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Hillsborough: A US Perspective

hillsborough-002 Reuters 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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  1. Elton Welsby

    April 22, 2009 at 5:37 am

    The lower leppings lane end was the week point of a stadium which was other wise considered by many the second best league ground in England after Old Trafford. There had been a near disaster in exactly the same place at the 1981 semi final involving Spurs fans.
    The back end of the 84-85 season was the nadir for English football. In the space of just a few weeks you you had Millwall fans rioting at Luton live on national televison, the death of a teenager after a wall collapsed on him following trouble at Birmingham City vs Leeds United and of course both the Bradford and Heysel disasters.
    By the time of Hillsborough Hooliganisim was already on the decline but the general malaise that affected English football was still evident.

  2. Sticky

    April 16, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    “To love football is to love English football.”
    LOL! That’s what we need – a little bit more taking cheeky jabs at ourselves. Less of this heavy-handed racialist stuff. Thanks, LFC, for bringing a little levity into this discussion.

  3. kyle

    April 16, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    English Premier League is owned by foreigners and played by foreigners. But other then that its english

  4. Liverpool Football Club

    April 16, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Kartik, you just HAD to remind me of Mexico 1986!!! Now I can’t get out of my head that horrendous image of Maradona’s hand on the football. You ruined my day with that recollection.

    Kartik, you were doing good in your other post but now you’re acting childish again. You’re blaming the death of your domestic league on not getting the 1986 World Cup bid??? WTF. That league died in 1984!!!!! The rejection of the US 1986 bid DID NOT kill that league. Bad business practices did. One has nothing to do with the other. Blame the owners of the NAL clubs, NOT the FIFA. C’mon, man. America didn’t deserve that bid. I’m glad Mexico hosted in 1986, I’m just not happy about Maradona’s handball. IMO, the USA should never host a World Cup.

    As I said before, I hope the FIFA dicks over the USA to kingdom come. But I hope they treat the UK fairly. England is a footballing nation, the USA is a cancer on society.

    @ Haley’s Comet: Fuck you. England IS football. The club World Champion is English and will be again next year. To love football is to love English football. You’re just jealous of our success

  5. mcsey

    April 16, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Uhm shouldn’t this piece be entitled Heysel: An American Perspective. Your points about American attitudes towards football at the time match my recollections though.

  6. Haley's Comet

    April 16, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    A nice piece but can we all move on and talk about American footy history and current MLS, WPS, USL, PDL, whatever not the Premier League and Scousers.

    I hate Liverpool and the English game. If I was interested I’d frequent EPL Talk. I could give two s#$@s about the English game. I like the world game and the american game not mindless obsession about England and how FIFA, Platini the whole world is out to get them.

    England is a fraud.

  7. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 16, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Blatter’s suggestion to hold the World Cup every two years showed what an idiot he was.

    You guys are getting me tempted to re-read Andrew Jennings book. He was on the money about so much.

    LFC- Have you read his book? If you dislike Blatter now you’ll loathe him after reading it. The thing is Havelange was a crook also and very anti British as well. He awarded the US the World Cup in 94 only as a consolation prize after helping to destroy our domestic league, the NASL by taking Mexico’s bid to host a second World Cup in 16 years over our superior bid. It was a classic inside job where competitive bidding was not wanted. FIFA did not want the US to bid, and clearly showed they’d take an inferior bid to keep the English speaking peoples out of football management. Henry Kissinger even considered suing FIFA.

    They were even more anglophobic. I strongly believe and this is the underlying theme of the piece, that FIFA and UEFA concocted the myth of Liverpool and English (note not Scottish) hooliganism to get them out of Europe and to eliminate them from hosting a future World Cup. At the same time Italy with open cheating, more violence at football matches, and a fringe element that uses football to organize political activities in a way unthinkable in the UK was rewarded with a World Cup and many European titles.

    Yet the FA in their infinite wisdom supported Blatter over someone who by his nature would have been more pro England. Simply brilliant!

  8. kyle

    April 16, 2009 at 1:34 am

    Most Americans not accepting somebody of Indian descent is not true in my opinion. The governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal is of Indian Descent.

