What a Comeback!
Twenty years ago, English soccer was an international disgrace. How it made one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history.
In the early 1990s, the Hillsborough tragedy came to be seen as the culmination of a disastrous era for the sport. “Hillsborough was almost the logical conclusion of that whole decade when it came to football,” Ridley told me. “Football was on its knees basically.”
Out of this darkness, English soccer could have gone in one of two directions. The political class could have accepted the false narrative of Hillsborough as proof that England’s soccer fans were hopeless and that the sport was beyond salvation. The government could have gone full-steam ahead with Thatcher’s ID law. This would have alienated the sport’s existing fan base, while reinforcing the stigma that soccer was a sport for poor, drunken thugs.
But instead, three things happened that changed the course of English soccer—and ultimately the international sporting order—forever.
First, the government commissioned Lord Peter Taylor to conduct the initial inquiry into the cause of the Hillsborough disaster. Though he didn’t reach the sweeping conclusions of police ineptitude and conspiracy that this month’s report revealed, Taylor did determine that Liverpool fans were not at fault. The lax crowd-control methods of the police and poor stadium conditions were cited as the reasons for the catastrophe, and Taylor listed several recommended correctives. Principally, he advised that England’s major stadiums be converted to “all-seater” facilities, with the removal of standing-room terraces. This recommendation was implemented by the top two divisions of English football over the course of the next 10 years.
“Lord Justice Taylor is one of the great unsung heroes of English football and society in general,” Ridley said. “All his recommendations on seating, while they were expensive, they certainly paved the way for a new mood around football whereby fans were no longer herded like cattle.”
The move away from terraces had the unfortunate effect of pricing poorer fans out of stadiums. But it’s difficult to quibble with the safety results—there have not been any deaths as the result of soccer stadium conditions in the United Kingdom since the Taylor recommendations were implemented, and incidences of hooliganism have decreased significantly.
The second change in the wake of Hillsborough had to do with the actual product of English soccer on the field. At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, England’s early matches were marred by the typical rioting, arrests, and deportations of English fans, as well as a slow start to the tournament by a team that barely eked into the second round.
“There was a bad taste about football in England, a horrible taste,” Paul Parker, a starting defender on the 1990 England team, told me during an interview two years ago. “People didn’t want to be involved in it,” he added, recalling the standing of the sport heading into the 1990 World Cup.
But the knockout phase of the competition produced some of the greatest sporting drama the nation had ever seen. First, David Platt scored a stunning volley in the 119th minute of the team’s opening knockout match to claim a 1-0 victory for England over Belgium at the last possible moment of extra time. Then England repeated this seemingly miraculous performance with a shocking come-from-behind 3-2 win over Cameroon. Again, the decisive goal came in a thrilling period of extra time.
England ultimately lost the semifinal match with arch-rivals Germany in a penalty shootout, but it remains one of the most memorable soccer games the nation has ever played. The team was also rewarded with the fair-play trophy for its record of sportsmanship, a fact that Parker believed gave an added shine to the achievement.
The squad returned home conquering heroes rather than social pariahs. A flock of 250,000 jubilant fans greeted their arrival. “It looked like the Beatles were being knighted when we turned up at the airport,” Parker remembered.
“There was a wave of optimism and euphoria,” author Ian Ridley told me. “I don’t think we were fooled that English football was in great shape, [but] it allowed people to cast off a bit of the gloom and create a bit more of a climate where people thought, ‘well, how do we capitalize on this improvement?’ ”
All of this led to the final, and perhaps most critical step in the nation’s soccer revival: The creation of the Premier League in 1992. Just a few months after the end of the World Cup, the heads of the five biggest English clubs met with the director of ITV’s sports coverage to map a new course for the sport. For decades the top league had shared broadcasting revenue and negotiated rights jointly with the country’s lower divisions, the equivalent of the sport’s minor leagues.
Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter.