Remembrance of the Hillsborough tragedy has been forefront in everyone’s minds over the past week, and its lessons stretch well beyond the boundaries of British sport. It was as shocking to read about how 96 innocent football fans were asphyxiated to death in a section of the stadium amounting to a death trap, as it was to hear that 264 Pakistani workers were trapped by metal grilles and a lack of safety exits while a factory fire raged around them and they were burnt alive. In Britain, the Hillsborough tragedy ensured that safety standards were upped, while the silver lining in the cloud of revelations that came to the fore last week lay in the ability of its citizens to hold the government accountable and thereby bring about changes that could save lives. In Pakistan, what guarantee that the recent factory fires in Karachi and Lahore will result in honourable resignations and an urgency to correct antiquated structures that imperil people in such ghastly fashion?
As far as sport is concerned, it is always notable how cricket in the subcontinent is played before a fanatical following, who turn out in overwhelming numbers for T20 and one-day internationals and whose pens are delineated in the stadium by strong grilles in the front and to both sides. It would be a surprise to any Pakistani if the safety officials inside the stadium were aware of how many people each pen could take before the risk of a human crush like the one that happened at Hillsborough became a reality, or if they had measures in place to check the number of people in each pen at any given time. Similarly, there is little faith that safety stewards would know how to effectively stagger the number of people entering any pen in the stadium by standing at the entry tunnels, which was a key failing of the police at Hillsborough that resulted in fatal overcrowding.
The intersection of the Hillsborough report with the fatal fire in Karachi places fresh impetus on the Pakistan government to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. As far as sport is concerned, it falls to the Pakistan Cricket Board to order a review of safety at all major cricket grounds so that one of the few instances in which people turn out en masse in that country can never be subject to the sort of irreversibly sad disaster that befell Hillsborough. India, too, has a track record of getting up to speed on sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Indian Grand Prix in the most shabby and delayed fashion possible, and would do well to check back and ensure that no potentially fatal shortcuts were taken in the construction of stadiums, stands and terraces.
If Bernie Ecclestone’s recent remark that he was sorry Michael Schumacher is “leaving” F1 was indeed something more than just a semantically careless case of phrasing from the sport’s grandmaster, then he wouldn’t be alone in that sentiment. Schumacher’s second spell in F1 has intermittently threatened to offer so much more than the otherwise lengthy lulls of mediocrity that it has been characterised by. When he came alive, like a sleeping dragon, in the rain at Montreal last year to scythe through a field full of younger competitors lacking his rare ability to deal with the wet, he offered a tantalising glimpse of how his second spell in F1 could thrill the soul if he could successfully overcome time and conventional wisdom to display his brilliant best to a different era. There have also been enjoyably tongue-in-cheek occasions when he has used his experience, cunning and a hint of the old ruthlessness – which nostalgia mercifully permits us to view as a racing quality with less ambivalence than before – to overtake drivers like Fernando Alonso during races and remind us of his enduring threat. However it was at Monaco this year, where he produced a stunningly fast lap in the dying seconds of qualifying to take pole when the chorus of criticism surrounding his return had never been greater, that Schumacher reminded us most majestically that he retained enough of his gifts to be a unique force on the F1 stage during his second spell. Since then, he has slowly but surely been getting the better of Nico Rosberg at Mercedes and given his supporters enough reason to watch his participation over the weekends with continued hope.
It is these sporadic moments that have provided his fans enough sustenance and confidence to bed in for the long wait for the next one and, with the growing presence of Mercedes in F1, there would be every reason to expect they could have been replicated on a more regular basis in the near future. Under the ever-impressive stewardship of Ross Brawn, Mercedes’s development has been on an upward curve during three substantial years in the sport and seems poised to make its definitive leap anytime soon. The car is currently receiving another package of upgrades this weekend, it is hard to see a man of Brawn’s nous not rectifying the problems associated with tyre wear which are compromising its raw speed before the start of next season, and regulation-enforced changes to F1 engines in 2014 should in theory allow engine-manufacturing teams such as Mercedes a head start in car design. In short, the tide is with Schumacher’s team and it would be a source of some regret to his fans and himself if his departure immediately preceded a period in which Mercedes finally unlocked the key to serious competitiveness for its drivers.
This regret would stem not from the sense that Schumacher might have added to his seven titles, but out of the feeling that he could have made us privy to so much more of that unique thrill awoken by watching a sporting legend recall his finest moments in a new age like he did at Monaco. It is these golden moments, with their triumph of enduring genius over the passage of time, thrilling possibility over pragmatic unlikeliness, that provide Schumacher’s second spell in the sport with a power as compelling in its own right as the first was for its relentless pursuit of excellence and accumulation of world championships. It is the possibility of experiencing these moments again that has kept Schumacher and his fans going all this time, and it would be a shame if he quit right at the point when the future seemed to offer so many more of them.