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Flashback: The Hillsborough Disaster and the Fall of Steven Cohen

On April 13, 2009, two days before the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough stadium disaster, Steven Cohen said something stupid. “In this weekend’s Sunday papers in England, where they’re all doing big commemorations about the 96, and why we should never forget, nobody discusses the six to eight thousand who showed up without tickets,” Cohen said on the radio show World Soccer Daily. “I’ll leave it at this: if those people don’t show up, this never happens.”

To the uninitiated, Cohen’s claim might seem plausible: ticketless fans force themselves into a crowded stadium and create a fatal crush. But according to Lord Justice Taylor’s report on the incident, although “small groups of fans without tickets were willing to exploit any adventitious chance of getting into the ground,” the primary cause of the disaster was the incompetence of the police officers patrolling Hillsborough. Moreover, Liverpool fans have spent decades making that very point.

By 2009, Cohen, a British expat who served in the American military in the mid-‘80s, had become an influential voice in a nationwide effort to introduce Americans to professional soccer. He co-hosted World Soccer Daily, which aired on Sirius XM five days a week, and appeared on Fox Soccer Channel’s weekly talk show, Fox Football Fone-In.

World Soccer Daily attracted a mixed audience: Ex-pats who had grown up watching soccer, and young, impressionable newbies who hung on Cohen’s every word. Many Liverpool fans feared that Cohen, employing a toxic blend of unsubstantiated assertions and self-righteous bluster, would brainwash the latter group into thinking that drunken, irresponsible Scousers brought the Hillsborough tragedy upon themselves.

After World Soccer Talk exposed Steven Cohen’s lies to the general public, the Liverpudlians quickly mobilized against him. Within weeks of the April 13 show, the Boycott Steven Cohen campaign convinced several World Soccer Daily’s sponsors to abandon the show, and in May Liverpool FC denounced Cohen in a statement on its official website. The protest also took uglier forms: Cohen, who defended his comments despite the mounting criticism, claimed he and his family had received death threats from Liverpool fans. “If these people, using these tactics, came from Afghanistan, or Pakistan, we’d call them terrorists,” he said in the May 21 episode of World Soccer Daily. “They are behaving and acting like terrorists.”  In July, Cohen lost his television gig. His empire crumbled.

On the Internet, the reaction to Cohen’s comments continued with a vicious intensity. Conor Brennan, the vice president of Liverpool’s New York supporters club and one of the leaders of the boycott movement, published regular press releases in which he called Cohen a “merchant of hate” and demanded that World Soccer Daily be removed from the airwaves. Football blogs like Big Soccer and Ginge Talks The Footy followed the scandal obsessively, reporting every development in minute detail: the story of the professional mediator who promised to resolve the dispute, then disappeared amid a whirl of recriminations; the claims of the Liverpool fan who reported Cohen to the FBI for sending a vaguely threatening email; the controversy surrounding an offensive pro-Cohen petition.

And then, four months after his initial comments, Cohen abruptly cancelled World Soccer Daily. “This is a country based on freedom of speech, freedom of ideas, freedom of business, freedom of a lot of things,” he said in the show’s final episode. “For me it’s over.” (Cohen went on to start an online show, World Football Daily, which he left in 2011; that show still exists, but with new hosts, it’s virtually unrecognizable.)

Five years later, as we approach the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough, the legacy of the Boycott Steven Cohen movement remains problematic. Cohen expressed an unpopular opinion in an insensitive way – and kept expressing it, even when it became clear he was wrong. Angry fans debunked his theory, scared away his sponsors, and then proclaimed a victory for democracy. Channeling the power of social media, they stuck a blow against misinformed punditry.

But, in the process, the fans silenced a genuinely interesting broadcaster. Cohen was wrong about a lot of things, but his show – always entertaining, occasionally intelligent – was essential to the development of soccer’s American fan base. I miss listening to it. I understand the anger of the supporters who boycotted Cohen to protect the honor of the 96. But I miss listening to World Soccer Daily.

Read more by David Yaffe-Bellany at In For The Hat Trick and follow him on Twitter @INFTH.

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  1. Lefty

    September 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    It seems some people are only concentrating on his World Soccer Daily SiriusXm show when he continued to repeat his Hillsborough remarks that were wrong about the tragedy. Some have forgotten in 2006 when he was on Fox Football Fone-in show, that he and Geber were part of that he made his Anti-Hillsborough remarks , was caught in a controversy, and then had a half rear end apology on air then.

    Then on the 20th Anniversary in 2009, he had to try to taint American listeners again with his lies on the subject.

