Soccer Under Thatcher: Violence, Tragedy and Transformation

04/16/2013 04:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

"We really must eradicate the blot on our reputation," said Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died last week. The Iron Lady was referring to English soccer hooligans as if they were enemies of the state.

Stitch the sociology pattern. The Iron Lady ripped up Britain's post-war social contract while serving as British prime minister from 1979-1990. The country was sharply divided ideologically and regionally. Left wing trade unions were crushed, industry privatized, capital unleashed, the dole was as popular as pop music. Add the drums of class war -- Margaret Thatcher was the ultimate class warrior, divide and rule. Her legacy was violence, and soccer was on the frontline.

Up until this period, British football existed as a sort of craft industry. Businessmen owned clubs and sponsorship of teams was somewhat local. This was an age when advertizing boards gave out the neighborhood plumber's number instead of messages from today's global corporations. Profits depended on working class folks going to games in droves on Saturday afternoon, just as their forefathers had done.

Stadiums had some seats but most fans stood on terracing. It was cheaper. Amenities were basic or poor. Huge crowds made the atmosphere intense. Occasionally, trouble flared between rival supporters. By the middle of the Thatcher era, hooliganism was ablaze.

Thatcher's neoliberal mantra of individualism and monetary success unleashed forces that provoked a new type of identity and social gap -- wider than the one you might fall under when stepping off a Tube train in London. Mind it!

Soccer went under. English soccer clubs were banned from playing in Europe after the Heysel Stadium disaster in Belgium in 1985, when poor crowd control resulted in a stadium riot between Liverpool and Juventus supporters leaving 39 people dead.

Scenes of chaos inside and around English soccer stadiums seemed to be front-page news every week. Fences went up inside stadiums to keep fans off the field -- they called them "pens" -- a place for "animals" -- a term used by the pro-Thatcher tabloid media when describing hooligans.

The debasing of supporters climaxed in the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 when 96 people were crushed to death in a pen at a stadium in Sheffield, England. The Thatcher government promoted the police's false version of events -- drunk, ticketless fans surging into the stadium were to blame. Thatcher's media allies attacked the supporters with hateful headlines. It was all lies, a massive coverup of policing failure. And it conveniently served as a platform for the plans to finally "eradicate the blot" and change English soccer forever.

New rules forced clubs to build-all seated stadiums. Police intelligence units infiltrated hooligan mobs. Banning orders for troublemakers rocketed. Ticket prices went up, working class fans could no longer afford games every week. The soccer experience shifted to a new consumerist paradigm, a model Thatcher could endorse -- a huge expansion of television coverage and major corporate sponsorship combined with a new free market for player talent. Soccer got rich. The game developed as a sofa sport for millions, atomized, no longer a regular broad stroke of working class cohesion. Score another one for class warrior Thatcher.

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