African football column

Ticket turmoil to blame for Kenyan stadium stampede

October 27, 2010
By Firdose Moonda
(Archive)

A stadium stampede is one of those tragedies that, on the surface, appears completely avoidable. It's not a natural disaster that morphs into the uncontrollable. It's not a crime, so to speak, that's engineered and premeditated. It's not a war zone, in literal terms, where incidents of violence take place sporadically. It's something that happens in a supposedly secure environment where people should, for the most part, be at leisure. The odd argument is expected, the odd punch will be thrown at a rival team's supporters but outright carnage only occurs when something behind the scenes and beyond the fans goes wrong.

Nyayo National Stadium Kenay stampede
GettyImagesEight people died during the stampede ay Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi

Last Saturday saw eight people killed after a stampede at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a local derby between traditional rivals Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards (Gor Mahia won 1-0 and have moved within two points of the league leaders, by the way) and is classified as a high-interest match. Preliminary investigations showed that tickets were overprinted, far exceeding the stadium's capacity, security was lax, and general planning was far below FIFA standards. Hang on, I've been in this movie before.

So have thousands of others, actually. Like those in Lima in 1964, where over 300 people died during an Olympic qualifying match between Peru and Argentina, those in Glasgow in 1971 when 66 people were crushed to death at Ibrox Stadium and those in Heysel in 1982 when 39 people were killed in a European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool. These examples will shut up any 'first worlders' who would like to paint stadium stampedes as an African disease.

Any self-respecting football supporter will know that the biggest stadium disaster took place in Moscow in 1981 when 340 people were crushed to death after a late goal in a UEFA Cup match between Spartak and Dutch side Haarlem. Government reports would have us believe only 66 deaths were recorded; the same government that tried to convince their own people that they were the first to reach the moon.

Although the problem is far from African only, the last 14 years have seen 11 fatal stampedes on the continent, with 2001 being its worst year. In April and May that year, 177 people were killed in four separate incidents. Two of them were large scale, with over 40 people dead. The first took place at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg in a match between Soweto rivals Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. The second was in Accra where 125 people were killed in the fixture between Accra Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko. That was the worst sporting tragedy to hit the continent and was caused when police fired tear gas on an unruly crowd, who were throwing bottles and chairs onto the pitch.

Nine years have passed since those two events, but the latest stampede contains many of the ingredients that combined to create the recipes for disaster in the past. The South African incident was attributed largely to overcrowding. Ellis Park could accommodate 60,000 people back then and was sold out for the match. Very sold out, it turned out. Reports suggest that double the capacity, 120,000, were admitted into the stadium and 30,000 others were still trying to get in. Sheer overflow caused the stampede but what caused the overflow?

Ticket forgery was the main culprit and, years later, not that much has changed. One of FIFA's guidelines for hosting matches is that only tickets with seat numbers should be sold. It's a practice that applies to most other sporting events and is one way of ensuring that an excess number of tickets aren't mass produced for loosely defined areas. At the Nyayo stadium there were no seats at all, never mind numbers, which was listed by Kenya's Standard newspaper as the top reason for things going wrong.

It's a lesson that needs to be learned very quickly - selling blanket areas of a ground can only result in trouble. It may have been the thing to do in the past - issue a general ticket and people can watch the game from anywhere they want in the arena - but it's just not a sensible way to fill a stadium anymore. The worrying thing is that it's still common practice.

Soccer City stadium South Africa
GettyImagesSoccer City in Johannesburg

Just before the 2010 World Cup, South Africa played Colombia in a friendly at Soccer City. It was the first time the stadium was tested at full capacity and 94,700 tickets were sold - not by seat numbers, but by blocks. Every ticket indicated which block the holder could sit in but many arrived at the stadium to find their block full, because no-one respected the block numbers.

This writer was one such ticket holder, who had meticulously studied the stadium plan and chosen tickets in a block close to the halfway line. Disappointment, irritation and eventually anger spilled out when the block I had chosen was full. The World Cup volunteers were also putting in their final practice before the event so it was natural to think they could assist. Their answer was simple: just go and sit somewhere else. In fact the words "No-one cares about the block numbers" were uttered. So, people sat anywhere in the stadium where they could find a seat, since the volunteers were at least trained in chasing people off the walkways, and the mutterings of complaint grew.

Imagine if the complaints turned into action and all the people who were told to sit somewhere else refused. Imagine if they insisted on sitting where they had rightly paid to sit. Imagine if they had pushed and shoved their way to their seats, forcing out the people who had decided they wanted to sit their instead. Imagine if 94,700 people had stampeded Soccer City that day.

The World Cup went off without any of those issues, because tickets were checked for seat, aisle and block number. That needs to happen at every single match and every single stadium, everywhere in the world. It's the most basic way of ensuring that people sit where they're supposed to and checking if there are ticket duplications. It's not going to be the answer to solving every cause of stadium stampedes but it's a relatively easy thing to do and its one way of making these tragedies closer to completely preventable.