Today is the twentieth anniversary of Hillsborough, one of the worst — if not worst — stadium-related disasters in European history.

Ninety-six Liverpool FC fans were killed at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England during an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. They were crushed — asphyxiated to death — because too many people were packed in a fenced-in terrace.

Here’s the BBC News report on the anniversary: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/teams/l/liverpool/7997924.stm

It may be hard for sports fans in the US to understand what happened. It was for me. I didn’t understand how people could be crushed at a stadium. I was thinking from experience, from sitting on (though mostly standing on when I was a student) the benches at Bates Field and Kinnick Stadium all my life. How could people be crushed together in seats? How could there be more people than seats? It took me a while but I finally realized nobody was sitting and there were no seats in the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough.

With very few exceptions, sports venues in the US are completely outfitted with seats or benches for fans to sit on, but that wasn’t the case in Europe. Until recently, almost all European soccer stadiums — as well as those elsewhere around the world — featured huge sections of naked terracing where people stood. No seats, no benches — only steel crush barriers placed every few rows. Here’s a good example of what they look like.

The crush barriers are to prevent crushes: heavy surges of people from the higher tiers that literally crush those on the lower levels. Most of the time they worked.

I learned about terraces when I first read about Hillsborough. Needless to say, it answered a few questions. It also solved a few mysteries from years before. As a kid I remember watching a feature on “20/20” or “America’s Most Wanted” about closed circuit TV (CCTV), and a scene at an English soccer stadium was shown. Two cops in their bobby hats searched the stands for a fan caught on camera throwing something on the field. The cops walked the rows freely, pushing through people while someone watching them on closed circuit directed them to the culprit with a two-way radio. There were no aisles, no seats. Everyone was standing and I though it was weird. (To ID the thrower the cops put their hands on the heads of a few people around them. The third cop watching said, “That’s him,” when they picked the right guy. Talk about big brother. Police monitored CCTV is everywhere in the UK.)

Also, in high school I watched German Bundesliga games on Fox Sports World (now Fox Soccer Channel). During one game the camera zoomed out for a corner kick and I saw groups of people leaning against metal barriers in the stands behind the goal. I’d never seen anything like it, and had no clue what was up.

Terraces were the cheap “seats.” They were the European equivalent to outfield bleachers at baseball stadiums. Terraces were placed behind goals and on the lower decks where the sightlines were more acute. They were populated by diehard, working class fans. As the bleachers spawned bleacher bums, the terraces were the birthplace of ultras and hooligans.

Because there were no set, concrete capacities — like number of seats — terraces were packed to the gills. Sections that could accommodate two or three hundred fans in seats were filled with more than a thousand standing spectators. Though there were safe recommendations and limits, terraces were often dangerously overfilled. Crushes were common, despite the barriers, and people sometimes died.

That’s what happened at Hillsborough. A combination of poor facilities and police decision making funneled fans into an already overcrowded terrace. Exacerbating the problem were the tall security fences meant to partition the terrace and keep hooligans off the field. There was no easy way out, no way to relieve the pressure. People couldn’t breathe. The “official” capacity was 2,000, but it was estimated that more than 3,000 were crammed in after kickoff. To escape, fans climbed the fences into neighboring pens or onto the field. Many were pulled up into a second tier of seated stands just above. The game was stopped after six minutes and the police responded. A gate at the front was opened to get people out. Advertising boards were used as makeshift stretchers to carry away the injured.

When it was over 94 were dead. Two fans died later from injuries sustained in the crush.

Soccer in Europe has never been the same. Although the practice of standing terraces was not directly blamed, new safety regulations were passed to replace them with seating. Terraces at soccer stadiums have vanished all across Europe. They’re almost extinct in the UK, where only lower division teams are allowed to have them. (Oddly, they are still allowed at rugby venues.) Stadiums hosting UEFA competitions need to be “all-seaters.” The only place where terraces are still common is Germany. The Germans have perfected what’s called “safe standing,” and enforce strict capacity limits. Often, metal barriers are placed along each row with fold down seats to be used for UEFA Cup or Champions League games. The Bundesliga requires that 10 percent of all tickets must be for standing sections.

Although the safety improvements are obvious, many in the UK and Europe feel the disappearance of terracing has zapped game day atmosphere and enthusiasm. Fans who stand are typically more vocal and passionate than those who sit. Think about it: the most raucous and loudest sections at high school and college football games are student sections, where students stand the entire game.

That’s beside the point. What saddened and appalled me most when I first learned about Hillsborough was the fact that people left home to watch a game and never returned. It was an unfortunate tragedy, one that could have been prevented.

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