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British clubs deny Margaret Thatcher the silent treatment

Apr 10, 2013, 12:33 PM EDT

Baroness Thatcher death

It’s routine these days to hold a period of silence or applause before kick-off to acknowledge a notable death. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to lead a major Western power and ruled Britain for eleven years, yet hardly anyone in the U.K. seems keen to pay tribute to her on the first weekend of matches following her death.

Quite the opposite, which is causing controversy. Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan has called for a minute’s silence at Wembley before his club’s FA Cup semi-final against Millwall on Saturday and said he wanted players to wear black armbands as a gesture of respect. He was joined by Reading chairman, Sir John Madejski.

But the English Football Association and the Football League reportedly have no plans to make a period of reflection mandatory, preferring to dodge the issue by leaving it up to individual clubs to decide if they want to pay tribute to Thatcher. And few do.

It’s partly political. Thatcher, who was Prime Minister from 1979-1990, was a hugely divisive figure in Britain. Her strategies of curbing trade union power, taming socialism and privatizing industries made her highly unpopular in northern English industrial cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

It’s also because she was no fan of soccer. Thatcher even considered ordering England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to pull out of the 1982 World Cup, which was held in Spain, because of the chance the teams might face Argentina. At the time, the U.K. and Argentina were at war over the Falkland Islands.

She never seemed to like or understand the sport and its culture and the hooliganism problems that dogged British soccer during the 1980s only added to her distaste. She even proposed to combat hooliganism with a membership scheme that would have required all supporters attending games to carry identity cards.

Some commentators credit Thatcher for playing an important role in the modernization of Britain’s crumbling soccer stadiums that happened after the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. But in reality, much of the impetus came from the Taylor Report, an investigation by a senior judge that analyzed the tragedy and produced recommendations. And many in Liverpool want to know whether Thatcher was involved in an official cover-up to blame fans, rather than police, for the deaths of 96 supporters.

But if she did leave a lasting impact on soccer, it’s probably that she created the conditions where a competition such as the Premier League could thrive. When Thatcher was ousted as Conservative party leader in 1990, Britain had become ready to embrace globalization: friendlier to big business, its financial ethos more favorable to ruthlessly-ambitious capitalism, its media environment more diverse. Two years after she left power, England’s top clubs broke away from the Football League with a view to forming a more lucrative competition. It’s brought immense wealth to the most powerful clubs in the game – but done the smaller teams more harm than good.

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