  9. kyle

    April 16, 2009 at 1:21 am

    @Kartik Krishnayer I agree with your opinion of Blatter being anglophobic. Thats why I said earlier I do not think the world cup will be hosted by USA or England.

  10. Liverpool Football Club

    April 16, 2009 at 1:15 am

    The UK has offered your people many benefits and comforts. I don’t see why your UK relatives would rather be in the USA. There’s just no reason.

    Well, I’m anti-American but so what? You shouldn’t side with them either, most Americans would be racist towards you anyway. Side with the land of your parents/ancestors (or maybe you were born there). India’s a beautiful place. As a youth, I was enamored with Aishwarya Rai. India has much to offer. Identify yourself with them, not the USA. As I said, many Americans wouldn’t even accept you as American anyway. Screw ’em.

    I do read the Sun regularly, but I’ve also been exposed to alot of American culture, as has the rest of the world. Therein lies the root of the problem. America butts in EVERYWHERE. I’m sick of it. Fuck America.

    Fuck Platini too. I’ll be damned if that 6-5 rule ever takes effect. Over my dead body.

    Let’s hear your opinions on the current state of the French Football Federation and of their domestic league.

    What has Blatter done in his regime that’s been good for football? What has he done that’s been maladaptive?

    Future World Cup bids also look to be in jeopardy. Unless the whole of the UK can bid as one. Whatever it takes to bring the tournament back here.

    What would have been different under Johansson?

    The UEFA has had sway and influence regardless. Remember when Blatter wanted to hold the World Cup every 2 years? UEFA nixed that one quick, didnt they.

    I think the biggest issue at present is the 6-5 cancer. The fact that it’s even being mentioned is treacherous.

  11. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 16, 2009 at 12:16 am

    Their are plenty of reasons to dislike Indians. Fair enough points there. I’ll blame my mis spelled word on sloppiness. I apologize for that and for implying you were a racist on the Indian thing- that’s a fair point of view.

    Yes, I have relatives in the UK and I can say they are all glad they don’t live in India but wish they lived in the USA. That should tell you something.

    However your comments about the US are a tad bit unfair and yes from an American point of view racist or at the very least xenophobic anti Americanism. You are far from the only Brit who attacks us, which is why it scares me so.

    Americans, you hardly know my friend. You’re perception of our great land is probably shaped by what you read in the Sun just as my country men-woman judged you by Heysel, and exaggerated incidents with Tunisians fans at France 98, and by Hollywood’s poor representation of English footy fans.

    As for Platini, wouldn’t you agree he’s just typical of the types of people the FFF have produced in the past. Conservative, insular thinking and naive? The truth is the FFF and Ligue Un have fallen behind because of this type of thinking.

    Back to Blatter. The English FA naively backed him in 1998 thinking they’d get the World Cup in 2006. England while a victim of Blatter is largely to blame for his ascension. The English have no ones to blame but themselves.

    Again in 2002, Blatter could have been removed. The host nation South Korea was not hospitable to him but the English instead of leading a mass movement were rife with infighting and other FA related issues.

    I sympathize with you. I agree FIFA is anglophobic as my piece implies. But LFC, and others please ask your FA why they publicly helped Blatter win in 1998 when he could have easily been beat. Lennart Johansson wanted to increase UEFA’s influence and sway over FIFA and yet England and Wales both voted against him.

  12. Liverpool Football Club

    April 15, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Hey dot-head, you’re blaming the spellchecker?? Please. If you spoke English properly, you’d know the word “decrepit”. Very childish of you to blame the spell-check.

    I don’t have the time to list the reasons why I and many others do not want to be linked with America. Let’s just leave it at that.

    “The same in a different way”? You truly don’t speak English. There is nothing in common, not even language. We speak English, Americans bastardise it. What’s your football league called again? Exactly.

    The reason people dislike the US isn’t because it’s “fashionable”. Don’t you have relatives over here? I would think you do since the UK is full of your people. So ask your British-Indian relatives and hopefully they can teach you.

    Ok, maybe not Platini but I fully support any anti-US sentiment Blatter may have.

    How dare you call me racist. I’m the only one among my friends who sticks up for your people. I even dated 2 Indian women before. Believe me, it’s hard to be sympathetic to your kind when not a single customer service operator can speak proper English. But I do it anyway.

