Twenty-five years ago today, 96 soccer fans were crushed to death in the overcrowded stands at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. Just two weeks ago, a British coroner’s court finally opened a public inquiry to determine the cause of those deaths. This new ESPN documentary is the story of what happened that day, and in the 25 years since.
Hillsborough remains the worst stadium disaster in soccer history, and an iconic event in modern British cultural history. It brought an end to standing sections in stadiums, and to the cage-like fences that used to surround the playing fields. It also helped usher in the new era of the English Premier League, with its huge sponsorship money and global marketing reach. But for the victims, their families and friends, and others who were there that day or watching the horror unfold on TV, it remains an open wound and an unsettled score, even after several public inquiries and reports by blue ribbon panels.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that Hillsborough debuts tonight on ESPN, on the 25th anniversary of the incident itself, which occurred on April 15, 1989, during an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Nor is it coincidence that it comes out just after a new official inquest into the matter began. That inquiry (being heard by the Queen’s Coroner Lord Justice Goldring, along with an 11-person jury, and expected to last a year) was convened to hear the same new evidence of police and official malfeasance, and later coverup, that director Daniel Gordon lays out in his film.
(In fact, Her Majesty’s legal system is so concerned about the accusations that the review copy of the film came with a rather stern and daunting note entitled: “To all media outlets: DO NOT PUBLISH IN THE UK … If anything on this matter is capable of being viewed in the UK, including by way of online commentary or social networking sites, you can be held in contempt of court.” See the full text below, but meanwhile, again, if you’re reading this in the UK, STOP NOW. Non-Brits may read on.)
From the start, even as people were still being pulled out of the stands, official blame for the disaster was placed on liquored-up Liverpool fans who forced their way past police and into the already full standing-room area, mashing people up against the high steel barricades that surrounded the field. That was the story that played out in the media, and it’s been the official story for much of the past 25 years. But there’s little eyewitness or video evidence of actual fan violence. And from fairly early on, it was clear that police had no working plans for either crowd control or emergency management, and that failures in command control and on-site communication had led to a critical mistake: a decision to open a gate that funnelled more people into the crowded central stands, instead of dispersing them into the rest of the grounds.
That much has been known for years. What’s new here are some very moving interviews – both with survivors of the crush, and with policemen who were on duty that day, some of them speaking in public for the first time – plus painstakingly reconstructed evidence that police reports critical of the preparations were edited and rewritten by supervisors without the officers’ knowledge, before being entered into the official testimony.
Director Daniel Gordon is a Sheffield native, and a football fan. He’s previously directed several BBC documentaries, plus the 30 for 30 movie 9.79*, about Ben Johnson and his drug-tainted world record at the men's 100-meter final at the 1988 Olympics.
Hillsborough is the first film in the “30 for 30: Soccer Stories” series which will air on ESPN leading up to the 2014 World Cup in June and July (which will be, also not coincidentally, on the ESPN networks). The remainder of the series consists of six 30-minute shorts, shown as a double-feature, plus one more feature film:
Tuesday, April 15, 7pm
Tuesday, April 22, 6pm
Maradona '86: In the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona reached his apotheosis, redefining what is possible on the pitch.
The Opposition: Politics changed the outcome of a World Cup qualifier between the Soviet Union and Chile in 1973.
Tuesday, April 29, 6pm
The Myth of Garrincha: Mané Garrincha was told he wasn't physically fit to play pro soccer. He proved them wrong.
Ceasefire Massacre: In 1994, as Ireland played in a World Cup match in New Jersey, terrorists attacked fans at a tiny bar in Ireland.
Tuesday, May 6, 6pm
Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy: Ottorino Barassi, an Italian soccer official, tries to protect a valued treasure from the Nazis.
Barbosa: The Man who Made Brazil Cry: In only moments, Uruguay goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa forever earned the title: The man who made Brazil cry.
Tuesday, July 1, 7pm
White, Blue and White: Ossie Ardiles left Argentina to play soccer in England. Then, on April 2, 1982, Argentinian troops descended on the British-ruled Falkland Islands.
Note: ESPN sent a review copy of this film, but enclosed the following notice with the DVD:
To all media outlets: DO NOT PUBLISH IN THE UK
We have received the following notices from the courts in the United Kingdom. We advise you to take precautions and speak to your legal counsel before publishing anything on the Hillsborough Film. If anything on this matter is capable of being viewed in the UK, including by way of online commentary or social networking sites, you can be held in contempt of court.
The inquests into the deaths of the 96 people who died as a result of the events at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 are due to begin on 31 March 2014. [They did in fact begin then.]
The inquests will be heard by a Coroner (Lord Justice Goldring) together with a jury.
Editors, publishers and social media users should note that the inquest proceedings are currently active for the purposes of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
The Attorney General wishes to draw attention to the risk of publishing material, including online, which could create a substantial risk that the course of justice in the inquests may be seriously impeded or prejudiced, particularly as this inquest involves a jury. This risk could arise by commentary which may prejudge issues that witnesses may give evidence about, or matters that the jury will need to consider in reaching their verdict. The inquests could also be prejudiced by publishing details of material (whatever its source) which may not form part of the evidence at the inquest.
The Attorney General’s Office will be monitoring the coverage of these proceedings.
Editors, publishers and social media users should take legal advice to ensure they are in a position to fully comply with the obligations they are subject to under the Contempt of Court Act.They are also reminded of the advisory note issued by Lord Justice Goldring on 11 February 2014.
The Coroner has the power to refer anything published to the Attorney General if, in his view, it may amount to a contempt of court.
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