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Ninety-Six People Were Crushed to Death at a Soccer Game in 1989

The sport was changed forever

Bob Thomas/Getty Images

If you write about the things put up on screens, people often ask what you are looking forward to. The Cannes Festival will soon begin, and there is plenty there I want to see—Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman for one (he’s a gentler director than he is an actor), Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (with Timothy Spall as the painter), and new films by Cronenberg and Godard. But the screen event that I anticipate with most desire and dread will occur on Sunday, July 13, and it will come live from Rio de Janeiro. That afternoon two nations will contest the final of soccer’s World Cup. The international audience will be at apocalypse levels—a billion viewers. The action is as yet unspecified. Two teams have to be standing that last day. I’ll take Brazil and England, though the odds on one are much better than on the other.

But that won’t be a movie, you say. Why not? It is on a screen; it will be about two hours long; it will be by turns beautiful, desperate, glorious, tragic (especially if England is there). What more do you want? And it will be live. If you were to ask me today whether tonight I want to see the lost Orson Welles version of The Magnificent Ambersons (about 138 minutes) or Liverpool v. Chelsea, I’ll take the game because it’s live. What more do you want? Welles can wait—as he has done for seventy-two years.

Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Desperate fans in the pens at Hillsborough Statdium, April 15, 1989.

Yes, this is a review, and it does involve a movie. On April 13, to open a series of sports documentaries, ESPN (one of our last great studios) played Daniel Gordon’s picture, Hillsborough. It was the most moving film I have seen this year.

Hillsborough is in Sheffield in England. There is a soccer ground there where Sheffield Wednesday play. On April 15, 1989, it was the venue for a semi-final match in the English Cup competition. The game was between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and it was stopped after six minutes. At one end of the ground, where there was provision for standing-room spectators, the police, alarmed by the size of the crowd, had opened an external gate that allowed people to push into the ground and onto the terraces. It was the end of the ground reserved for Liverpool supporters, because soccer by then was trying to separate rival fans for fear of violence. Some of the Liverpool fans had no tickets. I daresay some had been drinking. I can believe that many of them were young men, unemployed, using their benefit money to make the trip to Sheffield.

Too many people got into the areas that the police called pens. There was surging enough to lift people off their feet. Metal barriers crumpled. Ninety-six people would die that day or thereafter from the crushing pressure. Fans spilled onto the pitch and many police stood by helpless: there were no cutters to break the chain-link fencing, no ladders, so that people could have been freed. There was little in the way of immediate medical care. The game was stopped. A disaster was occurring in front of the BBC television cameras covering the game. Within minutes, the police were putting out a story that fans had broken through the outer gates, that they had been drunken beasts. Days later parts of the British press claimed that some Liverpool fans stole money from the bodies of the dead and urinated on the police.

If you want to get a quick lesson in class and malice in Britain, you should see Daniel Gordon’s Hillsborough. It is a fine film that will lead you to tears and fury—but with such material what else are you going to make? Disaster is the unending subject for documentary. Gordon had the BBC footage. He interviewed survivors and relatives, and there is a modest amount of judicious recreation. I believe the result is impeccable and tragic.

Have you ever been in a crush of human beings? When I was ten or so, my father would take me to see Chelsea in crowds of 60,000 or so. We stood on the terraces, and because I was a boy, we got taken to the front (which is the best view and the most dangerous spot). Sometimes the crowd moved like a sea and my father stood at my back to guard me. At the exits, after the game, he held us back. Those bottlenecks were the worst places. But I can recall being in a crush with men in coats hanging over me, and the air of tobacco and booze and unwashed clothes was thick as soup. And there was another smell: dog-shit. At Chelsea there was dog-racing in the evening and the dogs were in the kennels howling at all the stir. It was a kind of hell, but we hated to miss a game. Still, I understand the sheer, mindless force there is in crowds. History has depended on it.

Two days before Hillsborough was shown, the HD cameras were at Anfield (the home of Liverpool) for a crucial game, Liverpool v. Manchester City. It proved to be a great game in fierce sunlight, 3-2 to Liverpool, with high speed, flashy goals, and at least two flamboyant stars—David Silva and Luis Suárez. But that was only after the piercing anniversary moments before the game. There were ninety-six empty seats in a block; in one whole stand people held placards to make a huge memorial to the lost; and there still was fury, because in the course of investigation, the iniquity of that day has not been resolved yet. No one has ever been charged. This is England, where a sense of history can mean dragging your feet until power and privilege escape. The present captain of Liverpool, Steven Gerrard (he will probably captain England in Brazil), had a cousin who was killed at Hillsborough in 1989. In those days soccer was a family affair. Few were players, but relatives went to the game and had supported the team for generations.

There were commissions of inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, and within a year it was clear where the blame rested. Recommendations were made and acted on, whereby all major grounds in Britain went over to a policy of having everyone at the ground with a ticket and in a seat, since we are more belligerent and vulnerable when standing up. This was plainly a sensible and humane measure. But it brought problems. The capacity of every ground was drastically reduced, and rebuilding had to be done: Hillsborough had a record attendance of 72,000 once, but it is now limited to 40,000. So those seats went up in value. That accompanied the way satellite television (or Rupert Murdoch) took over game coverage and top-class foreign players were able to play in the Premier League. This has made soccer a dazzling entertainment, but it has killed the game as a working-class art. You have to pay around $100 now for a ticket at Chelsea, if you can find a ticket. That club is owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, and Liverpool is part of the Fenway Sports Group, the people behind the Boston Red Sox. I don’t think English money could any longer support the great game, just as English fans are less able to see it.

The game has slipped from being live and local to being a screened event. In this respect, the World Cup in Brazil will be a striking occasion. By modern international consent, Brazil is the home of soccer. The country has won five Cups in fifty years of playing attractive soccer. We still picture kids like Pelé learning the game in Rio’s back streets, and we delight in the pulse of samba music and dancing women at the games. People will say “soccer is like a religion in Brazil.” But it is more important than that: the spirituality has made its decisive trip and turned to money. Brazilian kids are bought and sold for prodigious sums: Neymar was sold to Barcelona for eighty-six million euros. Brazil has invested $3.5 billion in its televisual infrastructure for the Cup that might have gone to so many more deserving, less visible things. Yet again, the working class is being wiped away.

Beware. The energies and the resentment that were the working class do not vanish politely. It may not be a religion, but there are people for whom soccer is the most vivid thing in life. If I were a leading figure in Brazil today I would be anxious to see the boys in yellow and green do well this July. Except that doing well is not enough: they must win. If not, the dismay at loss can be spread around. There will be upheavals to come in our world that start in soccer stadia. It is another reason to be watching. 

David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition (Knopf).