Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

A Rush to Death at Hillsborough

April 15, Sheffield, Britain

English football in the 1980s was broken. Hooliganism — a scourge since the 1960s — had begun to define the game as supporters fought inside and outside stadiums. English teams had been exiled from European competition in 1985 after a charge by Liverpool fans before the European Cup final in Belgium left 39 supporters, most of them Italians, dead. Those who weren't hooligans were treated like them. Met by police at railway stations, supporters were herded into caged sections of dilapidated stadiums that so lacked basic amenities that fans would urinate right there on the crumbling terraces. Others risked their own safety. A blaze begun accidentally in an antiquated stand in Bradford, northern England, in 1985 claimed 56 lives. Not surprisingly, match attendances dwindled. "The game," says John Williams, a specialist in the sociology of football at the University of Leicester, "was in a very difficult place."

It would get worse. On April 15 1989, more than 50,000 fans of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest followed their teams to an FA Cup semifinal at Sheffield's Hillsborough stadium. (Such games had long been played on neutral grounds.) When too many Liverpool fans were directed into fenced pens at one end of the ground, a crush soon developed. Hundreds more streamed in after police opened the gates to let in fans waiting outside. From within the pens, people cried out for help. Others screamed. But conditioned by hooliganism to look out for threats to public order and not to public safety, police were slow to respond. When a narrow gate sprang open in the terrace's perimeter fence — put up at many grounds to stymie pitch invasions — officers pushed back those desperately trying to escape, and closed it.

Five and a half minutes after kickoff, the match was halted. By then, though, bodies were piled close to the fence, many of them blue, eyes staring ahead, "a crowded, twisted vision of a rush to death as only a master of the age could paint it," U.S. novelist Don DeLillo wrote in his celebrated novel Mao II. Ninety-five Liverpool fans were killed that afternoon, virtually all by asphyxia; another, left comatose by the crush, would die in 1993. Trevor Hicks, who'd stood on the terraces a few meters from his two daughters, Sarah, 19, and Victoria, 15, found them lying side by side on the pitch. As a medic attended to the elder, Hicks tried desperately to clear vomit from Victoria's throat. Neither daughter survived. "We lost all our family," says Hicks. "It completely turned our lives upside down."

The day would have a similar effect on English — in fact, world — football. Ignoring attempts to blame fans for the catastrophe — Jacques Georges, then president of UEFA, European football's governing body, likened Liverpool supporters to "beasts waiting to charge into the arena," while British tabloid newspaper the Sun claimed they'd picked the pockets of the victims — Lord Justice Peter Taylor, a senior British judge appointed by the government to investigate the tragedy and how to prevent a repeat, put it down largely to a "failure of police control." More importantly, Taylor took a knife to the "general malaise" afflicting the game, from its unsafe grounds and poor treatment of law-abiding fans to hooliganism. "Years of patching up grounds, of ... muddling through on a wing and a prayer must be over," he wrote in his final report, the ninth such probe into crowd safety or control following a string of tragedies in the previous six decades. It was time, he said, for "higher standards both in bricks and mortar and in human relationships."

Taylor largely got his way. Following his recommendations, teams in the top two divisions of English football converted their grounds to all-seater stadiums by the start of the 1994 season. That not only made match days safer, but, combined with better stewarding and the removal of fencing, also "had a major effect on hooliganism inside and around stadiums," says sociologist Williams. "The point [Taylor] made was that if you give people the sense that the environment of the stadium is defined by that kind of violence and aggressive behavior, then that's what you'll get," he adds. "In part, he was right."

Other changes followed — not all of them foreseen by Taylor. The better, safer facilities he demanded for supporters fed the top clubs' plans to reach a wider audience and boost earnings. That, and the need to recover the costs of converting their grounds, would soon help push the 22 clubs of the old First Division to break away from the rest in 1992 and launch the Premier League, now the richest and most successful national league in world football. Sky, the satellite-TV broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch that launched in 1989, now pays $700 million a season to broadcast the new, media-friendly top flight in Britain. The TV cash, which now comes from global markets as well as British ones, has allowed the Premier League to recruit the best talent from all over the world, making its product as familiar to viewers from Asia to the U.S. as it is in its homeland.

For those able to remember standing on the terraces, exposed to the elements and the violence, the Premier League's swish arenas stand as the disaster's most powerful legacy. None is as striking as the Emirates Stadium, the north London home to Arsenal. Opened in 2006 at a cost of around $600 million — selling the naming rights to the Dubai-based airline recouped about a quarter of that — it's the closest thing there is to the perfect, simulated backdrop you find on a football computer game. Catering to one of the sport's most affluent fan bases, the wide concourses with countless snack bars and toilets — some boasting more cleaners than users — wouldn't look out of place in a top-rank airport terminal. In the stands, seats "have improved the comfort, and the view's much better," says Frank Rossi, a local antiques trader who watched his first Arsenal game in 1965. "Standing," he says, "was a different era."

Some fans will always say that they favor the more humble, local game of the past over today's globalized version. At a remembrance service at Anfield, Liverpool's own stadium, to mark the disaster's 20th anniversary in April, some in the Kop, the ground's famous old terrace, shook their heads during a speech in support of all-seater stadiums. And some fans of standing argue that seats have made tickets prohibitively expensive.

Admission prices may indeed have soared, but at Hillsborough, much of the Carlsberg West Stand, as the Leppings Lane end is now known, remains unchanged. The narrow tunnel, into which so many Liverpool fans were crammed on their way to the terrace, now offers access to its seats. One afternoon in late April, much of the first two rows were still taken up with floral tributes laid to mark the recent anniversary. Many were wilting. But on the edge of the pitch, close to where so many perished, small yellow flowers had sprung from the turf. Out of darkness, a brighter future.