On April 15, 1989, a FA Cup semi-finals match was set to be played at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Of course, anyone who is familiar with what happened that day knows the match itself was just a backdrop to one of the most tragic incidents in the history of soccer and sports in general. As portions of the stadium became so overcrowded, spectators were literally crushed to death. The final toll: 96 killed and another 766 injured.
On the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough incident, ESPN released a 30 for 30 documentary that takes a deep dive into explaining the events leading up to the disaster and the understanding the aftermath of the incident, a still-continuing denouement that has spanned the last few decades and lingers on today.
The first half of the two-hour film explains the how, the sequence of events that led up to the overcrowding of the stadium, and an examination of how the authorities governing the match quickly lost control of the situation, and how unprepared — at times even paralyzing, especially as the scene at the stadium descended into chaos when people started to die on the pitch — the entire police department was to handle this emergency state.
Even without prior knowledge to the specifics of the Hillsborough disaster, seeing the camera footage — a time lapse descent from seeing boisterous soccer crowd congregating for an important soccer match to just absolute fear and horror as the stadium continued to overcrowd — capture every step leading up to the disaster created this empty feeling of inevitability, a true stomach punch for the viewers, as we’re left to feel just powerless as those at the stadium.
But, even more disturbing than all of this, it is the second half of the film — an examination of the aftermath, and a shift in the narrative towards assigning blame and understanding who was responsible for the deaths of these fans — where the true terror of the Hillsborough story reveals itself.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the emerging narrative was that drunken Liverpool fans forced themselves into the stadium (truth: the turnstiles where these “excess” fans entered through was ordered to be opened by police chief David Duckenfield himself) and essentially caused the pile-up and deaths that resulted from the human crush. The assigning of blame was aided by this front page cover from The Sun.
Even more disturbing was the fact that the coroner overseeing the incident ordered the blood-alcohol level of the victims (note: some of these victims were children) to be tested, so, one assumes, to find another easier explanation to explaining their deaths. To confirm the existence of a cover-up, it was eventual discovered that the statements of police officers at the stadium were hand-written, then vetted and edited before being typed up and submitted as official statements.
It would take until 2012 before an independent panel released a detailed report on Hillsborough, and as of several weeks ago, there were new inquests into understanding the full extent of what happened that day and its aftermath.
The impact of Hillsborough remains 25 years later, from those who continue to mourn the loved ones that they lost so suddenly, to spectators who were there and survived but struggle to put aside the horror they saw, to the people who are still fighting today for closure and understanding of the truth, the lies and the cover-ups that occurred after the incident.
There are, of course, various lessons to be learned from what happened at Hillsborough: on crowd control, on having contingency plans in case of emergency, on recognizing the limitations of stadium infrastructures and all the other takeaways that can surely be applied to not just sporting events, but any event where a congregation of people can become a danger.
But the more frightening thing — and perhaps scariest because it is not surprising at all — is how the incident revealed a failure in institutional control, and the growing mistrust between the civilian crowd and the higher-ups who were supposed to serve and protect them. Which, unfortunately, is a prevailing theme with a whole lot of things in society, then and now.