On a fateful April afternoon back in 1989, something really tragic transpired at a football game. Something which would haunt a club and its supporters for years to come. And while time may heal all wounds, the void would never be filled.
Liverpool were to take on Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semifinal at Hilsboro in what was a repeat of last year’s fixture and venue. Close to 3PM, the kickoff time, there was a surge and rush among Liverpool fans wanting to enter the stands (a lot of which in those days used to have standing terraces unlike the all seater stadiums that you see today) and the police exacerbated the bottleneck by refusing to open a key exit which resulted in a large number of fans getting cornered into small, cramped places that resulted in a crowd crush. The resulting asphyxiation ended up claiming 96 lives in what is one of the worst recorded football tragedies of the modern era. Initial reports pinned the blame on unruly spectators and football ‘hooliganism’ but there have been serious questions raised on the official version of events and about a week ago, the British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a public apology to the victims of the ‘Hilsboro Disaster’ and their families who have been fighting for justice.
The simple reason something like this happened was the fact that crowd control took precedence over crowd safety. And in any sport, the fans and the paying public deserve the utmost respect to be shown for their safety and well being. The Hilsboro episode remains particularly painful because of the shirking of moral responsibility by the police to own up to causing the disaster and even the emergency services who were sluggish in their response that black afternoon. And the quiet resolve of the families and help groups fighting for the cause of justice for those 96 innocent souls who perished more than two decades ago is a constant reminder of just how important fan safety is.
The tragedy did bring in important changes. The Taylor Report filed after the incident led to standing terraces being abolished and clubs were compelled to convert their stadiums into all seater fan friendly enclosures that put the pleasure back in watching the game and made safety more certain. Not surprisingly, attendance figures rose immediately.
Worryingly it doesn’t seem to be a concern here in India, where our main spectator sport, cricket, attracts huge crowds at large venues. I remember my uncle talking about his first time at an international cricket match – an encounter between India and Sri Lanka at Guwahati in the mid 1980s – where the sanitation facilities were so poor at the Nehru Stadium that they had to worry about ‘urine bombs’-people in the upper tiers just relieving themselves in a polythene packet and throwing it down below. Perhaps it’s a far cry in terms of time but we haven’t gone too far ahead in terms of spectator safety and comfort.
I was witness to an ugly sight myself in 2008 at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore during an India v Australia test match. Below the BEML stand (where we were sitting) which is beside the giant electronic scoreboard, there was a man who suddenly went into what looked like an epileptic fit and fell down near the fence that separates the stands from the turf. Immediately a few fans rushed to his aid and realizing he needed medical help called out for some assistance. Shockingly, the stadium staff looked quite clueless as to who to call on and the security guys stationed out there seemed indifferent, if not willfully oblivious, to the man’s pain. How different were they then from the Yorkshire policemen that spring afternoon in Hilsboro?
Finally, the fans who had rushed to the man’s aid carried him themselves to the nearest medical center. In contrast, when I visited Paris and decided to take a tour of the Stad De France, they categorically showed us how arrangements are avaibale during every matchday to airlift the injured – whether players or fans. And there was a case of an elderly gentleman who came to watch a game but suffered a heart attack before the match kicked off. He was airlifted and the quick assistance saved his life though, sadly, he missed the game. A week later his wife wrote to the Stad De France, not to express gratitude but ask for a refund for the ticket! But that shows how normal the expectations of such facilities are from a fan’s point of view. They perhaps consider it their right and the administrators are morally obligated to provide it to them. My live sports viewing experience thus far in India unfortunately tells me the opposite. And if we are to become a better sporting nation, we shouldn’t be waiting for our Hilsboro to happen before we take action.