    Thank you, come again!

  13. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 15, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    You can argue who was to blame for Heysel but Juventus and Italian Football in general ended up benefiting from the tragedy which they at least helped to cause.

    Italian Football is corrupt. This decade has taught us that. The unsporting nature of the Italian game has been exposed time and time again, as has the fringe right wing groups of ultras that organize around football in a way unimaginable in Britain.

    Americans perceive English footy fans as hooligans and somehow have turned a blind eye to the Italian situation which is far worse.

    to the comment above about Napoli, yes, thanks- forgot that one. 🙂

  14. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 15, 2009 at 10:59 pm


    I don’t speak a word of Hindi. English is my first language. Blame the spell checker, you racist scouser.

    You’re even more racist for you not wanting England to be linked in with Americans? Why is that? Do you have the perception some Brits have that Americans are all cowboys, and rednecks? Much like some Americans who I condemn in this article perceive your club as a bunch of hooligans.

    You are just as bad as the Sun my friend. Condemning Americans and the USA for no good reason may be fashionable in the UK but it is out of bounds here. And in fact you may claim to be as “different as night and day” from your perception of the US, but in fact you are just the same in a different way.

    Platini to my knowledge doesn’t have anything against us. Blatter and his crowd, well that’s a different story.

  15. Sticky

    April 15, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    “indifferent policing and a decrypted stadium” – Yeah, like LFC above, I cringed at that. Surely you meant “decrepit?”

    It seems like there were a lot of problems with football at the time, and maybe placing all or nearly all the blame on, say, Juve supporters at Heysel is an oversimplification. No L’pool fans were unruly and aggressive, whether drunk on lager or revved on uppers?

    Also it seems like there’s not enough distinction here between Heysel and Hillsborough. The title suggests that you’re going to talk about H’borough, but most of the piece addresses Heysel and its consequences. In the American mind, as you point out, the two blended together even though the conditions were radically different.

    Official inquiries, though, showed the culpability of the police in the death of fans at the Hillsborough match, and the Sun’s reports about the alleged actions of fans during rescue efforts which helped to paint football spectators as barbarians. The Guardian had a good article about it in 2004: The irresponsible coverage of the Sun may have been more responsible for the American fear of hooligans than the H’borough disaster itself. For that, the Brits can’t blame Italians or FIFA, but their own penchant for tabloid journalism which continues to this day.

  16. mike

    April 15, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    To say that it was the juve fans fault is ridiculous. katrik is no better than blatter.

  17. Liverpool Football Club

    April 15, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    “decrypted”? Hahaha! Did the fans have to enter a code so the stadium magically appears, otherwise it’d be just a blurry splotch?

    I guess Hindi is your first language, and not English, so that’s ok I guess.

    Anyway, I’m sick of the anti-English bias by Blatter and Platini. They could hate the USA all they want, but just don’t lump the UK in with them. We’re different as night and day.

  18. Angel

    April 15, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    sorry for my grammer, I was just typing so fast plus I’m very upset.

  19. Angel

    April 15, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    It is sad to hear news about our belove it Football (Soccer) like what happen just this past month in the game in Africa (Ghana) where espectators died, in Guatemala in Mateo Flores same thing, It all comes to have strong security in our stadium, good management so we can be secure and safe, As I watch games from La liga, EPL, Seria A and Bundesliga the look very nice seating on their own seat like if they are watching nice play in a theater. Now here in the MLS in our own stadium we are started to see how our fan gets rowdy, send stupid object to the field like copying leagues from Mexico, Argentine or Brazilian. I’m not saying that European league are extremely good but it look nice to see that field just the players and the ball there. Now American Media and Football (Soccer) haters is always going to be in this country until we get the educated on the rules of the games and how is played. We need segment in our sport channels and radio to speak about the game, show clips and give them a play by play action like in NFL Live on ESPN, Baseball Nite also on ESPN, or Basketball. Heck even freaking Hockey and Golf has it own Segments. So what can we do about it, Start writting to your sport channels and start enquiring about our own beautiful game, or about our National Team, and MLS. What I hate the most about we have segment that talk more about the league of Mexico, Mexican National team an all this a televised or broadcast from our own radio and TV channels.

