Yes, like the rest of the blogosphere I have to note Maggie Thatcher passing away yesterday. But only for reasons strictly tied football. This is not some post to memorialize her or contribute to the hagiography of Saint Margret. Nope just to point out the rather conflicted history she has not only in England, but in English football.
Her legacy in sport largely derives from her being the PM during one of the most troubled periods of English football – the 1980s. In some part this problem was created long before her. England did not build a stadium between 1952 and the end of the 1980s, so the sport faced crumbling infrastructure – much like the rest of the country. Hooliganism first took off in the 1960s, so that wasn’t new either, but put that together with the run down stadia, and broader social unrest (which she did have a hand in) and you can see why the 1980s were the low point for English soccer fans.
Her critical moments in the sport began in 1985. In May of that year, the Bradford City stadium fire killed 56 fans and injured 265. Just weeks later, at the European Championship game in Heysel, Belgium, Liverpool fans charged the Juventus fans leading to a stampede that killed 39 and injured 600 when a wall collapsed.
Thatcher pressured the FA to pull England from UEFA competitions (England was formally banned until 1990-91, and Liverpool banned a further season).
Four years later, in April 1989, after the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, where 96 fans were killed and 766 injured. The conservative government of the time seemed very unsympathetic to the victims by discussing the drunken fans that caused it when Thatcher toured the grounds after the disaster, and it stuck with the Liverpool fans who spent much of the next two decades fighting for the truth of what happened on that day. After the Independent Panel on Hillsborough released its report on the disaster in Sept. 2012, the Liverpool fans at sang a song for Thatcher.
English football in the 1980s was a reflection of England of the 1980s. Hooliganism isn’t something reserved for fanatical soccer fans around the world. For every country where there is hooliganism among the fans, all you need to do is look at the wider society and you will find some social problem that finds its expression either through violence on the streets or violence in the stadium. The stadium is just the largest regular gathering and almost always televised, so if it happens there it is noticed. Consider the Port Said riot in 2011 by the Al Masri fans that left 77 Al Ahly fans dead. This came during a huge upheaval in Egypt and due to the Al Ahly Ultras role in the revolution, had political connotations as well. Italy, Greece, Portugal and Russia have all had incidents of fan violence over the last year, none of which are the most stable economically or politically. So in the 1980s of Thatcher’s England the stands reflected the street.
But in her passing, the Daily Mail noted that much of the changes that made the English league the most watched in the world have their roots in the Thatcher era and spring from the need to change the game from what it was in the 1980s, while the Guardian argues that she and those around her had no time for the sport and nearly destroyed the game. In her passing, English football fans will be just as divided over her legacy for the sport as they are for what she did for the country.