Writtenby Adokiye Amiesimaka - Nigeria.
Football aka soccer is internationally acclaimed as the beautiful game, the king of sport, with the largest and widest fan base all over the world. In Nigeria, it is even credited with having the greatest unifying potential. Since it became an international sport over a hundred years ago more passionate fans have been attracted to football stadiums to savour the game’s delightful experience on a weekly basis than to any other sport event. Tragically, there have been too many ‘spectator incidents’ from every part of the world that have been the antithesis of joy.
While football’s most famous quote attributed to Bill Shankly (Liverpool FC Manager, 1959-1974) – “Football is not a matter of life and death … it’s much more important than that” may have been edited down and interpreted out of context, the fact remains that no other sport has had more venue tragedies than football.
Over the years, several factors like hooliganism, poor stadium construction, inefficient entry and exit protocol, unprofessional law enforcement response, etc. have been responsible for turning many stadiums into arenas of death and destruction.
Chris Valentine has done well to document many of such unpleasant events, but let me highlight the most devastating ones among them.
At the National Stadium, Katmandu, Nepal, on March 12, 1988, at least 93 people were killed and 100 more were injured when fans attempted to flee from a hailstorm inside the stadium. Ice pellets rained down on the 30,000 fans watching a match between Nepalese and Bangladeshi teams. Witnesses said screaming spectators rushed to the stadium’s eight exits but found only one open. Police and hospital sources in the city confirmed more than 70 people, including two police officers, were trampled to death or suffocated. Government television reported 73 persons were killed, and witnesses said 20 other bodies were later retrieved by relatives.
In an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, England, on April 15, 1989,there was a considerable build-up of fans in the area outside the turnstile entrances before the game started. People who had been refused entry could not leave the area because of the crush behind them but remained an obstruction. Security opened a side gate to eject someone, and 20 people rushed in through it. With an estimated 5,000 fans trying to get through the turnstiles, the police opened another set of gates, intended as an exit, but instead there was a rush through in the opposite direction. The sudden surge crushed many Liverpool fans against the riot fencing.
Fans were packed so tightly in the pens that many died standing up from compressive asphyxia. Ninety-five people died and 766 were injured at the stadium. The death toll reached 96 when another victim of the crush died after remaining in a coma for almost four years.
On May 9, 2001, a major disaster that took 126 lives happened at the Accra Sports Stadium in Ghana at the end of a match between Premier League rivals Accra Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko.
Accra Hearts of Oak were leading 2-1 with five minutes left when Asante supporters reportedly began throwing bottles and chairs onto the field. Police responded by firing tear gas, creating panic in the stands as spectators tried to escape the gas. In addition to the high death toll, scores of fans were injured as some 70,000 spectators tried to get out of the stadium.
Bitter rivalry has long marked games between the teams, and the match was heavily policed. Harry Zakour, chief executive of Hearts of Oak, criticised police for firing up to a dozen teargas canisters in the stadium when, according to him, “One would have been enough to scare the public…”
The worst disaster in the history of the sport occurred on May 24, 1964, in an Olympics qualifying match between Peru and Argentina held at the National Stadium in Lima, Peru. The rivalry between the two countries was fierce and with Argentina one goal up protests sparked from the fans when the referee disallowed a Peruvian goal two minutes from time. Their protests soon turned into a full-blown riot and 318 people were killed in the ensuing violence, with more than 500 major injuries.
The crowd was at a fever pitch and people lit fires in the stands and broke every window in the stadium. The ridiculously outnumbered police were terrified and reacted by lobbing tear gas grenades into the stands and firing live rounds over the heads of the mob. This not only further infuriated the thousands of angry fans it caused a mindless panic, which resulted in even more people being crushed to death or being suffocated in the massive throng of rioters.
Thousands rushed to the iron doors leading out of the stadium, but, as was the custom during play, they were all locked. An 18-month-old girl was crushed to death when her father lost his grip on her. Others choked to death on the thick cloud of tear gas.
The doors were finally broken open and the crowd stormed onto the streets of Lima. Thousands of people then marched to the home of Peruvian president, Fernando Belaunde, demanding that the game be officially declared a draw.
The deaths, injuries, terrible violence, raging fires, and the people desperately choking mattered little to an insane mob that was fixated on only one thing: the Peru soccer team must not be judged the loser in the match that had just taken place.
Well, as Bill Shankly is erroneously understood to have meant, football is more important than life and death.
Date: April 11, 2001.
Location: Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, South Africa.
