The Premier League and its well-to-do fans of today bear almost no resemblance to English soccer 29 years ago, when a working-class crowd went to Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15, 1989, for an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Ninety-six Liverpool fans were killed in a crowd crush, the darkest day in English soccer history.
In our era of new stadiums, it’s almost impossible to explain the stadium setup that led to the Hillsborough disaster. At the time, it was standard for tens of thousands of fans to stand on stepped concrete terracing behind the goals, rather than sit in seats. It was also an age of hooliganism, with regular brawling between fans in and around stadiums. Police tended to see fans less as paying customers and more as potential criminals.
That fear of criminal behavior is the only way to explain why the lower deck of the stadium behind the Liverpool goal consisted of five pens, entirely surrounded by high, spiked metal fences. Fans were hemmed in like prisoners, where they couldn’t cause trouble.
As kickoff of the match approached, thousands of Liverpool fans were stuck outside the set of tiny gates that led to their assigned end of the stadium. Trying to alleviate the crowding, police opened a larger door in the fence but failed to direct the fans from a tunnel opposite the door that led to two already-packed pens right behind the goal. The fans, trying to get into the stadium before kickoff, walked straight into the tunnel. Those already in the pens found themselves crushed against the fences that held them in.
Some fans escaped into the upper tier of the stands, pulled up by others. Some managed to climb over the fences or escape through small doors in the front. The game was stopped after six minutes. By then, for so many, it was too late. In the aftermath, police shamefully tried to blame drunken fans for the deaths, a horrible cover-up that wasn’t fully exposed for almost three decades. More important for the future of English soccer, though, all teams in the top divisions were required to get rid of their standing sections and replace them with seats.
Some expensively redeveloped aging stadiums. Others built new stadiums. Cheap, plentiful tickets for working-class fan bases were replaced with corporate boxes and expensive season tickets. Soccer began to shift from being an almost exclusively in-person experience to a televised one. Television money has been the driver of soccer’s explosive growth over the past quarter-century.
It cannot be said that anything good came from Hillsborough. Memorials to the 96 who perished will see to that. In the end, it was just the last, darkest day of the Paleolithic era of soccer, when fans were seen as the enemy, not the bedrock of the game.
• It feels like it’s now or never for Major League Soccer in the CONCACAF Champions League, with Toronto FC the big favorite going into its two-legged matchup in the finals with Chivas. Toronto is the best team in MLS history, while this edition of Chivas has struggled, barely scraping through to the finals. The first leg is Tuesday, with the second leg the next week. If MLS can’t win this one, it may never win one.
• Kudos to the Premier League for leading the fight against instant replay in soccer. The league announced it will not use instant replay in 2018-19, leaving it as practically the only holdout against the deeply flawed replay systems currently in use.
• The 2026 World Cup was originally scheduled to be the first tournament to expand from 32 to 48 teams, but FIFA is reportedly pushing to move up that expansion to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. The move should make it even easier for the United States to qualify. But then again, it seemed impossible that Team USA would be sitting out this summer’s tournament in Russia.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Manchester City at Tottenham, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, NBCSN. It hasn’t been a good week and a half for Manchester City, which lost twice in the Champions League quarterfinals to Liverpool, and lost at Manchester United in between. City is on the doorstep of the English title, but the Spurs haven’t lost a league game since December.
Serie A: Napoli at AC Milan, 8 a.m. Sunday, beIN. If Napoli is going to make a move on the Italian title, it has to come soon. Juventus plays later on Sunday, and Napoli could close the gap at the top to one point. To do so, it’ll have to win at Milan, which is locked in a battle for a European spot next season. Neutral fans want Napoli to make it a race.
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Schalke, 8:30 a.m. Sunday, FS1. They call this the Mother of All Derbies in Germany, the Revierderby. In the first edition this season, Dortmund led 4-0 before throwing it all away in a 4-4 draw. Now Schalke, in second place, hosts Dortmund, in third, with local pride — and breathing room in the top four — on the line.
MLS: NYC at Atlanta, 5 p.m. Sunday, FS1. It’s still early in the MLS season, but it’s already clear that New York City and Atlanta are among the five best teams in the entire league. For the moment, the two are atop the Eastern Conference. An NYC visit to Atlanta’s packed stadium could be a measuring stick, and also one of the matches of the season.