EUROPE'S worst-ever sports disaster highlights the conflict between measures to curb fan violence and the need to ensure the safety of spectators in crowded and often poorly designed sports stadiums. Even before a government investigation begins, some English soccer clubs say they will pull down perimeter fences designed to keep rival fans separated, but which effectively trap spectators inside a caged area.
Some questions raised when 94 soccer fans were crushed to death at Sheffield last weekend go beyond the immediate circumstances of the incident. They call attention to the peculiarities of soccer in Britain and the passion of local clubs who support their teams with an enthusiasm which has led to violence in the past.
The disaster at Sheffield was not the result of hooliganism, similar to the violence by Liverpool fans which led to the deaths of 38 people at Heysel stadium in Brussels four years ago. But the problem of hooliganism and the safety of large and sometimes rowdy crowds at soccer matches are related.
`WE have talked far too much about soccer hooliganism this year when we ought to be talking about safety and improving the grounds,'' said Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party. Mr. Hattersley is a regular spectator at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield where the disaster occurred last Saturday.
Hattersley called for a bipartisan effort to solve the problems facing soccer, the most popular sport among Britain's working classes. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promised a full inquiry into the Sheffield incident.
Some of the questions now debated include the following:
Should British soccer clubs follow guidelines from the International Football Association and provide seating for all spectators?
Traditionally in Britain, large numbers of fans have gained cheap admission to the game by standing in enclosed spaces, known as terraces, at both ends of the field. The deaths at Sheffield came after police opened the gates in an attempt to relieve the pressure outside the stadium from Liverpool fans who arrived late and often without tickets.
Reducing standing room would control crowds, since, experts say, seated fans are less likely to storm the field. But many soccer fans say they could not afford the ticket price for seats.
Have sports officials and the police become obsessed with measures to prevent hooliganism at the expense of spectator safety?
When the police admitted thousands of Liverpool fans into the Hillsborough stadium, people found themselves crushed against perimeter fences erected to keep fans off the playing field and away from supporters of the rival team. There was no escape from crowds pressing in on the closed space except to climb over the spiked barrier some 10 feet high.
Are the sports stadiums used by English soccer clubs - mostly built a half-century ago - able to meet modern standards of safety and convenience?
Experts say the circumstances which led to the tragedy at the Hillsborough stadium, built in 1899, would not have occurred at modern stadium. Most stadiums in Britain are located in older, congested parts of a city and lack adequate parking and a system for filtering crowds before they arrive at the gates. The stadiums are privately owned and operated by local clubs which, critics say, have little incentive to provide modern facilities.
Do local police have too much responsibility for supervising sporting events?
The Yorkshire police have come under heavy questioning for their decision to open the gates at Hillsborough. They appeared to be well prepared with an unprecedented 800 police assigned to the event, but critics have accused them of poor communications and lack of experience in crowd control.
Sports officials say that the behavior of British soccer fans has improved markedly in the last few years, and that this most recent tragedy shows that the problems with the sport are not merely the result of hooliganism.
The deaths at Sheffield have shifted attention away from a government bill to require identity cards for soccer fans, in an attempt to control the violence. The tragedy has brought a closer look at what one spectator, commenting in the Times of London, described bitterly as ``the collective incompetence in the organization of a sporting event.''