Egypt s path to the 2010 World Cup has been made slightly easier after FIFA warned the DR Congo, a country in our group of preliminary qualifiers, that it may have to play home qualifiers away from Kinshasa after being given an ultimatum to fix security infrastructure at the capital s Martyrs Stadium. FIFA twice inspected the giant Chinese-built 80,000 capacity stadium, first at the end of 2006 and again last October but is not yet satisfied that changes to improve the safety at the stadium have been implemented. As such, the Congolese federation has been asked to name an alternate venue. If it goes to the extreme, FIFA might order that DR Congo s home matches be played in another country.
That s good for Egypt, bad for DR Congo and terrible for Africa, several of whose countries are also expected to forfeit the right to host World Cup qualifiers because of the poor safety conditions of their stadiums.
FIFA is putting its football foot down on the safety issue because of past horrors in Africa: The abandoned club match in Accra which killed over 100 in April 2001. And that same month, in South Africa s Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, 47 died.
There have also been near misses. In 2005 in Cairo, crowd disturbance marred a World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Libya. On the same day in another continental qualifier, Mali and Togo was abandoned when serious crowd trouble that included gunshots erupted following what seemed to be a Togo match winner late in the game. In both instances no deaths or serious injuries were reported but things could have ended differently and tragically.
The victims of stadium calamities are not just Africans. The greatly publicized ones (could that because they happened in Europe where apparently fair skinned folks with nice hair and blue eyes are more valuable than blacks?) was the Heysel riot prior to the 1985 European Cup final which killed 39, mostly Italians, when a retaining wall restraining rabid Liverpool fans, collapsed, and the Hillsborough tragedy which killed 96 in Sheffield, England in 1989.
What is going on? Why is the world s most popular sport killing its followers?
Of all the problems, one appears the biggest and least amenable to change: no will, at least not previously, to address the problems – design faults in stadiums, lack of security planning and ticket corruption that allows you to get into an already overcrowded stadium.
The rest is thus easy to understand. Soccer is a mass spectator pursuit – for some reason it is extremely popular in countries which have a lot of people – a mass influx of nationalistic and fervent followers who are overexcited and at times malevolent.
Something else to consider: In the months of April and May, when cups and championships are decided, stadiums cannot withstand the masses crowding inside and the fever literally hits fever pitch.
Stadium control ought to be different. Why do architects design stadiums that are death traps with too few, too small escape outlets that are sometimes locked as thousands try to get in or out?
Heysel and Hillsborough being exceptions, soccer flourishes in places where there is little money for emergency services or to fix dangerously rundown stadiums. Sometimes countries learn. Aging Heysel Stadium, built in 1930, was demolished and replaced by Stade Roi Baudouin.
And sometimes they don t. In 2001, a roof collapsed in Sari, north of Tehran, killing two spectators and injuring 290 during a club match. Four years later Iran was hit by lightning twice; five people were trampled to death in an Asian World Cup qualifier, even though Iran had won (imagine what might have happened had it lost).
And sometimes FIFA does nothing. After any crush of death there is shock, followed by messages of condolences, followed by promises to do something, after which follows nothing. FIFA, which is rich enough to do something, has usually done nothing and prays that nothing happens.
And sometimes FIFA takes action. It has tried some preventive measures – a limit on alcohol consumption in some stadiums – and sanctions – the most famous being the five-year blanket ban on English clubs after Heysel. At present, FIFA has put in place strict security measures for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers with Africa s qualifying campaign starting in June. Just in time before another stadium turns into a morgue.