By Graham Dunbar and John Leicester / AP
LAUSANNE, Switzerland: The riots that killed 74 people in Egypt were sickeningly familiar for football: fans storming the pitch, fighting and being stampeded to death are scenes that have replayed over and over at stadiums around the world. This time, however, there also were some important differences from previous disasters.
Most importantly, the context. Football has long been more than a game in the Arab world and been tied into politics. Before the Arab Spring, attending football games was one of the few outlets people had to vent frustration about life under autocratic Arab leaders. In Egypt, hardcore fans known as Ultras played an important role in the popular uprising that toppled former leader Hosni Mubarak last year.
“The background to the violence in Egypt and in the Middle East in soccer stadiums is fundamentally different from that anywhere else in the world,” said James Dorsey, author of the blog, “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer,” and an expert at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The Port Said stadium where the violence erupted Wednesday after an Egyptian league match isn’t a top-class arena like Manchester United’s giant Old Trafford ground. But nor should it have been a death trap. Built in the 1950s, it was refurbished ahead of the Under-20 World Cup organized by world football governing body FIFA and hosted by Egypt in 2009.
“I know the stadium and it’s a good one. It’s absolutely not a stadium where there is a danger to the spectators,” said Walter Gagg, a FIFA official and stadium and security adviser to the Confederation of African Football. Gagg inspected the stadium to approve its use for the 2006 Cup of Nations.
Speaking by phone, he suggested the violence was planned and that authorities had been bracing for trouble.
“There was even a question to not play the match,” he said. “We think there was premeditation for what happened. It was very difficult to organize this match.”
Mark Fenwick, a partner at Fenwick Iribarren Architects that designed Espanyol’s Cornella-El Prat stadium and others in Qatar, Morocco and Albania, also said the riot was “an escape valve for other issues” and tied to the “general state of the country.”
“It’s not really anything to do with football stadiums. I don’t think stadiums are the culprit even if it was very far behind in terms of design,” said Fenwick, author of “The UEFA Guide for Quality Stadiums.” ”It does seem to be more that social and cultural differences came to a head with the reason being a football match. It could have happened in any building. Even if you have the most modern hotel with top safety precautions, if someone blocks the doors and locks the exits, you’ll have the same problems.”
Witnesses spoke of supporters armed with knives, sticks and stones. An Egyptian health ministry official said some deaths were caused by stabbing. That suggests police did not carry out the careful searches and bag checks common at matches in Europe and elsewhere. In the United States, authorities banned fans attending this Sunday’s Super Bowl not only from bringing weapons but also innocuous items including beach balls and frisbees.
That some fans were armed did not, alone, fully explain the high death toll. Supporters fleeing the armed fans crowded into a corridor leading out of the stadium, only to be crushed against a locked gate, survivors and witnesses said. That scenario resembled disasters at other stadiums. In 1991, for instance, at least 40 people were killed in Orkney, South Africa, when panicked fans tried to escape brawls that broke out in the grandstand. Most of the dead were trampled or crushed along riot-control fences.
“This is a crowd issue, this isn’t a football issue,” said Geoff Pearson, a law lecturer at the University of Liverpool and author of “Football Hooliganism: Policing and the War on the English Disease.”
He noted that other sports and non-sports events, including religious ceremonies, have suffered stampede deaths, too.
“But, of course, football is the biggest sport in the world by an absolute mile and the crowds tend to be bigger,” he said. “Also, unfortunately, football fans have a reputation now for being more disorderly than other types of crowd groups. Now that’s not necessarily fair, but it does mean that policing methods used to police football crowds tend to be more aggressive.”
“They tend to depart from the norms of good policing and good crowd management that normally you would expect, and I think that does play a key role for why it’s more likely that these types of thing would happen in football.”
Lines of riot police in the Egyptian stadium largely did not intervene to stop the rioting, witnesses said. Some Egyptian lawmakers accused the police of allowing the riot to happen and said the security lapse was intentional, aimed at stoking the insecurity that has shaken the Arab world’s most populous country since the Feb. 11 fall of Mubarak.
Dorsey said that before Mubarak’s demise, his widely hated police force would have had intense security for this match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry, but now, in the rocky transition to democracy, it is focused more on ensuring its own survival than on security.
That was echoed by Christopher Gaffney, author of “Temples of the Earthbound Gods,” about stadiums and violence in Latin America.
“That the police appeared to have stood by and watched this insanity unfold speaks as much to their own potential interests in the outcome as their lack of training to deal with the situation,” he said.
The rioting, he added, “is a unique situation that has much more to do with the internal political situation in Egypt than it does with football. It could also happen in Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Congo, Nigeria, or any nation where there is an unstable political situation aggravated by intense sectarianism. Football violence is almost never an expression of football, but a reflection of larger social problems.”
FIFA President Sepp Blatter demanded Thursday that the Egyptian federation furnish detailed explanations for the disaster but also suggested that non-football forces may have hijacked Wednesday’s game.
“Today is a black today for football and we must take steps to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens again. Football is a force for good, and we must not allow it to be abused by those who mean evil,” Blatter wrote to the Egyptian federation president, Samir Zaher.
Zaher was subsequently fired by Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri along with the rest of his board.
Al-Ahly players Mohamed Aboutrika, Emad Moteab and Mohamed Barakat — all Egypt internationals — announced they are retiring from football after witnessing the rampage.
Although Wednesday’s clashes did not appear to be the fault of Al-Ahly supporters, its renowned Ultras have often been involved in fighting with police or fans of other teams and antiestablishment violence has often been associated with its games.
They are “a highly motivated, highly organized, highly politicized, violence-prone, street-battle hardened group,” Dorsey said.
Although the context of Wednesday’s riot was specific to Egypt, Pearson said it would be a mistake to think that well-managed and policed stadiums in Europe are immune from such violence. Handling crowds requires a combination of safe infrastructure, training for stadium workers and police, and prepared strategies for dealing with disorder.
“All those things need to come together and in the absence of any one of those you can have a crowd situation that gets out of control,” he said. “If you start to depart from those good crowd management practices then you run the risk, even in the most modern stadium, of having one of these disasters.” –Leicester reported from Paris. AP Sports Writers Rob Harris in London, Paul Logothetis in Madrid and Stephen Wade in Buenos Aires contributed.