Associated Press
Men carry out an injured spectator following a stadium stampede at a World Cup qualifying
match between Ivory Coast and Malawi.

Ivory Coast Disaster Exhibits Safety Deficiencies in African Stadiums

April 02, 2009 07:30 AM
by Denis Cummings
Sunday’s deadly stadium stampede in the Ivory Coast is the ninth soccer stadium disaster this decade in Africa, where stadium security and safety protocols are often lacking.

Ivorian Fans Killed in Stampede

At least 19 people died and more than 130 were injured in a stampede entering a FIFA World Cup qualifying match Sunday in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. It was the ninth time this decade that fans have died in a soccer stadium disaster in Africa, and the second during qualifications for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Like many stadium disasters before it, the cause of the incident has been attributed to poor organization and security. The game, which featured many European-based Ivorian stars who return to the country only several times a year, attracted more fans than the 35,000-seat Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium could allow.

Many ticketless fans allegedly bribed security to enter the stadium. “We saw the policemen and the football federation … we saw these men take money from people to let them enter the stadium—people who did not have tickets,” said one fan to the BBC.

As fans around the stadium tried to force their way inside, “they broke down one of the big gates and in the stampede people were crushed,” according to sports minister Dagobert Banzio. However, fans claim that the stampede was “provoked” by police firing canisters of tear gas into a crowd.

Ivory Coast prosecutors have opened an inquiry into the incident “in order to determine the causes of this disaster and find those responsible.” It will include a panel to “study, analyse and take account of all the failings that can lead to such tragic events.”

For many, the incident has illustrated the dangers of old stadiums, unprepared policing and inadequate security protocols. While stadium security has been improved in other parts of the world where disasters were once common, many African countries have not sufficiently addressed the problem.

Background: Stadium disasters

Stadium disasters—whether they are caused by stampedes, fan violence, collapsing stadium structures or other reasons—have been an unfortunate part of soccer in all parts of the world for over a century.

The most famous occurred 20 years ago, when 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a crush at Hillsborough stadium. The inquiry that followed, the Taylor Report, led to changes in stadiums and security, notably the removal of terrace seating and barriers at the front of the stands. Since the release of the Taylor Report, there have been no major stadium disasters in Europe.

In Africa, however, where most clubs and countries do not have the wealth to improve stadium infrastructure or implement security reforms, stadium disasters continue to occur. There have been nine incidents since 2000 in which stampedes and overcrowding have caused fan deaths at major African soccer games. The worst occurred in 2001, when 127 fans in Ghana died racing to the exits to escape tear gas fired by security.

“The deadly cocktail of factors that can lead to tragedy are all too apparent at most big games in Africa,” writes the Daily Dispatch (South Africa). “The number of fans attempting to enter the stadium often dramatically exceeds the capacity. … The police oscillate between indifference—they are frequently too busy watching the game—to firing teargas into the masses at the slightest provocation. The stadium infrastructure is usually less than ideal. Fans are forced to queue for hours to squeeze through a few narrow turnstiles and once the game begins, the gates are often locked.”

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Analysis: Effect on 2010 World Cup

In June 2010 South Africa will become the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup. Five World Cup games will be played in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, where 43 people were killed after being crushed against barbed wire during a stampede.

The memory of that disaster and other stadium disasters in African soccer has some people questioning whether South Africa will be able to handle the massive crowds that will assemble for the World Cup.

FIFA said that there is no risk of a similar incident at the World Cup. According to The Times of London, “stadium gates will open three hours before kick-off and public transport will be enhanced to ease crowds and reduce stress levels. As at the previous World Cup, checkpoints will be set up some distance from the stadium entrances and Jordaan said that ticketless people will be ‘stopped kilometres away.’”

The Guardian’s Paul Doyle writes that the Ellis Park tragedy was a “wake-up call for South Africa” like Hillsborough was for Britain. Since then, the country has reformed the “bad crowd control and bad policing” that caused the incident, and stressed to fans that tickets cannot be purchased on the day of the game. Furthermore, all matches will be played in modern stadiums that have been built or renovated in the past decade.

Though South Africa has drastically improved its stadium safety in the run-up to the World Cup, many other countries in the continent have not. Mark Ssali of the Daily Monitor (Uganda) writes that, in response to the disaster in the Ivory Coast, African countries must follow the example of British clubs after Hillsborough.

“Grieve as the families, loved ones and the entire continent might, the only way to truly honour their memories is to make sure such calamity does not happen again,” he writes.

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