LONDON — Margaret Thatcher barely concealed her distaste for sports while serving as prime minister of Britain. Instead, she tried to use the athletic arena as a political weapon of sorts during the Cold War, and even took on the soccer establishment as violence at matches damaged the nation’s image.
So divisive was Thatcher’s 11-year rule of Britain that her death at age 87 Monday produced no tributes from the country’s major sporting institutions. The Premier League even told soccer clubs that they would not have to hold a minute’s silence in honor of the late British leader.
“She never really understood sport until it migrated – and sometimes mutated – beyond the back page, or impacted on other areas of policy,” Sebastian Coe, who became a legislator with Thatcher’s Conservative Party after winning Olympic titles as a runner, recalled in his autobiography.
During her first year in power, Thatcher asked British athletes to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. According to recently released letters from the time to the British Olympic Association, Thatcher warned that their “attendance in Moscow can only serve to frustrate the interests of Britain.”
Coe, in his 2012 book, recalled endorsing Labour legislator Austin Mitchell’s view that Thatcher’s stance was “mean and petty and stupid, and a demonstration of impotence.”
Though some British competitors stayed away, in an early show of the limits of Thatcher’s attempts to impose herself on the world stage, many – including Coe – defied the premier’s advice and took part. The U.S. boycotted the games.
“Using (sport) as a weapon was both craven and self-defeating,” said Coe, who won the first of two 1,500-meter Olympic titles in Moscow and was the chief organizer of last year’s Olympics in London.
Thatcher also considered ordering Britain’s soccer teams to pull out of the 1982 World Cup after the U.K. went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Though neither England, Scotland nor Northern Ireland were due to play in the same group as Argentina, there were fears they could meet in the later stages of the tournament in Spain. The British feared that a boycott could be used by Argentina as a propaganda coup, and Thatcher backed off from a battle with soccer authorities.
Soccer problems closer to home also vexed Thatcher, especially as disorderly conduct among fans damaged the country’s reputation.
The problem came to a head in 1985 when rioting by Liverpool fans at the European Cup final between their team and Italy’s Juventus in Brussels caused a stampede that left 39 people – most of them Italian fans – dead.
Thatcher said those responsible for the rioting “have brought shame and disgrace to their country and to football (soccer).”
“We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism,” Thatcher added, as English clubs were eventually banned from European club competitions until 1990.
The tragedy in Brussels ultimately had a positive effect on crowd behavior in England. Increased security at the grounds, bans on the sale of alcohol at games and a general feeling of disgust among fans led to a dramatic drop in violence.
But Thatcher’s response to another major soccer tragedy — the Hillsborough disaster — infuriated fans and reinforced her enduring unpopularity among sections of the public.
A crush at the 1989 FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest led to 96 Liverpool fans dying after being herded into caged-in enclosures that were already full.
Many died because of a lack of attention from police and emergency services, but it was only last year that campaigners finally gained an apology from the British government absolving fans of any responsibility for the disaster in Sheffield.
Thatcher was accused of being involved in a decades-long cover-up that shielded police from responsibility.
“We know she had sly meetings the evening of the disaster and the morning after at the ground and that is when the cover-up started,” Margaret Aspinall, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said Monday.
Thatcher used the Hillsborough disaster to press ahead with plans for Europe’s first compulsory membership program for soccer fans. But in the face of opposition led by the Labour Party, which described the membership cards as “an offense against common decency,” the program was not introduced.
What did change in soccer — following a public inquiry ordered by Thatcher — was the introduction of all-seater stadiums that made matches in England among the safest in the world in the years after Thatcher quit in 1990 and was succeeded by John Major.
While sport is barely mentioned in Thatcher’s autobiography, Major used his own tome to say that sport was not “a guiding interest in her life” — despite Thatcher’s husband, Denis, being a keen golfer and a one-time rugby referee.
‘’She tried occasionally to show an interest, and dutifully turned up to watch great sporting events, but always looked rather out of place,” Major said.