There was a time when thousands of fans at every English soccer game would stand throughout the match in spectator areas without seats. But after fans were crushed to death in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, standing areas were banned as unsafe.
Still, many fans pined nostalgically for the days of standing. And now, after many years, England’s top two soccer leagues will be allowed to add standing areas again, with safeguards, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, a government advisory board, said Wednesday.
In the past, standing fans were put in sloped, concrete areas. Often there were more fans standing than sitting at games.
It was a cheaper way to see the game, and the proximity to fellow enthusiasts often made for a great atmosphere. But the areas sometimes grew rowdy, and especially after a goal, surges of fans could knock people over.
During the height of hooliganism in the ’70s and ’80s, fighting sometimes broke out between rival sets of fans. This led teams to erect fences to separate standing fans from their rivals, and also sometimes from the field.
That fencing contributed mightily to the Hillsborough disaster, when nearly 100 Liverpool fans in a crowded standing terrace at an F.A. Cup semifinal in Sheffield were crushed to death.
Although standing was not the direct cause of the disaster — poor policing was, according to inquiries — the government nonetheless banned standing at games and insisted that every spectator have a seat.
But for 30 years, many fans have carried a torch for standing at games. They said that they missed the atmosphere and that standing could be organized more safely than it was in its heyday. They also noted that many fans stood by their seats for a good part of games anyway.
Although movement on the issue has taken decades, standing advocates have built momentum, and recently approval has seemed imminent. Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which opened in 2019, was designed with two areas that could quickly be converted into so-called safe standing areas should it be permitted.
Teams in the top two divisions can apply now to start standing areas in January. But those areas will look very different from the open concrete slopes of old.
First, there will be seats there that fold up, so that fans can choose to sit if they like. No more than one fan for each seat will be admitted to the area, to avoid the tightly packed throngs that were often seen last century.
In addition, metal rails will be placed between each row. Fans can lean on them, and they will also help keep people in their own rows, preventing excited forward surges of humanity that could be dangerous.
Safe standing has been implemented elsewhere in the world, with success. German top-flight stadiums include thousands of spots for standers. Orlando City, L.A.F.C. and Minnesota are among the M.L.S. teams with safe standing areas. In Britain, Celtic of Glasgow began allowing a few thousand standees in the 2016-17 season.
“We are beyond delighted to finally claim a win for the F.S.A.’s Safe Standing campaign,” Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association, a fan advocacy group, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Today’s announcement is the result of prolonged and sustained campaigning by football fans.”
Vinai Venkatesham, Arsenal’s chief executive, said Wednesday that the club would meet with fans next week to talk about adding standing areas. “It is something we are looking at,” he said. “We need to see what any implications will be, such as would it reduce the capacity. But we will listen to what our fans say and explore what can be done.”
Tariq Panja contributed reporting from London.