    Steven Cohen hasn’t change his spots. He’s a Hillsborough denier. It isn’t and wasn’t a one time thing with Steven. If he had his way he would still be on air trying to spout his views and taint minds.

    If the Prime Minister of England can apologize for two lies and wrongs back from the Hillsborough disaster and admit the government cover up, maybe Cohen can call him a liar as well.

  2. Pottertons

    June 8, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Massive, MASSIVE shame really, because it was a fantastic program. I’d been listening since it started years ago on Monday nights when it was a weekly even rather than daily.

    His opinion about the Hillsborough disaster went well overboard. It started as a bit of banter, but it got to the point where he would just constantly bring it up.

    Even though i’m an avid liverpool fan, I thoroughly liked the content of the show because you got footy news from one of the globe to the other, which clearly showed that these lads new there stuff and were passionate about the game. So the fact that his distaste for one club, ruined it for fans of teams all over is a massive loss.

    Despite what has happened, I’d definitely like to see it return to the Steven and Kenny days, but Cohen is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and probably wouldn’t be willing to let is slide.

  3. Dwws

    April 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    At the time, I had deep reservations about the way the boycott was conducted and felt some of the protagonists were getting as stubborn and obnoxious as Cohen himself.

    With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I was totally wrong. Cohen has learned absolutely nothing in the last five years and continues to tweet the same objectionable BS he was fabricating in 2009 even today – the 25th anniversary. He is a deeply petty and bigoted man and I thank goodness LFCNY ignored people like me and kept fighting until he no longer had a pulpit to preach his hate. There’s no shame in admitting when you were wrong, unless you are Steven Cohen apparently.

  4. John

    April 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    Cohen can go to hell. The American soccer community has evolved far beyond that, just go check out the numerous podcasts available for your consumption at any time (the NASN family of podcasts are a great example)

  5. Kobashi

    April 15, 2014 at 8:29 am

    I loved Steven but he kept beating the Hillsborough point into the ground when people were telling him to let that opinion lye and he didn’t and it cost him dearly.

    You could tell by the end of his run that he had lost his childlike love for the sport and his passion to go out and do a radio show everyday just wasn’t there.

    His show with Nick, Howard, and Kenny were important in my growth as a soccer fan.

    IMO the United States is worse off as a soccer nation not having WFD, Sky Sports News, and the FOX Soccer Report on a daily basis. I admit I don’t know near as much about what is going on in the game on a daily basis w/o those 3 programs that we’ve lost over the last 3 years or so. My interest in soccer is probably at my lowest point since I started following the game in 2001 w/o those 3 programs. No doubt the gameday experience on the weekend is better than ever was but I disagree with anyone that says we have it better Monday through Friday now as soccer fans in the US compared to how we had it say 5 years ago when WFD, SSN, and FSR were rolling.

    • goatslookshifty

      April 15, 2014 at 9:03 am

      There is large void on US television without the aforementioned shows. ESPN FC is 4-5 blokes watching clips and having a good laugh but Sky Sports News and Fox Football Fone-in (surprisingly, both aired on FOX) provided the best football coverage. Another indication of how Fox have declined. Too bad Mr. Cohen’s U.S. broadcasting career was ruined though.

      • rory

        April 15, 2014 at 7:43 pm

        Definitely miss Michelle, Bobby & the gang from the old FSR. They did an amazing job gathering highlights from all over the world. I guess BeIn has a nightly show now but it’s basically a promo reel for the leagues they show

  6. goatslookshifty

    April 14, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    He gave one uneducated and insensitive statement. Did it justify him being removed from the airwaves and receive death threats? No.

    • Jane

      April 14, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      It wasn’t just one statement about the Hillsborough disaster that got him removed. It was his continuous assertion that those that died were not victims.

      When people are killed in an incident one has to be very careful what one says. If his opinion was about anything else it would not have reached the same level of scrutiny and outrage.

  7. scrumper

    April 14, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Cohen knew exactly what he was doing. I think he thought Hillsborough was an easy target to stir up some controversy for his ratings and broadcasting in the US he could get away with it.

  8. Alex Baker

    April 14, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    I used to sit next to Steven in the pressbox at the Home Depot Center, covering LA Galaxy. He was a good guy, very entertaining to be around and knew his stuff. This was not his finest hour, but it’s a shame he was given such a lynching by the media.

    • Clampdown

      April 14, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      Oh please. Cohen was no victim, and there was no media lynching. His attempts to stir up controversy and raise his profile backfired, and all because he disliked another club. How pathetic. He did it to himself, plain and simple.

