Soccer's elusive goal: fan safety

Africa's fourth tragedy in a month underscores need for measures to make the games safe for spectators.

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Prompted by the deaths of nearly 200 African soccer fans over the past month, government and sports officials are taking a hard look at safety procedures.

Yesterday, Ghana mourned the continent's worst soccer disaster, as some of the 130 victims of a fan stampede last week were buried. The Ghanaian tragedy followed spectator fatalities from stampedes and fighting at matches in South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ivory Coast.

In the immediate aftermath of the South African and Ghanaian incidents, all soccer games in those countries were suspended and government inquiries were launched.

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As games in South Africa resume, one month after the fatal Johannesburg event, officials hope to mend the sport's battered image and protect its fans by improving ticketing and security procedures.

South African soccer authorities say one problem has been that tickets are only available for pre-sale in limited locations, resulting in a huge crowds at the stadium box office on match day - and angry fans when the tickets sell out.

"The culture of soccer in South Africa is such that people never believe that they can't get in," says Trevor Phillips, an Englishman who spent three years at the helm of the South African club soccer association, the Premier Soccer League. "They believe that if you simply create enough pressure, someone will ... let you in."

Such pressure led to tragedy on April 11, when 43 stampeding fans died at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium at a game between two rival Soweto teams. Although the government investigation is still incomplete, initial reports indicate that pandemonium broke out when thousands of fans, many without tickets, tried to force their way through a gate on the northeastern side of the stadium.

Initial steps toward change

In hopes of preventing a repeat of the Ellis Park situation, security at games has been increased and ticket booths moved farther away from stadium entrances. But soccer officials acknowledge that these are tiny, initial attempts at a solution, and that the league must develop a ticket-distribution system that reaches into the areas where most of the country's estimated 40 million soccer fans live.

The country's main ticket-distribution companies operate primarily through malls and music stores in wealthy suburbs, far from soccer's main fan base. Poorer fans are unlikely to spend their limited funds on a trip across town to buy tickets.

"Our audience is in the townships, and the infrastructure for things like ticket distribution in the townships is virtually nonexistent," says South African Soccer Association general manager Dennis Mumble. "At Ellis Park, 46,000 people showed up to buy tickets within the space of two hours before the match. That was all because there is only one location where tickets were sold for that match."

Mr. Mumble says he has been negotiating with grocery stores, banks, and lottery officials to develop an affordable ticket-distribution system.

Stadium structure and safety procedures are also being examined. At Ellis Park, fans were crushed beneath outside security gates that were knocked over by the pressure of the crowd. In Ghana, it is believed that panicked fans were trapped in the stadium because security forces failed to open exit gates at the appropriate time.

"What we seem to learn from all these incidents in the past is that [in] any stadium in the world where you have fences, those fences are literally death traps," says Andreas Herren, a spokesman for the international soccer federation, FIFA. "FIFA has been fighting for the removal of those fences, but local security forces refuse to do that."

Ellis Park stadium manager George Stainton says the use of some gates to control access to the stadium is necessary and that FIFA regulations prohibiting fences inside the stadium were followed. The fences knocked down on April 11 were outside control gates.

Another worry for soccer officials is the control crowds with tear gas, which has been blamed by survivors for the deaths in Ghana and is believed to have exacerbated the situation in South Africa.

In the Ghana incident, police fired tear gas at spectators who were lobbing bottles and chairs onto the field. Fans then began to panic, but fleeing to the main gates, they found them locked. Tear gas was also blamed for another soccer tragedy last year, in which 13 people died at a match held in Harare between the South African and Zimbabwean teams.

Despite warnings by FIFA and individual leagues that the use of tear gas inside stadiums can increase panic and injuries, police forces in many countries continue to use it to control unruly fans.

Mr. Herren says that although FIFA cannot regulate the use of tear gas by police, the association intends to increase penalties against teams that violate league regulations. He says several clubs have been fined or temporarily banned from playing international matches because of safety incidents - including Zimbabwe - which was fined about $3,000 after last year's fatal event in Harare.

But whether concerns and inquiries triggered by the recent tragedies will lead to long-term changes, remains to be seen. South African soccer officials say they can't find a report issued after 41 people died in 1991 at another game between the Pirates and the Chiefs, although they say the report's recommendations have been followed.

A global problem

Soccer officials here are quick to point out that soccer violence is not unique to Africa and that Europe has its own list of disasters. In 1982, more than 300 people were killed at a European Cup game in Moscow, and in 1989, 95 fans were crushed to death at the Hillsborough stadium in Britain.

The latest string of tragedies occurs at a time when Africa aspires to a premier place in the soccer world - as the host of the 2010 World Cup, an event almost on a par with the Olympic Games.

Herren says that, although the recent disasters are a cause for concern, they will not necessarily affect the bids of African countries to host the event.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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