Accident by design

Neil Wills reports from Guatemala on the incident which led to massive loss of life among spectators gathered for a World Cup match

The headlines of the morning papers the next day said it all: National Tragedy; National Mourning. The reporters on the evening paper dug around and declared: Corruption Caused Tragedy. Close, but no cigar. The Mateo Flores stadium disaster, which claimed the lives of 82 Guatemalan football fans, was caused by corruption, but even more so by incompetence on such a grand scale as to leave one speechless.

The bare facts of the disaster read invidiously similar to those of Hillsborough. 45 minutes before the match – a World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Costa Rica – the gates were closed by the security guards, leaving over a thousand fans with tickets locked out and none too amused. Fifteen minutes later someone inside the stadium heeded the complaints and opened a door. The resultant surge caused fans already inside to be crushed and trampled. The civil guard, advising police by the fences at the bottom of the terraces, did not open a gate to relieve the crush until they were shown three dead bodies, one of them a seven-year old child. Then for several minutes they could not find the official who had the key for the gate . . . By the time the Guatemalan president, Alvaro Arzu, took the pitch to announce that he had postponed the game and had instituted three days of national mourning, there was already a long line of dead bodies in front of him.

Incredibly, not only did the authorities in charge of football in Guatemala not know the capacity of their own national stadium, they did not give a toss. The National Selection Commission asked the National Football Federation (FENAFUTG) for 45,796 tickets to be printed. FENAFUTG estimated the stadium’s capacity at 30,796 but approved the request anyway, passing it on to the Autonomous Sporting Confederation (CDAG). CDAG gave their approval even though their own estimate was 40,000. Meanwhile, the engineer who built the stadium in 1950 said it was designed for 34,000, but pointed out that this figure had been reduced by recent remodelling.The situation was exacerbated by the sale of an estimated 7,000 forged tickets. The genuine tickets had been designed with a mark which showed up under ultra-violet light, but inexplicably the men on the gates had no equipment to test them. It’s unlikely they would have used it anyway, since there are copious reports of them not ripping up tickets or buying back children’s tickets for resale to touts, and accepting money on the gate even though the match was all-ticket.

It is now being estimated that even before the fateful gate was opened there were 60,000 people inside the stadium – around twice its actual capacity. The stadium’s design faults are too numerous to go into at any length. Suffice to say that there are no crush barriers or retaining walls anywhere in the ground, that there are nowhere near enough entrances to the terraces and that the ten-foot fence surrounding the pitch is topped off with some vicious barbed-wire.

The reaction of the government has been swift and on the whole humane, albeit that at one point they intimated that the fans may have been to blame for the disaster (does that sound depressingly familiar?). A high level commission has been set up and given a fortnight to produce a report on the disaster. Apparently they are particularly interested in why the FIFA recommendations to have all fences come down worldwide (or substituted for ‘removable fences’) were not heeded at Mateo Flores.

Furthermore, the presidents of the sporting federations involved are to be hauled before a congressional committee; the Interior Minister has said that all large stadia in the country should be closed until they have been made safe; and the proceeds from the game are to go to those who lost relatives in the catastrophe. All these measures may avoid such a catastrophe ever occurring in Guatemala again, but one can only hope that every football federation takes heed of the disaster to ensure that one of their own stadia doesn’t join Mateo Flores and Hillsborough as a synonym for disaster.

From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month