsed. The
victims—primarily Juventus supporters—had been pressed against the wall attempting to escape an assault by Liverpool fans. Afterward, the Union of European Football Associations indefinitely banned all English League clubs and their supporters from participating in European cup competitions. And the Belgian government is still trying to extradite the Liverpool fans who instigated the riot on charges of involuntary manslaughter. Said Ted Croker, FA general secretary: “Any further outbreak of hooliganism would cause a major setback to the sport’s aspirations.”
Two years later, league secretary Graham Kelly cautiously reports: “We have gone a certain way to rehabilitating ourselves. The record of misconduct in the grounds has improved, as the increased attendances reflect.”
Indeed, league attendance last season rose by more than one million from the previous year’s total to 17.7 million. Said Chris Callaghan of London’s CSS Promotions, which is publicizing the league’s centenary: “We seem to have achieved a turnaround in the public’s perception, and we plan to use the centenary to mercilessly promote all that’s good about English football.”
The British government and FA and league officials have campaigned to
help save the game that is still the most popular spectator and participation team sport in Britain. With four divisions and 88 professional teams in England—and four more in Wales— the league is the largest member of the FA, which oversees 2,200 leagues in England. Scotsmen, West Indians, Danes, Dutchmen, Africans, Australians and even two Canadians—Notts County goalkeeper Paul Dolan of Port Moody, B.C., and Doncaster Rover defender Colin Miller of Vancouver— play in what former World Cup star Ossie Ardiles of Argentina calls “the toughest and most competitive league in the world.” Said Croker: “ Football is going through a wonderful spell, except for the scourge of hooliganism.” In an effort to bring back spectators fearful of violence, 74 of the 92 English League clubs have set aside ex-
elusive family sections where fans can feel secure. That reform was pioneered four years ago by London’s Watford team under its owner, rock star Elton John. Said John: “We wanted them to sit there without fear of being attacked by people who have the wrong idea about football.”
In another measure designed to curb violence in the stands, Luton banned all visiting fans from its grounds last season. The policy, in contravention of league rules, resulted in the team being excluded from the League Cup competition last season. But not one fan was arrested, and attendance dropped just five per cent. While not going as far as Luton, most clubs next season will institute a 50-per-cent membership policy. Teams will screen those who wish to buy tickets and allocate half of the stadium’s seating capacity to their numbers.
Meanwhile, the Football Supporters Association (FSA) is taking its own steps to control soccer violence. Founded in Liverpool in the summer of 1985, the FSA now has 12 branches.
While not affiliated with any clubs, the FSA acts as a pressure group to curb violence and make stadiums safer.
Said Mike Ticher, secretary of FSA’S London branch: “We realized that if we don’t get off our bums, the game will die.”
Despite the reforms, financial problems remain. While overall attendance was up last season, attendance at almost 50 per cent of the clubs declined from the previous year. And according to a survey conducted by London’s Leisure Management magazine, “In the mid1980s, 56 of the 92 clubs were making a loss.” Added London football enthusiast John Gausten: “Most clubs are living on borrowed time. What would happen if one of the 92 clubs did go under? Would the stack of cards fall?”
In the early 1980s the fees charged for players transferring from one team to another escalated wildly, regularly exceeding $2 million. This, combined with the rapid rise in player salaries and falling attendances, forced many clubs into untenable po-
sitions despite their share of $4.4 million in television revenue. London’s Chelsea sold its grounds to property developers, then leased it back from them. Charlton Athletic was forced to leave its London grounds in September, 1985, and play all home games at Selhurst Park, the grounds of the nearby Crystal Palace team. The idea of sharing a stadium offends traditionalists, but Charlton has increased home-game revenues by 75 per cent since leaving The Valley, its traditional ground.
On the eve of the centenary, the
FA’S Croker said that “the future of English football is assured,” and added, “I am sure these hooligan incidents will be just a memory in a few years time.” Still, last month the FA barred two league teams—Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur— from playing European exhibition matches prior to this season. Explained FA spokesman David Bloomfield: “ Fear of violence is the bottom line.” For the oldest league of the world’s most popular game, the temper of its fans remains its greatest strength—and threat.
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