Tale of disaster

Ivory Coast’s match with Malawi ended in horrific circumstances as 19 fans lost their lives. James Copnall investigates where things went wrong

The 19 dead and 132 injured in Africa’s latest stadium disaster, in Abidjan in Ivory Coast, suggest lessons haven’t been learned from past tragedies. On Sunday the problems started outside the stadium. Thousands of supporters, many without tickets, milled round the freshly painted bright orange walls of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny stadium. Music was blasting from inside the stadium, and queues outside stretched hundreds of metres even four hours before the 5pm kick-off. The World Cup qualifier, against a limited Malawi side, was expected to be an easy and morale-boosting victory. Local football fans needed a lift after the fiasco of the inaugural international tournament for African-based players in February, which Ivory Coast hosted and flopped at; the national side had also performed badly at an African junior competition in Rwanda. Perhaps more importantly, in a country where he has reached a staggering level of stardom, Didier Drogba was playing on home soil, for the first time in over a year. What happened next will be a topic of debate for a long time.

According to the state prosecutor, a group of fans outside the entrance next to the National Assembly forced an exit gate. Hundreds pushed in, and in the rush many fell down the steps by the gate, and were crushed by the crowd behind them – 13 people died here. At the same time another band of supporters, on the other side of the stadium, heard a rumour a door was open, and tried to force their way in. The security forces used tear gas to fight them off, and in the scramble a further six people lost their lives. The match organising committee of the Ivorian Football Federation has strongly denied accusations that more tickets were sold than the 35,000 capacity, which would have lead to the frustration of fans with legitimate tickets left outside the ground.

“I don’t know if extra tickets were sold before the match,” says Adam Khalil, a veteran Ivorian sports journalist. “But what happens is this: the people on the doors take the tickets of those going in, but instead of ripping them up, as they are supposed to, they keep them. Then they resell them as new tickets. That’s why there was a problem.” The match was a sell-out, and in theory no tickets were on sale on the day. But fans knew if they turned up they had a chance of buying their way into the ground.

The security forces have been criticised in Ivory Coast for their response. They are rarely well trained in crowd control, and have shown in the past – in situations ranging from football games to political rallies to protests against high food prices – that they are quick to swing truncheons and fire off tear gas grenades. Only a full enquiry will be able to establish whether their muscled intervention made things a lot worse.

They have also been accused of involvement in selling tickets illegally, a charge which they deny. Khalil points to a further weakness: “In the big World Cup qualifier against Cameroon in September 2005, there were a series of police roadblocks around the stadium, you had to show your ticket at each one to get to the next level. That wasn’t the case for the Malawi game, and so thousands of fans could gather round the stadium – that’s where the problems came from.”

Drogba went to visit fans in hospital, as did president Laurent Gbagbo, who promised a full enquiry. But the tragedy reminded many of similar disasters in Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and South Africa in the last decade. Issues of stadium control and ticketing – or heavy-handed policing – were factors there too. The immediate thought for many sports fans around the globe must have been the 2010 World Cup, in South Africa. Danny Jordaan, of the organising committee, said all tickets will have to be bought in advance, those without tickets will be “stopped kilometres away”, and fans will be urged to arrive early.

In short, those are the measures Ivory Coast took for the big game against Cameroon in 2005, and didn’t for an apparently smaller contest against Malawi. South Africa, too, has learned lessons from its own stadium disaster, in 2001, which cost 43 lives. There is nothing to suggest this latest tragedy in Ivory Coast, most of a continent away, will have any more bearing on the World Cup than Hillsbrough did on Germany 2006.

From WSC 267 May 2009