The organisers of next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa have pledged that there will be no repeat during the tournament of the crush that killed at least 19 people at a match in Ivory Coast on Sunday, the latest in a series of tragedies at African stadiums. Fifa has demanded a full report into the disaster in Abidjan, which left 132 injured.

Football’s world governing body was already conscious of the relaxed match-going culture in Africa, in which many fans turn up to games at the last minute and without tickets, and is likely to step up efforts to raise awareness among South Africans that seats for the finals must be purchased well in advance and that there will be no possibility of even approaching the stadium without a ticket.

In any case, Fifa is confident that tight security around host stadiums will prevent any echo of Sunday’s events. Ticketless fans tried to force their way into the stadium before kick-off, police were overwhelmed by the crowds and a stampede broke out.

“Those things will not occur in the Confederations Cup [in South Africa in June] or the World Cup,” Danny Jordaan, the chief executive of the World Cup organising committee, said. “It is impossible.” He added that the impatience of crowds without tickets “triggers a stampede that leads to disaster”. At Ellis Park in Johannesburg in 2001, 43 died and 155 were injured as fans forced their way into an overcrowded stadium.

At the World Cup and its dry run, the Confederations Cup, 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 Ivorian football federation had told supporters without tickets to stay away from Sunday’s sold-out World Cup qualifying match against Malawi, but the warning was ignored and many thousands massed outside the 35,000-capacity Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny about 40 minutes before kick-off, desperate to see stars including Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, of Chelsea, and Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué, of Arsenal.

“Some spectators who didn’t have tickets tried to force their way in,” Dagobert Banzio, the Ivory Coast sports minister, said. “They broke down one of the big gates and in the stampede people were crushed.”

Supporters blamed police, saying that security forces provoked panic by spraying teargas on people who had nowhere to run. Eyewitnesses said that the weight of the fans pushing forward caused a wall to collapse. There were accusations that numbers were swelled by supporters who had bribed their way into the stadium, which was recently refurbished.

“We saw people falling from the top stands,” Diarassouba Adama, a fan who was at the stadium, said. “The stampede was provoked by security forces who threw teargas canisters at us. I don’t know why they fired on us.”

Despite the catastrophe, the game went ahead and was won 5-0 by Ivory Coast. “We only learnt about it after the match,” Drogba said. “These are the kinds of things that are harming the development of football in Africa.”

The Ivorian authorities launched an inquest yesterday and expressed the hope that lessons will be learnt, but stadium disasters are a recurring theme in Africa. This is potentially the fourth time since 2000 that police firing teargas have caused a fatal stampede, after incidents in Zimbabwe, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At least 238 fans have been killed and hundreds more injured at African stadiums in the past 13 years. The nature of Sunday’s tragedy may also stir memories in Britain of the Hillsborough disaster. The twentieth anniversary of the crush that killed 96 people is a fortnight away.

PUBLICATION: The Times
AUTHOR: Tom Dart
DATED: 31st March 2009