A couple of months before I was born, one of football’s most profound tragedies took place across the channel. Heysel’s crumbling concrete terraces were no match for the deathly charge of hundreds of intoxicated – and some say provoked – Liverpool fans as 39 met their death and around 600 were left injured. That the game was played anyway under UEFA’s fear of further violence if the match was cancelled was telling of their complete lack of confidence in policing, but also of their moral vacuum.
Eyewitnesses told of “bodies piled high being kicked”, and yet a game of football took place anyway. I mean you have to be a special brand of fucking soulless pricks to try and save further face while corpses lay nearby. It would be naive in the extreme to absolve the English fans from blame, but cowardly to pretend they were not at least partly a product of a society and time that demonised them.
For well over half a century football had been drawing six-figure crowds for its biggest spectacles. Large-scale events were hardly a new phenomenon, but it wasn’t even the size of crowds that specifically precipitated most disasters.
Three years earlier in Moscow, hundreds of a meagre 15,000 crowd had been crushed on the icy steps of the Luzhniki after rushing back to celebrate a late Spartak Moscow goal. Exits were reportedly still locked, while police refused to let fans back into the stands, leaving many to be crushed to horrific deaths. The Soviet authorities covered up the tragedy almost completely for years.
We could be here all day recounting all of the chilling tragedies that occurred in stadia. While I don’t wish to downplay any of them, for the purposes of venting my spleen I want to focus on the environment and society that spawned them.
The same year of the Luzhniki disaster, Margaret Thatcher saved her political skin by launching a war to save the Falkland Islands’ independence. She had been on her knees after decimating whole communities with her strict taxation policies and cuts in spending on housing and industry. Her relationship with football was, to say the least, frosty.
Rabid animals would have been an upgrade on the Iron Lady’s opinion of the terrace masses. As such, she treated them accordingly by caging them into pens filled with piss, weeds and little humanity. It was a chicken and egg situation; she blamed them for behaving violently, while conveniently ignoring the pressures her policies had placed on working classes in the first place.
Policing took even longer to catch up than English football did to continental tactics. Xenophobia and violence were not a construct of drunken flared slack-wearing good-for-nothings. Amidst horrific unemployment rates, institutionalised racism and an elitist atmosphere from the government, was it any surprise the old bill bluntly bludgeoned ahead with an outdated ignorance?
In today’s sanitised marketing product, the nearest fans get to being unfairly treated is by the TV schedule. Wolves vs Manchester United in the FA Cup will kick off at 19:55 on a Saturday night, for example, leaving thousands precious little room for manoeuvre to get home. When it comes to their behaviour though, they have swung the pendulum all the way back from being victims to victimising everyone under the sun.
The enclosed atmosphere of a football stadium is, and has been throughout much of history, the only place where people have consistently been able to gather en masse to show whatever emotions or opinions they so desire. OK, perhaps the largest stadium in the world is a slight exception, but then again the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang is not located in the most, ahem, liberated corner of the planet.
The problem with football fans nowadays is that they latch onto mass opinions and self-opinionated standards. The freedom of the stands has become an abuse of the beautiful game. Profanities, racism, discrimination and worse erupt, while the slightest suggestion that they might not be acceptable is met with furious indignation. “Freedom of speech mate,” the bone-headed entitled tossers will say.
It should come as little surprise that hate preacher Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has leeched off the mass appeal of football to vomit out his vile opinions. Unfortunately, it is also hardly shocking that he has been met with acceptance among football fans.
So here’s the crux: to what degree should the fans be held responsible for their violent, bigoted actions? Is it not too short-sighted to simply look at the ugly results and castigate them? While terrace violence is a far more contained plague nowadays, the knock-on effects from decades past are still being felt. The intense gentrification of football stands may have changed the appearance of the average football fan. The deep core is arguably worse.