  20. Are you joking?

    April 15, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I guess this is a new one. Juve who got 30 plus supporters killed and hundreds injured by English hooligans organized by right wing and racist groups were actually responsible. It was all a hoax so that Italian teams would win in Europe by banning the English.

    Re-read your piece. That what it implies. You sir, are a hater of Italia.

  21. The Gaffer

    April 15, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    DC, don’t believe the lies you hear on Cohen’s show about what happened at Hillsborough. There had been problems at Hillsborough one year before, and the FA failed to heed the warnings. Just because Cohen gives his version of what happened doesn’t mean that’s the gospel truth.

    The Gaffer

  22. kyle

    April 15, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Maybe Blatter does not hate english teams, but there is a double standard. Blatter blasts english teams with debt but Italian teams have debt. They barely fined Juventus when their fans made monkey chants at Drogba.

  23. tyduffy

    April 15, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Great piece, Kartik. I have one about Hillsborough coming out later today on TBL.

    @DC – It’s not Liverpool fans who “rewrote history” claiming that Liverpool fans weren’t at fault. It’s every official government inquiry into the incident.

  24. DC

    April 15, 2009 at 8:45 am

    You know Kartik,

    There are some that might argue, as commentator Stephen Cohen suggested on his World Soccer Daily show, that its not so much stadiums and policing that was the largest cause of the tragedy at Hillsborough, but instead, unruly Liverpool fans, who were the ones that had counterfeit tickets and forced themselves in to a terrace which had no more room. There is a reason Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium had not had a problem until that day, in fact it was always considered one of England’s top stadiums outside of Wembley. Its because it had been safe. But even a stadium in the US would not be safe if 6000 fans of a team without a ticket tried to unlawfully squeeze their was into a stadium they had no ticket for.

    My point is, only Liverpool lovers try to re-write history. They want to say Heysel was the fault of the “Italian” teams fans, not the hooligans dressed in red and itching for a fight who collapsed a stadium retaining wall. Hillsborough is the fault of Yorkshire police and the bars used to keep fans off the pitch, not ticketless Liverpool fans trying to squeeze 12,000 into a terrace standing built for 6,000.

    Sorry, but Liverpool fans are the ones primarily responsible for these tragedies, first and foremost.

  25. Kartik

    April 15, 2009 at 7:20 am

    That’s a very good read.

  26. LI Matt

    April 15, 2009 at 5:17 am

    Heh, Gus Caesar. A strong contender for the title of “Worst Gooner Player Ever”. Nick Hornby wrote sympathetically about him in Fever Pitch, but he doesn’t really argue the point.

    Italian clubs Lazio, Juventus, Inter and AC Milan also had followings in the US,…

    I’ve found a lot of Napoli supporters in this country. I believe that’s because the majority of Italian-Americans trace their ancestry to that region.

  27. Tom

    April 15, 2009 at 1:43 am

    “Keep in mind that current Fifa President Sepp Blatter hates english football too, as well as football in the United States.”

    That’s stupid. And so are the similar accusations in the above article.

    Politics undoubtedly played a determining role in the decision to ban English clubs from European competition, as was the complete lack of any official inquiry which might have assigned blame to Uefa for deciding to hold a final at such an inexcusably decrepit stadium, but to boil down people’s motivations to “they hate English football” is naïve and irrational.

    Anyway, I think the real tragedy in all this was that such extraordinarily unsafe stadium designs and crowd control techniques were the norm across all of Europe for the better part of a century. Whose bright idea was it to herd paying spectators into fenced-in enclosures like cattle and force them to stand for two hours? How is it possible that it took so long and so many lives to shock people out of complacency? Nostalgia for the old days I can sympathize with, but people who pine for the glory days of the terraces bewilder me.

  28. kyle

    April 15, 2009 at 12:47 am

    A tragedy no doubt RIP for those that lost their life. Keep in mind that current Fifa President Sepp Blatter hates english football too, as well as football in the United States. Arsenal fans were attacked and stabbed in Rome by AS Roma hooligans and no harsh criticism from Fifa. The past couple years traveling fans going to Rome for champions league have been attacked and what does Fifa do? it gives Rome this years Champions League final. If Blatter and co. have their wish no hosting the world cup for usa or england.

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