      • Humberto

        September 22, 2014 at 5:25 pm

        I don’t like Steven Cohen and I hated WFD right when he and Kenny Hassan left. I Steven Cohen when I first heard him, but I listened because I liked Howard. With that said, Steven Cohen IS entitled to his opinion, just like you and everyone on this comment section is. You might not agree with it but its his opinion, and hes entitled to it. You, Liverpool FC, their fans, and anyone else is not an authority to dictate whats right and whats wrong. Steven Cohen received death threats and anti-Semitic abuse. Is that right? I suggest you look at things more subjectively and logically because if you did, youd see that there WAS A media lynching of Cohen. I know you don’t like him and your hatred of him is apparent, but at least be objective. But why am I trying to talk logic to someone who spends the whole day looking and replying to comments on this website?

    • Jane

      April 14, 2014 at 6:16 pm

      It wasn’t the media that was responsible for his demise. It was his actions. Blaming the victims who died when he had no proof was why so many people and even Chelsea, the team he supports, distanced themselves from him. Liverpool supporters, not the media, brought to light his outrageous assertions.

      Just because you feel he was entertaining to be around and knew his stuff doesn’t make him a good guy. Has he apologized for being wrong now that the truth is known?

  9. Steve L.

    April 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    While I didn’t agree with what Steven Cohen said regarding the incident that led to 96 people loosing their lives, I did think that he and Kenny Hasan but on an excellent show. I actually miss it very much. People say things all the time that have absolutely not merit or truth. He’s entitled to his opinion, I didn’t think it was right to vilify him for it though. I continued to subscribe to World Football Daily after Steven and Kenny left the show, but it just wasn’t the same. I liked those two guys as a team, I wish they would come back to the soccer world in some capacity.

  10. Martin J.

    April 14, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    The problem with Cohen was not that his opinion was not popular or that in time it was found to be untrue, it is that he was obsessed with it. It was that obsession that shed light on his opinion and that led to his downfall.

  11. CTBlues

    April 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

    I really miss listening to World Soccer Daily, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to pay to listen to it.

  12. Nick

    April 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

    “…World Football Daily, which he left in 2011; that show still exists, but with new hosts, it’s virtually unrecognizable.”

    There is no more World Football Daily as a daily podcast. They still post from time to time on Facebook but there has not been a new podcast/show since February 2014.

  13. Balboa77

    April 14, 2014 at 10:58 am

    The only right opinion is the public opinion. As ignorant as he may be, how dare he form his own opinion.

    • Christopher Harris

      April 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

      The only right opinion is the truth.

      • Balboa77

        April 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm

        Ah, that’s right, this is the yearly Hillsborough truth commission. Is there going to really be a break through documentry that will blast “the truth”? This is EVERY year too. Every year there is a little morsel of truth from something that happened 25 years ago. There is some serious irony in searching for the truth and tearing someone’s opinion apart because his facts are out of order. How much “truth” do we need before we can waive the bullsh*t flag on someones opinion?

        Why call it WorldSoccerTalk when the site, for the majority of the time, focuses on this tragedy and not others around the world? Might as well go back to EPL Talk.

        • Christopher Harris

          April 14, 2014 at 1:34 pm

          Like I said previously, watch the video tomorrow night on ESPN and then come back here and let me know if you still feel the same way.

          • Balboa77

            April 14, 2014 at 5:51 pm

            Ill give it a chance and let you know my thoughts on Tues/Weds

            • Christopher Harris

              April 14, 2014 at 6:27 pm

              Ok thanks Balboa77. I appreciate it.

        • goisles01

          April 14, 2014 at 3:22 pm

          There is no time limit to discovering the truth. Do we know who Jack the Ripper was yet? What about the Hindenburg? Sometimes the length of time can wash away footprints that can lead to an ultimate truth. In comparison, 25 years is not a long time especially if an entire city feels like they were wronged

        • tobyjim

          April 15, 2014 at 7:46 pm

          What an asinine comment. Hope you can you see the flag I’m waving at you? Clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about but that doesn’t seem to stop you running your mouth. The gaffer is far too polite. Let’s see if you’re man enough after watching this documentary tonight to come back and apologize.

          • tobyjim

            April 15, 2014 at 7:50 pm

            The above was in response to the Balboa comment at 1.29 pm

        • G

          May 15, 2016 at 10:48 am

          Well, looks like the TRUTH is out now mate.

    • yespage

      April 14, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      But he didn’t “form” an opinion, he had a prejudicial one that wasn’t based on the facts.

      Some people seem to not understand that many take offense when another is blaming the victims in an event where nearly 100 died.

