LONDON -- Bomb-disposal experts carried out a controlled explosion Sunday at Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium -- the biggest in English club soccer -- after the evacuation of tens of thousands of fans moments before the team's end-of-season game was due to begin.
Supporters were told to leave the stadium after a suspect item was found in the stands, the police and club said. Manchester United's game against Bournemouth was delayed and then abandoned shortly after the scheduled kickoff time. Police said bomb-disposal experts then carried out a controlled explosion. Images of the stadium broadcast on British television showed stands completely empty of fans. Sky Sports said its broadcasting trucks had left Old Trafford on police advice. The evacuation comes amid heightened fears of terrorist attacks at European sports venues in the wake of a deadly attack by Islamic State. Security at soccer venues across Europe increased dramatically following the attempted bombing at the Stade de France during the Paris terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, 2015. On that night, three assailants detonated suicide vests in the streets outside the stadium while the French national soccer team played in front of more than 70,000 fans inside. At least one assailant had attempted to enter the Stade de France, but was rebuffed at the gate. The Paris attack was the first time in recent memory that terrorists struck a major European sports venue. Since then, security officials haven't hesitated to move or cancel major games. Four days after the Paris attacks, authorities in Germany called off a high-profile international exhibition match hours before kickoff due to a bomb threat. In March, the Belgian national team moved a match from Brussels to Portugal after the attacks in the Belgian capital. And in England, the security presence grew noticeably across the English Premier League, where matches are among the best attended in the world. The average crowd at Old Trafford is over 72,000. This week, Manchester police carried out a counterterrorism training exercise over three days to test their response to an attack on large public venues. In one publicized drill, officers wearing balaclavas dropped from helicopters to thwart "gunmen" near a school; in another, armed police rushed to the aftermath of a mocked-up suicide bombing at a shopping center. According to a senior U.K. police officer, a decision was taken very shortly after the Paris attacks to beef up the preparedness of armed units in major cities outside of London, due to concerns they were more vulnerable targets. A spokesman for the Premier League said he couldn't remember another match being abandoned due to a security threat since the league began in 1992. "It is always the last resort to abandon one of our fixtures and while we apologize for the inconvenience caused to fans, we are sure, in the circumstances, they will appreciate the need to do so," the league said in a statement. A spokesman for prime minister's office said it was aware of the situation and declined further comment.