Renowned for groundbreaking documentaries investigating all genres and eras of sports, ESPN Films documentary series 30 for 30 is releasing a collection of Soccer Stories leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in June.
Rather than just celebrating the love of the game, the first episode, titled Hillsborough (airing on April 15), takes on one of the darkest days in European football in a documentary that can’t be aired in the U.K. due to a new inquest launched 25 years after the incident and strict contempt of court laws.
On April 15, 1989, a massive human crush in the terraces occurred during the F.A. Cup Final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest football clubs in Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium, leaving 96 fans dead and 766 injured.
British director Daniel Gordon grew up going to the matches in the ill-fated stadium with his dad and was even meant to be there that fateful day, so he was a natural choice for ESPN and vp of ESPN Films and Original Content Connor Schell to make the documentary.
“I have been in several crushes myself and a lot of the dead were my age, so I knew that could have been me,” Gordon tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Even as recently as 2008, a lot of people still wanted it brushed under the rug but I knew there was an untold story.”
With the support of ESPN and the BBC in the U.K., Gordon has created the most comprehensive account of the disaster and the suspected cover-up by British police using a cinematic, narratorless style that pieces together the harrowing details from the victims’ families recollections.
Many Americans have never even heard of the devastating horror that occurred when throngs of supporters were admitted through a decrepit turnstile into the terraces where fans traditionally stood squashed together for matches. “The concept of standing in terraces doesn’t exist in America — and doesn’t in the U.K. anymore — but I’m sure everyone will be taken in by the very human story of the film,” says Gordon.
As the television cameras were still rolling during the initial six minutes of the match — and the police unaware that there was a problem — the crowd got increasingly compressed against a broken barrier and fans were literally crushed to death. Many died of compressive asphyxia while standing. “You had the images as it actually happened,” says Gordon, explaining that viewers at home saw bodies of the victims falling onto the pitch. “The police on one side of the fence did not know what was going on,” he added.
Another key aspect of the story that he felt compelled to include is the “mutual distrust between police and football fans” during an era that was notorious for hooliganism. “The police did a really good job of convincing people that alcohol was to blame,” says Gordon. The film tells how the first coroner went as far as taking the blood alcohol of every victim (even children), and those over the legal driving limit then had criminal background checks done. “It was always a red herring, to blame the fans and shift the responsibility,” he says.
In the heartbreaking footage, victims’ families recount the distress at being shuttled on buses to a gymnasium to view rows of photos of the dead and identify their loved ones. “I’ve watched this film a hundred times all the way through and I still cry at four moments — and the one that gets me every single time is when Doreen [Jones] says she couldn’t hug her son goodbye,” reveals Gordon. “It was staggering how they were treated. I have seen the shots of the bodies in the gymnasium and the indignity they were shown hits you to the core.”
The initial inquest returned a verdict of “accidental death” in March 1991, which many families refused to accept, “Some have never collected the death certificate because they don’t believe it was accidental,” Gordon tells THR.
Through the uncovering of previously hidden documents and statements that were allegedly doctored and altered, the Hillsborough Independent Panel (which included Professor Phil Scraton, who is featured in the film) concluded in 2012 that fans were not responsible for the disaster. That has led to the new inquest that is expected to take a year, following which there might be criminal prosecutions. “But that’ll be over a quarter of a century after the fact,” explains the director. “You have 96 families — just to see the numbers of people filing into a courtroom and to realize they’ve been doing this for 25 years is devastating.”
Being so close to their pain to document the ordeal was harrowing for Gordon, who has worked on the documentary for over a year. “I didn’t realize the huge emotional toll of getting involved in a story like this and seeing the footage … listening to people talk about the worst time of their lives and how it affected them, it was incredibly grim and grueling.
“Young people in England have no idea that the reason they have this amazing Premier League and these new stadiums is because of Hillsborough and these 96 people who died. It took that level of disaster to wake people up in this country,” he reveals.
Hillsborough airs April 15 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN to kick off the sports network’s soccer series.
Upcoming episodes in the 30 for 30: Soccer Stories series are Maradona ’86, The Opposition, The Myth of Garrincha, Ceasefire Massacre, Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy, Barbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry and White, Blue and White.