By: Kallan Lyons
ACCRA, GHANA- With the final African World Cup qualifying match between the Ghana Black Stars and Egypt Pharaohs set to take place in Cairo on November 19, Ghana has twice requested that FIFA move the game to a neutral venue to ensure the safety of its players.
The impending game in Cairo has been of particular concern for the Black Stars and Ghanaian spectators because of the political turmoil in Egypt.
It would be the first time such a large amount of supporters would be allowed to enter a stadium in Egypt since 2012, when the country experienced the biggest disaster in its football history.
Riots broke out in February between rival fans at a football match in Port Said, leaving 74 dead and many more injured. It is a common belief that a lack of high-level security greatly contributed to the devastating outcome.
The Egyptian football tragedy rings all too familiar for Ghanaians. In 2001, 127 people died at a game at the Accra Sports Stadium between the Hearts of Oak, based out of Accra, and Kumasi’s Asante Kotoko.
Panic ensued when police fired tear gas into the crowd to subdue rioting fans. People rushed to the exits only to find the gates had been locked. Many victims were trampled to death, others died of asphyxiation.
It appears the police weren’t prepared to handle rioters and instead used tactics and measures that created much more risk than respite for its troubled bystanders.
It has been 12 years since that fateful day, which remains Africa’s worst sporting disaster. The Black Stars, deemed an underdog in the first leg against the Pharoahs, who entered with a 100 per cent record in qualifying, surpassed all odds by beating Egypt 6-1 on October 15.
As the highly anticipated second match in Cairo approaches, one question hangs in the air: Has Egypt done enough to secure its players and spectators?
A recent program on Happy FM, Ghana’s premier sports radio station, featured panelists who discussed the likely ‘exit strategy’ for Ghanaian supporters wishing to attend the game: flying in and out of Cairo on the same day.
The first qualifying match, which took place in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, was a peaceful one. That day, I stopped by my local pub to check the score. Ghanaians had crammed themselves into the room, crowding around the small television anchored on the back wall. A pool of people had overflowed outside, some standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of the game.
“It’s 1-0,” a football fan informed me. Satisfied, I walked away just as the crowd burst into cheers.
A deafening roar resonated across the neighbourhood as Ghanaians celebrated yet another goal. The energetic atmosphere was palpable.
The experience brought me back to February 2010, when I stood in a large crowd outside Roots on Robson Street in Vancouver and peered in at the small television airing the Olympic gold medal hockey game.
During overtime my heart began pounding fast as I willed Canada to win, but not because I was feeling unequivocally patriotic.
I feared for my safety were we to lose.
Instead, Canada scored the winning goal and the city exploded in euphoria.
My fears were not unwarranted. A year later, hockey fans rioted when the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup final. Police responded by firing tear gas, pepper spray and flash bombs to disperse the rioters.
Thankfully there was no loss of life, but the security measures in place were not enough to curb the chaos. As concluded by independent researchers, police were not prepared to handle the downtown crowd, which was larger than city coordinators expected. It was reported that “security efforts were overwhelmed.”
Freelance investigator Bob Whitelaw blames the inability of police and security officials to immobilize the 2011 riots on the police and city’s failure to heed recommendations put forth after the 1994 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, which left 200 injured.
The independent researchers report placed focus on the lack of preparation on the part of the police force. This report cited “compatibility issues with equipment, training and tactics hampered the effectiveness of those on the front line.”
As was the case during the football riots in Ghana and Egypt, it is argued Vancouver police were not properly trained or strong enough in numbers to handle a rioting crowd. In all cases, the police did not adequately address the situation.
One can imagine however, how different the outcome in Ghana could have been if fans had not been prevented from leaving the stadium and proper security measures had been in place.
Ghana’s request to change the location of the football match is not surprising. Yet regardless of the political climate of a country, there is a need to acknowledge that sporting events alone can pose increased risk to those involved.
Police and riot squads must therefore be properly informed, trained and prepared to diffuse threats of riots and ensure the personal security of every individual. City planners should assure that they have done all they can to minimize security threats.
Egypt has stated they will be implementing measures to ensure security is airtight for the second leg of the qualifying match. The Ghana Football Association and FIFA have approved them as satisfactory. We have yet to find out if these measures, which have not been disclosed to the public, will be sufficient.
For now, Ghanaians eagerly await the match that will determine whether they will be one of the five nations representing Africa in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
With the tremendous win against Egypt behind them, the Black Stars are confident they will walk away from game two with their heads held high.
The fear remains that Egyptian supporters will not let them.