How English Soccer—an International Disgrace 20 Years Ago—Made the Most Remarkable Turnaround in Sports History

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Sept. 20 2012 1:03 PM

What a Comeback!

Twenty years ago, English soccer was an international disgrace. How it made one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history.

Arsenal's French forward and team captain Thierry Henry during the UEFA Champion's League final match, 17 May 2006.
French national and Arsenal star Thierry Henry played a part in the resurgance of English soccer

Photo by Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images.

It may have gone under the radar in the United States, but one of the most lucrative television deals in the history of professional sports was signed this summer. In June, Rupert Murdoch’s British Sky Broadcasting and British telecom giant BT collectively bid £3 billion, or $4.7 billion, for the rights to broadcast English soccer in the United Kingdom for the next three years.

On a yearly basis, major American networks pay just twice as much to broadcast the NFL in a country that is five times as big. And after the Premier League negotiates international broadcasting rights over the next few months, it should come close to closing the remaining gap. England’s Premier League is now the most profitable soccer league in the world, and one of the most successful sports businesses of any kind.

The Premier League’s economic success is a surprising story, the result of a remarkable and unexpected turnaround. In 1992, when the top flight of English soccer split off from the Football Association’s lower leagues after a contentious contract dispute, English soccer was as much of a national embarrassment as it was a national pastime. By the early 1990s, soccer in England had squandered a century-old history as the most storied sports competition in the world.

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English teams were coming off a 10-year stretch that saw their reputations sink to catastrophic levels both domestically and internationally. In 1985, soccer reached its nadir in the country that invented the sport. Thirty-nine fans of the Italian club Juventus were killed by a collapsing concrete wall at Heysel Stadium during a European Cup match in Belgium following clashes instigated by supporters of Liverpool. After Heysel, English clubs were banned from competing in Europe indefinitely, a suspension that ended up lasting five seasons. That same year also saw one of the worst soccer riots in history between supporters of Millwall and Luton back in the U.K.

In addition to historic bouts of hooliganism, British soccer had to contend with dangerously deteriorating stadiums from the Victorian era. Just weeks before the tragic events at Heysel and just two months after the Millwall-Luton clashes, a horrific stadium fire at Bradford City resulted in 56 deaths.

By the end of the 1980s, English soccer was defined not by the achievements of the players, but by the violent reputations of the game’s fans and by stadium disasters. Margaret Thatcher’s government, notoriously antagonistic to the traditionally working-class sport, had started to treat soccer as a law-and-order issue and was clamoring for legislation that would require fans to show identification cards in order to attend games.

On April 15, 1989 the sport hit a new low point at an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest at Hillsborough Stadium. Because of traffic jams on the road from Liverpool to Sheffield, streams of Liverpool fans arrived late to the game. Hillsborough Stadium did not have enough stewards to manage the rush of fans. Thousands of Liverpool supporters were hurried though gates into overcrowded standing-room terraces that were then typical of English football stadiums. Once those terraces were well beyond capacity, the fans were sent into holding “pens.” The pens quickly became dangerously packed as the rush of fans continued.

Eventually, protective barriers between the fans gave way and scores of people were pressed against each other, causing a fatal “crush.” Ninety-six people lost their lives, many dying from asphyxiation.

Top police and political officials attempted to scapegoat Liverpool supporters. Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid the Sun, citing false reports from anonymous sources in the South Yorkshire Police force and Parliament, claimed that Liverpool fans had robbed the dead, urinated on them, and prevented police and emergency services from doing their jobs.

“Initially, when all the Liverpool fans were blamed for having caused this there was a credibility to that because of the decade we had,” says Ian Ridley, author of There's a Golden Sky: How Twenty Years of the Premier League has Changed Football Forever.

(Only last week did the full truth come out, when the findings of a three-year long inquest into the Hillsborough tragedy were released. Not only did it definitively conclude that Liverpool supporters were not responsible for the deaths, it blamed the police for attempting to cover up their own faults by altering 146 police statements after the fact. Most disturbingly, police covered up the fact that some 41 lives could have been saved had the emergency response been swifter. In a speech before Parliament, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron apologized to the family members of the Hillsborough victims.)