Last Sunday, as football fans across the continent watched the African Cup of Nations finale between Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in Equatorial Guinea; chaotic scenes took place in another stadium in Cairo, Egypt.
By the time calm was restored, 22 fans had been killed following clashes with police, who are reported to have fired teargas at supporters of one of the clubs, Zamalek, who were trying to gain entry to the stadium to watch their team play against rivals, ENPPI.
In a stampede that ensued, several other people were injured. This was in the same country that lost 79 football fans and saw over 1,000 injured in February 2012. Then, a massive riot had broken out in Port Said Stadium following an Egyptian Premier League match between Al-Masry and Al Ahly.
Thousands of Al-Masry spectators stormed the stands and the pitch, following their 3-1 victory over Al Ahly, violently attacking the visiting side with knives, swords, clubs, stones, bottles and fireworks.
Kick-off had been delayed by 30 minutes because Al-Masry fans were on the pitch. During half-time and after each of the three second-half goals for Al-Masry, the home supporters stormed the pitch.
At the conclusion of the match, thousands of spectators ran onto the field. The Al Ahly players managed to escape to the dressing rooms but many of their fans weren’t as lucky. Several died from stab and club wounds while those who were thrown from the stands suffered brain hemorrhages and concussions.
Al Ahly’s coach, Manuel José was also kicked and punched. Video footage showed that the police appeared unable or unwilling to contain the attacking gangs and also “refused” to open the gates to allow the crowds to escape. Following the tragedy, the Egyptian Government banned domestic league matches but on February 1, 2013, one year after games had been suspended, the Egyptian Premier League resumed, although fans were initially not allowed to attend. Two years later, the league has been suspended once again following last week’s tragedy.
Only last week, during the second of the Afcon semi-finals between Ghana and stand-in hosts Equatorial Guinea, those watching the game held their breath as the home fans, realizing that their dreams of reaching the final had been ended by Ghana’s 3-0 lead, decided to disrupt play by throwing into the pitch whatever they could get their hands on.
It was thirty minutes before play resumed but the entire time those Ghanaian players and their fans were huddled on the pitch, I was worried something terrible was going to happen and wondered why the referee couldn’t just call the game off and get the players to safety. It didn’t help that the police were outnumbered by the thousands of fans who had turned up for the game and had they decided to invade the pitch, only God knows what would have happened.
Lucky for all those involved, there weren’t any tragedies. If we’re to draw any lessons from these incidents, it should be trying our best to make football grounds safe and that should start with making sure fans do not carry deadly “weapons” into stadia. Retain bags at the entrance, search fans for bottles, knives etc before they make their way in.
Most stadia have snack bars and these should be mandated to package and serve refreshments in plastic cups and on plastic plates. It’s simple measures like these that go a long way in saving lives in the event of chaos.