Hillsborough: A US Perspective

hillsborough-002Reuters Photo

The date was August 6th, 1989. The ticket read, Zenith Data Systems Cup, Independiente vs. Arsenal, Joe Robbie Stadium. My 15th birthday present from my parents was a ticket to this match, a ticket stub I have kept safe since because the match was so memorable.

It was the moment I finally rediscovered football (or soccer as I called it then) which has dominated my child hood thanks to the NASL, but had disappeared from my life along with the NASL and the US non qualification of the 1986 World Cup. I had attended many APSL matches at Lockhart Stadium in 1988 and 1989 with my parents but now found “soccer” boring and slow. But seeing two top class International sides play in a world class facility changed my perspective forever: I have not wavered on my love of the game since.

This was also the day I learned that the English football fan had been given a bad reputation abroad. The US had been awarded the 1994 World Cup the previous year and fear instantly permeated in mainstream sporting circles. But it also opened the door for major international matches to be held on US soil as a dress rehearsal to quote Kevin Jones on a previous episode of the EPL Talk podcast.

ITV built the match up as being played at the potential final site of World Cup 1994, but sadly the reconfiguration of the stadium for Baseball and the Florida Marlins in 1993, meant the stadium did not host a single World Cup match. Now that the Marlins are moving to another stadium, the first large American football stadium that was built specifically to FIFA requirements in order to host International Football may again have a shot to host the World Cup in the future.

The match itself was entertaining and as I noted above re-educated me about football. Gus Caesar was sent off in the match but Arsenal won the match 2-1. David Rocastle, who has since sadly passed away after a valiant battle with cancer scored Arsenal’s first goal, and Tony Adams was brought down in the area to draw a PK for Arsenal’s second.

This match came just months after the Hillsborough disaster and the police presence at the stadium was overbearing and bordered on paranoia. Reports of the Hillsborough disaster in the United States had implied Hooliganism was to blame, but in fact the police and condition of stadiums had more to do with Hillsborough, and the other two major incidents with fatalities involving English teams in the 1980s than anything else.

Hillsborough as any European can tell you was a genuine tragedy, where ninety six people who loved football and loved Liverpool were killed thanks in large measure to indifferent policing and a decrypted stadium. But in the United States, the tragedy which was covered on the evening news was used as more evidence by the football hating media intelligentsia as evidence that World Cup 94 would be a disastrous event for this country.

In May 1985, English football was dominating Europe. After a rough patch in the 1970s, England’s National Team re-emerged as a force in the early 1980s, and English clubs were unquestionably the best in Europe. Then at a third division match in Bradford, a fire broke out killing 56 supporters on a day when Bradford City was promoted to the second division.

At Heysel two weeks later, Liverpool fans were being taunted by drunk, unruly Juventus fans before the flinging of missiles between both sets of fans ensued. The Italians, frustrated by England’s domination of Continental Football in the late 1970s and early 1980s acted out of anger.

This was the European Cup final being held in Belgium, where many ex-pat Italians and Juve supporters lived. The Liverpool fans had to travel to the country

Sadly, a few Liverpool fans charged the Juve supporters and 36 Italians or Belgians of Italian origin were killed.  But UEFA and FIFA under English hating President João Havelange blamed the disaster completely on Liverpool and banned English clubs from Europe for five years.

Havelange had been originally elected FIFA President by creating an anti-Anglo coalition of South America, Africa, CONCACAF (minus the US, Canada, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago), and parts of Southern Europe. Thus when World Football was given the opportunity under anti-English leadership to punish the English, a punitive decree was implemented.

Juventus supporters, partially responsible themselves for the tragedy were given a pass as was Italian Football. Italy came to Hooliganism later than England did, but by the mid 1980s had as much violence and almost as many organized firms around football as did the English.

English clubs had to serve a five year European ban which benefited the Italians more than anyone. Forced to focus on domestic competitions after several years of continental supremacy may have seemed logical at the time, but in retrospect the banning of ALL English clubs, and not just Liverpool was a rash over reaction that was done for political reasons. The combination of a Europhobic Tory Government and an Anglophobic FIFA made the solution too convenient.

I firmly believe Liverpool should have been banned (but perhaps just for two years) but not the other English clubs. While incidents of Hooliganism had occurred on the continent when Spurs, Manchester United and Aston Villa played in Europe, just as many if not more incidents were created by supporters of Dutch, Belgian, French, German and Italian sides.

What UEFA did was choke the life out of English Football, and perhaps in many ways encourage Hooliganism in the bottled up football atmosphere of the UK.

When England qualified for the Euro 88 tournament in Germany, authorities were placed on high alert and every incident of English hooliganism was exaggerated by the international press. No doubt, some of the Three Lions fans came looking for trouble after having been bottled up at home for three years, but the incidents which were even covered extensively on American news channels (I remember a discussion about English Hooliganism on the Today show during Euro 88, which was the most football coverage we had gotten in the states since the NASL folded) being slanted and the issues of race, ethnicity and social status being discussed in an America that at the time was paranoid about racial issues.

English Football and Hooliganism became synonymous in the US, despite that fact that Rangers and Celtic, two Scottish clubs which at the time were better supported in the US than any English club outside of the banned Liverpool had many incidents of violence surrounding their matches as well. Italian clubs Lazio, Juventus, Inter and AC Milan also had followings in the US, and their share of problems. But very few if anybody equated Italian Football with violence and Hooliganism.

Football was already developing a subculture around itself in the US in the early 1990s with pubs open early for matches, a preparation for the World Cup ongoing. The US National Team was developing a massive following and the USISL (the forerunner of today’s USL) was expanding and finding more fans at matches than ever before.

The fear of England in the US was immense. I still recall the relief several of my college classmates who also liked the sport had in 1993 when England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994. Their thinking was it was now safe to attend World Cup matches and travel to World Cup host cities, whereas it may not have been safe before in the event.

Even twenty years later as the United States nears qualification for its sixth consecutive World Cup finals, and American footballers are comfortably fitting into the top foreign leagues not to mention our own domestic leagues, the ignorance and hostility from many quarters of the mainstream sporting press continues. Many in the US still see events like Hillsborough as proof of the sport being “un-American,” and “foreign.”  Yet the number of deaths and injuries in and around sporting events in the United States rivals that of any nation where football is the leading sport.

I do not have the time nor the patience to list all of the disgraceful incidents around NFL, College (American) Football, NBA, MLB or NHL games since Hillsborough. Nor do I care to argue with those so intellectually in-curious about how the rest of the world lives.

Hillsborough was a tragedy of epic proportions. To quote Gerry and the Pacemakers whose Mersey beat still rings today, “you’ll never walk alone.”


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