For almost four years, England, the birth-place of modern soccer, has suffered the ignominy of a ban against its teams in the rest of Europe because of “football hooliganism” among English fans. But on April 11, executives of the governing Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) voted that, subject to good behavior by the fans, European competition would be reopened next year to English clubs. The UEFA executives, meeting in Pálmela, Portugal, cleared the way for English teams to compete in major tournaments after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government proposed a law that would require fans to carry photo identity cards—denied to convicted troublemakers—for admission to games. Graham Kelly, chief executive of the English Football Association (FA), hailed the UEFA decision as the opening of “a new era for English football.” Then, four days later, English soccer suffered a catastrophe. In the crush of an otherwise well-behaved crowd at a game in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield, at least 94 fans were killed and as many as 200 injured.
The tragedy developed almost without warning early in a semifinal game for the FA Cup between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on neutral ground. Many in the Hillsborough stadium crowd of some 54,000, chanting and cheering as the game began, were unaware that screaming spectators in a terraced stand-
ing-room area reserved for Liverpool fans were being slowly suffocated or crushed to death against an antihooligan steel mesh fence between them and the playing field. Indeed, although officials halted the game after six minutes, more than an hour had passed before police and first-aid crews attending the hurt and the dying had measured the full extent of the tragedy. In terms of the number of dead, it
was the worst disaster in British sports history. Said a grim-faced Maurice Roworth, chairman of the Nottingham Forest club: “This is probably the saddest day football has ever witnessed. It is going to take a long time for football to recover. I came here today looking for a spectacle, but this is a nightmare.”
The nightmare developed in part because of the very measures designed to prevent violence, including the control fence. As well, with stadium space allocated to keep rival fans apart, witnesses said that the Liverpool fans overcrowded their area. Liverpool physician Glyn Phillips, who came as a fan and wound up treating the injured, said that on the terrace “they were crammed in like sardines.” Then, the crowd collapsed under a surge from the top of the sloped standing-room terrace. “Lads were getting crushed against the fence,” said Phillips, “and there were so many people that nobody could even move to get out.”
Some witnesses said that the crush resulted after police opened a gate and hundreds of late fans poured through, bypassing turnstiles. Chief Const. Peter Wright of the South Yorkshire Police said that police opened the gate because of a danger to life outside the stadium, where up to 4,000 Liverpool fans pushed and clamored to get in. Several survivors blamed faulty crowd control. Said one distraught and confused fan who escaped: “There was just a massive crush—people’s arms were just on the floor, grasping for life.”
As Thatcher, who saw the aftermath on live television, called for a report on the disaster— “I shared everyone’s disbelief as the mounting horror unfolded,” she said—others questioned antihooligan measures, including the plan for fan identity cards. Said Sheffield city council leader Clive Betts: “We have to ask ourselves whether we have got obsessed with the whole problem of people invading pitches [playing fields], whether we have put up safety fences which have become a problem for people when they are crushed with no means of escape.” Betts added that the situation would have been even worse if fans trying to enter the stadium had been held back while authorities checked identity cards that the government proposes.
One sad irony is that Liverpool fans bore the brunt of the tragedy. It was spectators from Liverpool who were blamed for a disaster in Belgium that led to the European ban against English teams. Then, in May, 1985, at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, 39 people, most of them Italians, were crushed to death in riots at the European Cup final between Liverpool and the Italian team, Juventus. Even now, under the conditional UEFA plan to end the ban, Liverpool remains subject to a further exclusion of three years after the rest of the English teams are readmitted. And after the costly lapse in safety and security in Sheffield, the promise of a new era in English soccer only a few days earlier is now stained with tragedy and doubt.
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