LIVERPOOL, England — Scarves donated by soccer clubs across the world were laid out in the center circle at Anfield, forming the shape of the number “96” beneath a blue sky on Tuesday.
Outside the stadium, two middle-aged men — one wearing a Liverpool shirt and the other an Everton jersey — shared a warm embrace next to the famous Shankly Gates.
The global soccer community, in particular Merseysiders, united to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death during an FA Cup semifinal.
The focal point on a day of commemoration and remembrance was Anfield, where Liverpool players past and present and the families of the victims were among the estimated 30,000 people who attended a memorial service.
Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez, the managers of Liverpool and Everton, delivered readings and short addresses to pay their respects to the men, women and children who died in Britain’s worst sports tragedy. Both earned standing ovations.
“We will always strive to honor the families and the memory of the 96 that we lost,” said Rodgers, his voice beginning to tremble. “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” he added, a nod to the club’s anthem.
Bells from churches across the region rang 96 times and Liverpool’s public transport came to a halt for a minute’s silence at 3:06 p.m. — the time the fateful match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was stopped following a crush in a standing-only section of Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground.
A short memorial also was held across Stanley Park at Everton’s Goodison Park, after which schoolchildren led a procession to Anfield holding 96 linked soccer scarves.
Tributes came from across the world, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter sending a letter to the English Football Association. He expressed his “deepest sympathy to the families and friends of the 96 who so tragically lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster.”
Flags at FIFA’s member associations were flown at half-mast on Tuesday.
UEFA President Michel Platini and British Prime Minister David Cameron also sent condolences to the victims’ families.
The families have spent 25 years seeking justice after authorities initially sought to place the blame on the victims by characterizing the tragedy as a result of hooliganism.
The original accidental death verdicts were overturned by the High Court in London in 2012 after documents showed a cover-up by police. New inquests into the fatalities are attempts to get the deaths officially described as unlawful killings. The inquests have been adjourned this week because of the anniversary.
“The authorities took on the wrong city if they thought they were going to get away with it,” said Martinez, to loud cheers. The service was interrupted on two occasions by chants of “Justice for the 96.”
Accompanying the grieving and ongoing suffering of the families is a sense of optimism that justice is about to be served.
There’s also been recent success on the field. Everton is on track to qualify for next season’s Champions League, and Liverpool is on top of the Premier League by two points as it seeks a first championship in 24 years.
The service started with local clergymen reading out the names of the 96 victims. It ended with 96 balloons released as fans sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”