History of Soccer Week 6: Readings and videos on the World Cup, old stadiums and modern soccer

A few short readings in advance of our final class. Not compulsory, of course!

First, George Vecsey of The New York Times was covering international soccer long before it became cool in this country. He’s sort of a columnist emeritus now, and he recently wrote a nice reminiscence of attending his first World Cup in 1982, which was won by Italy but is best remembered for the brilliant Brazil squad led by a midfielder called Sócrates.

The World Cup should be a blast this summer, but as you’ve no doubt heard, they are behind schedule on stadium construction, and there have been many public protests. Even Péle is getting angry.

A third column, also from the Times, prompts me to put down some thoughts about stadium safety and how it relates to the changing demographics of soccer fan base. This is a guest column by a Italian journalist named Beppe Severgnini, in which the Corriere della Sera columnist describes and condemns the hooliganism that plagues Italian football matches today. Hooliganism is unquestionably a problem there, and I’m in agreement with Severgnini’s prescription to rid stadiums of riot police and barbed wire.

However, I’m struck by several things about his argument. First of all, there’s his sniffy description of “Genny the Swine,” the leader of the Napoli ultras, complete with an unsubstantiated allegation of mob ties (I mean, come on… you can say that about almost anyone in public life in Naples).

Second, notice this passage:

It’s madness, and it’s been going on for 30 years. In 1985, just before the beginning of the European Cup final between Italy’s Juventus and Britain’s Liverpool at the Heysel stadium in Belgium, 39 fans were crushed to death during a stampede. In 1989, 93 fans were killed at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, England. The British government decided it was time to step in with seating-only stadiums and zero tolerance for hooligans. It worked, and the Premier League is now a major money-spinning machine watched all over the world.

The author’s linkage of these two stadium disasters is blithely misleading. The first disaster, at Heysel, was first and foremost an atrocity of fan misbehavior, as well as of operational incompetence. Liverpool’s supporters shouldered most of the blame, and as a result, English clubs were banned from European competition for five years (and Liverpool was banned for six). Here’s video

Amazingly, there was another, even worse stadium disaster that same month, in Bradford, England. Eighteen days before Heysel, the main stand of Bradford City’s Valley Parade caught fire and burned completely in a matter of minutes. In this case, the culprit was neglect. The stand was an ancient wooden one, and the club had been warned repeatedly that the accumulation of trash underneath constituted a dangerous fire hazard. The plan was to demolish and rebuild following this last game of the season. Instead, 56 people died. Here’s the video.

The toll at Valley Parade would have been much higher if the stadium had contained perimeter fencing to prevent fans from invading the pitch. That’s exactly what existed four years later at Hillsborough, the home ground of Sheffield Wednesday. The 1989 Hillsborough disaster was a catastrophic meeting of operational incompetence and a decaying stadium that kept fans confined between metal fences, concrete and barbed wire. It had nothing to do with hooliganism, but in the ensuing coverup by the South Yorkshire police and other authorities, the fans themselves were blamed for the disaster. (This scapegoating was made easier because the 96—not 93, as Severgnini writes—casualties were Liverpool fans.)

ESPN recently broadcast a documentary about Hillsborough. It’s now available on YouTube. (Two other new ESPN docs, one about Garrincha, the great and tragic dribbler, and one about Barbosa, the unfortunate and tragic goalkeeper for the 1950 Brazilian team, were also briefly on YouTube before being taken down.)

The Hillsborough disaster prompted a series of reforms set out in what is known as the Taylor Report. He recommended that the sinister confinement strategies such as perimeter fencing, pens and barbed wire be abolished. One of the most controversial recommendations was to do away with the standing areas known as terraces. This was the heart of fan culture, where the tickets were cheapest and the fans sang the loudest.

This is some 1970 footage of Liverpool’s Kop end, the section of the Anfield stadium that contains its most passionate fans (on television, the Kop End is on the left-hand side of the screen). Many stands in England are called the Kop, but the famous one is at Anfield, where the official name is Spion Kop, the site of a hill in South Africa where many Liverpudlians lost their lives in the Boer War. In the footage, notice how young the crowd is (although it’s mostly male, you can pick out the odd woman).

In 1994, Liverpool played its last game before the Kop, before the terraces were replaced with seats. Here’s video of that occasion (from an entire BBC documentary about the Kop). When the terraces were removed, the seating capacity of the entire stadium dropped from over 60,000 to about 40,000. The team made up the difference by raising prices.

In a 2012 essay for London Review of Books, David Conn, author of Richer Than God, which I excerpted a few weeks ago, argued that the Hillsborough disaster was exploited to price out the young and the working class. Football was subsequently taken upmarket with the creation of the Premier League in 1992.

Lord Justice Taylor’s official report in the wake of Hillsborough documented a class-divided sport, the directors helping themselves to the boardroom buffet while young fans died on the terraces. Taylor recommended that run-down grounds be modernised and terraces replaced with seats (the latter change was applied only in the top two divisions). His verdict was damning – ‘old grounds, poor facilities, hooliganism, excessive drinking and poor leadership’ – yet ‘despite those features which disfigure football today and the decline in attendances from the peak years,’ he observed, ‘the game still commands massive public support and interest.’

By requiring the clubs to treat supporters not as hooligans to be penned into fenced enclosures, but in the way that a modern business treats its customers, the Taylor Report played its part in the transformation of English football into today’s pricy, seated, box-office entertainment. But football’s popularity was increasing even at the time of Hillsborough, as Taylor himself noted. Just a few months after his report was published, before a single ground had been improved or the Premier League proposed, a television audience of 22 million watched England play Germany in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup. Soon after that, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, a tender account of his lifelong support for Arsenal, was published; a host of writers and journalists emerged from the closet, having been furtive fans all along. Far from stigmatising the game, the media began to glorify it, and football’s image, if not yet its stadiums or administration, was rehabilitated.

Today, the tendency among non-Brits is to celebrate the achievements of the English Premier League without sufficiently appreciating how much of the spirit of the old game has been lost. To such commentators as Severgnini in the Times, the Premier League is a victory for soccer, a “major money-spinning machine” that Italy should emulate.

But in the view of old-timers, the problem of hooliganism and the existence of standing sections were separate issues that were intentionally conflated, as Severgnini does in his opinion piece. Hooliganism was used as an excuse to abolish the terraces and introduce higher-priced seated sections. (See the comment to Conn’s column left by Iain Mackintosh.)

In the 1970s and 1980s, ticket prices for the terraces were often less than a pound. That’s why there are so many young people in those sections. One football fan in the 1970s was Nick Hornby, who supported Arsenal. Hornby’s book, Fever Pitch, contains the following account of how easy it was for a child to be a fan:

It is stupid and unforgivably fogeyish to contemplate the prices in 1970, but I’m going to anyway: a return to Paddington cost 30p for a child; the return fare from Paddington to Arsenal on the tube was 10p; and admission to the ground was 15p (25p for adults). Even if you bought a programme it was possible to travel thirty miles and watch a First Division football match for less than 60p. […] If I were twenty years younger, I wouldn’t be an Arsenal supporter in twenty years’ time: it is not possible for most kids to find ten or fifteen quid every other Saturday, and if I had been unable to go regularly in my early teens then it is unlikely that my interest would have sustained.” —Fever Pitch, p. 30

Hornby wrote these words in the early-1990s. His book helped fueled the booming popularity of the Premier League, including among Americans. Today, the cheapest seats start around £30.

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