Monday, June 7, 2010

Stampedes, pepper spray and hooligans

Yesterday's stampede at the Nigeria v Korea DPR game in Tembisa, which injured 16 people, was something that could have been avoided. Counterfeit tickets were brandished by people desperate to see Nigeria play (there can't be that many North Koreans in SA and I can't imagine that there would be many desperate to see them play!). The organisation of this game was nothing like what will be encountered at the World Cup fixtures, instead more reminiscent of the haphazard marshaling that I sometimes experienced at local PSL games.

There were some occasions where I got caught up in a crush as fans tried pushing through the narrow entry gates at Olympia Park in Rustsenburg or Germiston Stadium in Jo'burg, with the police occasionally slamming the gate in my face in an attempt to stop the chaos. The worst experience was at the beginning of Jan 2009 at a Mamelodi Sundowns v Kaizer Chiefs fixture at Johannesburg Stadium. It was a case of the wrong place at the wrong time as before I could realise what was going on, my friend Dan and I were surrounded by a crowd of about 200 people trying to charge down the gates between the cheap seats and the grandstand to get better seats for free. There was little we could do as on three seperate occasions the gates were brought down. There was only one policeman and one steward on the other side of the gate trying in vain to keep the mob out. The police officer used his pepper spray but being a row of people away from the fence meant that we didn't get the brunt of it. Eventually mounted police stormed in to disperse the crowd. To add salt to the wound, my camera was stolen that game. This incident was strangely omitted from the press reports the following day. A week later, the papers reported that police had to use rubber bullets to keep ticketless fans at bay as they were trying to get into Ajax Cape Town v Chiefs.

It's the ugly side of South African football, and one that does have to be acknowledged. But it's far from a South African problem. We only have to look in our own backyard to see that we too have some major problems, the incident outside the West Ham v Millwall game last year indicative of such issues. People may argue that was an isolated incident but so is what I have described. I generally felt safer at many of these matches than I did in the northern suburbs of Jo'burg - high walls, electric fences and panic buttons DO NOT make you feel safe. The derby match between Pirates and Chiefs in May 2009 at Ellis Park was the best atmosphere at any game of football that I have been to. Although bitter rivals, there was little attempt at crowd segregation and there did not need to be. While there have been horror stories of clashes between the two sets of fans in the 90s, today sees these two sets of fans generally get on with each other. Can you imagine a Manchester United v Liverpool match without crowd segregation? It just wouldn't happen.

So when you read stories in the papers about yesterday's stampede, your thoughts should be with those who were injured but don't take it as a sign that the World Cup matches will be the same. The organisation is far greater. It's going to be one big party!

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