Soccer's Elusive Goal: Fan Safety ; Africa's Fourth Tragedy in a Month Underscores Need for Measures to Make the Games Safe for Spectators

Article excerpt

Prompted by the deaths of nearly 200 African soccer fans over the past month, government and sports officials are taking a hard look at safety procedures.

Yesterday, Ghana mourned the continent's worst soccer disaster, as some of the 130 victims of a fan stampede last week were buried. The Ghanaian tragedy followed spectator fatalities from stampedes and fighting at matches in South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ivory Coast.

In the immediate aftermath of the South African and Ghanaian incidents, all soccer games in those countries were suspended and government inquiries were launched.

As games in South Africa resume, one month after the fatal Johannesburg event, officials hope to mend the sport's battered image and protect its fans by improving ticketing and security procedures.

South African soccer authorities say one problem has been that tickets are only available for pre-sale in limited locations, resulting in a huge crowds at the stadium box office on match day - and angry fans when the tickets sell out.

"The culture of soccer in South Africa is such that people never believe that they can't get in," says Trevor Phillips, an Englishman who spent three years at the helm of the South African club soccer association, the Premier Soccer League. "They believe that if you simply create enough pressure, someone will ... let you in."

Such pressure led to tragedy on April 11, when 43 stampeding fans died at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium at a game between two rival Soweto teams. Although the government investigation is still incomplete, initial reports indicate that pandemonium broke out when thousands of fans, many without tickets, tried to force their way through a gate on the northeastern side of the stadium.

Initial steps toward change

In hopes of preventing a repeat of the Ellis Park situation, security at games has been increased and ticket booths moved farther away from stadium entrances. But soccer officials acknowledge that these are tiny, initial attempts at a solution, and that the league must develop a ticket-distribution system that reaches into the areas where most of the country's estimated 40 million soccer fans live.

The country's main ticket-distribution companies operate primarily through malls and music stores in wealthy suburbs, far from soccer's main fan base. Poorer fans are unlikely to spend their limited funds on a trip across town to buy tickets.

"Our audience is in the townships, and the infrastructure for things like ticket distribution in the townships is virtually nonexistent," says South African Soccer Association general manager Dennis Mumble. "At Ellis Park, 46,000 people showed up to buy tickets within the space of two hours before the match. That was all because there is only one location where tickets were sold for that match."

Mr. Mumble says he has been negotiating with grocery stores, banks, and lottery officials to develop an affordable ticket- distribution system.

Stadium structure and safety procedures are also being examined. At Ellis Park, fans were crushed beneath outside security gates that were knocked over by the pressure of the crowd. …