how many more?
Mark Gleason on a wretched year for African football
The official toll in the Ghanaian stadium tragedy is at least 123 deaths and 93 injuries – turning the stampede after the match between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko into the worst sporting disaster in Africa’s history.
More disturbingly, it means that more than 200 people have now been killed in African soccer stadiums in less than 12 months and throws into a stark spotlight the plans by FIFA to award the hosting of the 2010 World Cup finals to the continent.
The carnage comes as a result of poor organisation, inefficient security and administrative malaise, which continues to retard the progress of African soccer.
The majority of the deaths can also be blamed on the indiscriminate use of teargas, which police readily fire into crowds to quell rioting supporters.
The Accra tragedy came after Asante Kotoko supporters began ripping up seats and hurling them on to the athletics track surrounding the field at Accra’s National Sports stadium. Their anger was the result of frustration, caused by their side throwing away a one-goal lead and losing their unbeaten record to defending champions Hearts of Oak. Hearts scored the winning goal in the last minute.
Police reacted to the rioting supporters by firing at least 12 rounds of teargas into the crowd, leading to the stampede and, ultimately, the deaths. Reports have also said several exits at the stadium were closed. The majority of thevictims were crushed, but some also died of suffocation.
The tragedy mirrors that in Harare last year when 13 were killed at the World Cup qualifier between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo on April 29, when 10 died.
Also in April, 43 died in a stadium crush in Johannesburg, while a fan was killed on May 6 in fighting between supporters of Ivory Coast’s top two clubs, when they met in a key League match.
On top of the disasters, there have also been serious riots in Algeria, Botswana, Ghana, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa in the last year, during which death has been narrowly averted more by accident than any decent planning.
Indiscriminate firing of teargas by police to quell rioting supporters is commonplace in African football, where stewarding and other security measures are almost non-existent. The problems are exacerbated by poor facilities and by fickle spectators, who quickly resort to throwing objects when they are upset and frustrated by refereeing decisions or the performances of their team.
But it is also true that few matches in Africa are planned properly by organisers and security officials. In most cases, safety arrangements are left to police because many stadiums are government-controlled.
The dramatic images of death and the vivid TV pictures from Accra and Johannesburg that were broadcast worldwide in recent weeks are likely to impact severely on plans to give Africa the 2010 World Cup finals, expected to be ratified by FIFAat its congress in Buenos Aires in July.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter has already issued a thinly-veiled warning to Africa, saying it was obvious that it was not learning the lessons of the tragedies. Blatter said that while Europe had made great improvements since the tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough, ‘there was disturbing evidence to indicate the lessons are apparently not being learned elsewhere’.
Even the Confederation of African Football (CAF), which rarely criticises its members, condemned the use of teargas at Accra.
At last year’s African Champions League Final, won by Hearts of Oak, police fired teargas into the upper tiers of the 50,000-capacity stadium after Hearts supporters threw objects at one of the linesmen. A stray canister also landed in the VIP box, forcing former Ghanaian vice-president John Atta-Mills and the leadership of CAF to flee for safety.
The incident led to the game being held up for 20 minutes, and a number of spectators were injured. CAF later fined the Ghanaian FA a paltry œ3,000 and banned Hearts from playing their Champions League ties at the stadium this year.
There was also a similar incident at the African Nations Cup qualifying match between Ghana and Zimbabwe last October.
The 10 deaths in Lubumbashi at the end of April resulted from another stampede caused by teargas. Rioting at a match between Congolese champions TP Mazembe Englebert and local rivals FC Lupopo came after a late equaliser by Mazembe. Authorities said the police were panicked into firing the gas, which caused a stampede.
The tragedy in Zimbabwe last July came after the home team went 2-0 down in their World Cup qualifier against neighbours South Africa. Objects were pelted at the celebrating South African players, with police quickly reacting by firing teargas directly into the stadium.
As the spectators rushed towards the exits, police continued firing teargas. An inquest later found the police action to blame for the 13 deaths but there have been no prosecutions of suspended police officers.
The deaths at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park in April resulted from a crush as an estimated 75,000 sought to gain access to the 60,000-capacity stadium to watch a top-of-the-table clash between the country’s two most popular clubs, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Two boys, aged 12 and 11, were among the casualties.
Despite the tragedies, African soccer leaders have neither banned police from firing teargas nor set up guidelines for better stadium safety.
But CAF might now be forced to ensure guidelines on the latter are properly followed. It suffered the embarrassment of having matches stopped because of poor crowd control during last year’s African Nations Cup finals in Nigeria, and even the African women’s championship in South Africa last November, at which the Final was halted because of rioting.
Most stadiums in Africa were built in the 1960s to celebrate independence and are now archaic. To add to the general mayhem there are rarely any checks on spectators as they enter the venues.
Alcohol is freely sold inside the stadiums, often by vendors who have been sold their concession by the local association.
Also thrown into this volatile mix is the social crisis in Africa. ‘Soccer is a reflection of our society,’ said Abidjan’s Ivoir Soir newspaper. ‘There are social crises in African countries and people go to the stadiums to unwind. Unfortunately, others go to develop their instincts for violence. Fighting starts easily.’
It is ultimately this that FIFA is sure to reflect on as it considers Africa’s potential as future World Cup hosts.