    • Steph K

      April 14, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      I think that you’re confused. This isn’t a situation where one has an “opinion”. There’s the truth of the matter – which has been proved time and time again in investigations by neutral third-parties, official legal documents and first-hand accounts – and then there is the vitriol that some people spew even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

      Putting aside the emotions that this topic brings up in football fans, the man was a football pundit and he was factually wrong, over and over, despite the evidence and countless people attempting to correct him. If I do my job wrong, refuse to admit I’m wrong and keep repeating the same mistake, I’m going to get fired too.

  14. David

    April 14, 2014 at 10:42 am

    This article hits the nail on the head for me. Especially the last couple paragraphs.

    WSD was a very important part of my soccer life while attending university. I listened live when I could, and always downloaded the podcast on iTunes when I couldn’t. Was an avid listener and occasional caller from 2007-2009/2010 when it all started to go south.

    It’s a shame his ego got in his own way. The show was great and he had many moments himself, but it all means nothing when you take such a bold (and very incorrect stance) on a very sensitive subject.

    I do miss it still, and it’s sad because i haven’t found a show quite like it since.

    • Robert Hay Jr.

      April 14, 2014 at 11:10 am

      Spot on David. I grew up (in soccer terms) listening to WSD and, even though he was a Chelsea fan, I really enjoyed listening to his opinions. Until this whole thing blew up. Ouch.

      I’ll disagree with one thing though – WST’s podcast has really come into its own and has easily replaced (if not exceeded) the old WSD show.

      • Kobashi

        April 15, 2014 at 8:00 am

        Come on I like the WST pod but it has not surpassed or exceeded the old WFD show.

        The WFD show had live callers, interviews with players, coaches, and media from around the world for 90 minutes to 2 hours and 5 days a week. WFD was the gold standard of US based Soccer radio shows/podcasts.

  15. f4denz

    April 14, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Cohen, hated all things liverpool and he allowed his personal hatred to infect his ability to report the truth. It is sad on both accounts that one would hate a football club with so much venom and that it would somehow cloud his ability to report the truth. It is one thing to state opinions, it is another to use those opinions and pretend they are facts. That is what doomed him, it is a shame because even in 2009 the truth was out there, the reality of what really happened was out there, but he allowed his own vile feeling about Liverpool to cloud his ability to report or even admit the truth, that is what doomed him, his own little mind and his own huge hate.

    • Clampdown

      April 14, 2014 at 10:42 am

      Exactly. Well said.

  16. Cody (#2)

    April 14, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I don’t get what this has to do with Chelsea….?

    • Christopher Harris

      April 14, 2014 at 10:22 am

      He was a hardcore Chelsea fan. The club distanced itself away from Cohen after they were made aware of the things he was saying about Liverpool. Cohen often wore the colors of Chelsea on TV and on radio.

      • Cody (#2)

        April 14, 2014 at 10:42 am

        I see. Is this the guy that used to work with nick geber?

        • Jimmy

          April 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

          Yes, he was on Fox Football FoneIn that was on Fox Sports World/ FSC in the mid 2000s. He also hosted a Radio show call World Football Daily on SiriusXM and Internet. He has lost all of that with his continued stance. Freedom of Speech apparently only goes so far when you have an entire supporters group across multiple continents that forge against you.

          • Clampdown

            April 14, 2014 at 11:33 am

            Yet another person who doesn’t understand the concept of freedom of speech. He has and had freedom of speech. But all speech has consequences and employers have a right to protect their brand and reputation. Cohen was his own enemy. He is entitled to his own opinions, not his own facts.

          • yespage

            April 14, 2014 at 12:26 pm

            He was free to say what he felt. He wasn’t jailed or anything. Freedom of speech is being able to believe what you choose to believe. It has nothing to do with not having to be responsible for the things you say.

        • Christopher Harris

          April 14, 2014 at 11:07 am

          Correct, but Geber distanced himself away from Cohen, and they have no ties between each other anymore.

          • Sheldon Hosten

            April 15, 2014 at 1:15 am

            Nick did not distance himself from Mr. Cohen’s comments until the kitchen got too hot.

            Nick did little to object, the first time Mr. Cohen spewed his calculated non-sense. Unless, I’m mistaken, in fact, he allowed Mr. Cohen to use the “some of my best friends are reds” excuse, to shield him from initial criticism.

      • David

        April 14, 2014 at 10:45 am

        And one other thing that this article doesn’t touch on is that he was offered and took a job working for ESPN. But once these boycott groups got wind of that, the offer quickly disappeared.

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