The lesson of the Orkney tragedy of January 13, 1991, where in a ‘friendly’ match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates 42 people died in a stampede was not learned. Ten years after that event, on April 11, 2001, spectators poured into the Ellis Park Stadium for another match between the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Reports suggest that there was already twice the 60,000 capacity crowd in the stadium, but that a further 30,000 fans were still trying to gain entry to the stadium.
As the crowd surged they spilled into the press boxes. Apparently untrained security guards fired tear gas at the crowd making the situation worse. The resulting stampede crushed 43 people to death making it the worst sport accident in South African history.
Date: September 17, 1968.
Location: Kayseri Ataturk Stadium, Kayseri, Turkey.
Paul Darby’s account:
The Kayseri vs. Sivas football disaster is perhaps one of the most defining events to affect Turkish society during the late 1960s. Football teams were more than tools in the challenge of the provincial cities to Istanbul’s hegemony. They also contributed to symbolic forms of rivalry between the mid-sized cities, which competed to be regional centres. Conflict was more intense between cities like Kayseri and Sivas. Kayseri was more developed and wealthier than Sivas. Moreover, merchants of Kayseri origin dominated the economy of Sivas. Therefore, while football matches represented for Sivas the idea of challenging the traditional hegemony of Kayseri, for Kayseri it meant resistance to this challenge. Prompted by this strained social and economic background, several fights broke out between the amateur teams of Kayseri and Sivas.
Nearly 21,000 people attended the first league meeting between Kayserispor and Sivasspor. As the level of tension during the match escalated, fans began to throw rocks at each other. A group of people on the Sivas side, seeking to escape from the rocks, rushed toward the field and the exit gates. Those who tried to enter the field were met by police batons and turned back. In a panic, thousands of Sivas fans pressed towards the nearest gates, crushing their fellow supporters against the fencing at the front of the terrace. When the human wave drew back, the scene was horrific: 44 people were dead and at least 600 were injured.
Date: May 11, 1985.
Location: Valley Parade Stadium, Bradford, England.
Fire broke out during a match between Bradford City and Lincoln City. It is believed that the fire started when a spectator discarded a lit cigarette down a gap at the back of a terrace seat, which fell onto a pile of trash that had been accumulating under the wooden stand for approximately 20 years.
Five minutes before half-time, white smoke was seen rising from the rear of the 77-year-old stand. The police began to move fans away. Flames emerged from the stand 3 minutes later, and the referee Don Shaw stopped the match. People were evacuated onto the field. The fire rapidly took hold 90 seconds later, with the entire main stand then engulfed within two minutes. Some people seated towards the rear of the stand were trapped in the narrow corridor at the back; most of the fire’s fatalities were found along this corridor where they had been overcome by toxic smoke, by the rear inward opening exit doors and turnstile entrances, which had been locked to prevent unauthorized access during play.
The fire raced along the stand’s wooden roof with wooden boards and hot burning melting tar falling from its roof onto fans below. Fifty-six people died in the fire, and over 450 were injured.
The inquiry into the disaster led to prohibiting the construction of new wooden grandstands at all UK sports grounds.
Date: February 1, 2012.
Location: Port Said Stadium, Egypt.
Rivals Al Masry and Al-Ahly – competed in a match where Al-Masry won 3-1. These two teams had lots of bad blood between them. Following the victory, thousands of Al-Masry spectators stormed the stands, violently attacking Al-Ahly fans and the club’s players. They used weapons – knives, clubs, bottles, fireworks, even swords. At least 79 people died and more than 1,000 were injured.
And from Paul Vale of Huffington Post, UK…
Mateo Flores National Stadium, Guatemala City, Guatemala, 1996
More than 80 supporters were trampled to death after a stampede at a World Cup qualifying match between Guatemala and Costa Rica. The tragedy was blamed on forgers selling fake tickets, resulting in an over-capacity at the stadium.
Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1968
Seventy-one people were killed and 150 injured when a game between River Plate and Boca Juniors ended in tragedy. The cause of the disaster was never officially determined, but many believe a crush occurred when fans in the upper tier began burning flags of the opposition team, which caused a stampede.
Lenin Stadium, Moscow, Russia, 1982
More than 66 fans perished at a UEFA Cup match between FC Spartak Moscow and HFC Haarlem when spectators leaving the stadium rushed back in following a late goal. The surge caused a crush, with fans asphyxiated to death. However, the Soviet-era government refused to reveal the eventual death toll.
Heysel Stadium, Brussels, Belgium, 1984
Thirty-nine fans were killed when a game between Liverpool and Juventus turned violent. Liverpool fans broke down a fence before kick-off, attacking the Italian fans who retreated to a wall. The pressure led the wall’s eventual collapse. The disaster resulted in the banning of English teams from European competitions. The ban was not lifted until 1991.