Heads won't roll over Ellis Park tragedy

By Mike Mcgrath Time of article published Apr 14, 2001

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I was stunned when I first learnt about the Ellis Park stadium disaster - then I became angry, because there was no reason for 43 soccer fans to needlessly die at the Chiefs/Pirates match on Wednesday night. No reason on earth.

You can blame good-old fashioned greed; it's as simple as that when you try to squeeze 90 000-odd fans into an arena with a 62 000-capacity - and don't expect the judicial commission of inquiry to ensure there is no repetition of an incident of this magnitude.

Invariably the usual public platitudes are made about an awful happening, followed by the appointment of some commission or other, months of waiting before it can be convened, further waiting for the actual event and, even if any clear-cut decisions are reached, it doesn't necessarily follow that such recommendations will be implemented.

In countries like ours, the men at the helm of the major sports tend to wield such power that they are able to weather them whatever storms may occur. Don't expect them to ever become accountable for their actions. Perhaps an education system that encourages an almost-blind faith in authority is also to blame for the preponderance of cult-like figures in charge of some sports.

You only need to look at the lack of headway made by the King commission of inquiry into cricket match-fixing for confirmation that the best way to wish something away, apart from pretending it isn't there, is to allow it to become embroiled in a time-consuming legal process.

Looking back, it doesn't seem like we've progressed since the eighties when Abdul Bhamjee, regularly dressed up in the light-blue kit favoured by the National Soccer League (NSL) at the time, used to regale us with tales of how many fans could squeeze into a stadium for the latest "extravaganza" or "double-header". To think we used to laugh.

We may have moved into a new millennium, but the sentiments haven't changed.

A decade ago, 42 people died during a stampede at a pre-season game between the two Soweto sides at a stadium in Orkney.

Two years ago, fans tried to force their way into a Chiefs/Pirates sell-out match at Ellis Park, forcing police to fire teargas in a bid to disperse the crowd.

This led to parts of the stadium being damaged and calls for future matches between the Soweto giants to be made all-ticket affairs.

In the meantime, soccer officials continued along their merry way as if that incident was merely a hiccup in an otherwise sound organisation.

"We have got to learn how to better handle our big matches," was the best that Premier Soccer League (PSL) chief executive Robin Petersen could muster in the wake of the tragedy.

Unfortunately, the people who are supposed to be running soccer have had it so good for so long that they have forgotten the fans, the very people they should be serving.

It's not a problem peculiar to this country and maybe it's coincidental that the disaster came just weeks after officials had visited England to study crowd-control methods.

Did they learn anything from the trip, or was it just another opportunity to be wined and dined on someone else's account?

Surely the adherence to any semblance of crowd-control measures would have helped prevent the tragedy. If all the match tickets had been sold, then why weren't fans stopped several blocks away from the precinct (yes, it is a simple enough exercise) unless they had valid match tickets.

I also don't buy the argument that Ellis Park is too small to host a clash between the country's best-supported teams - or that it shouldn't have been scheduled for the night.

If our own sporting authorities are unable to ensure a local derby flows smoothly - what hope is there that they would be able to ensure a peaceful 2010 World Cup finals where some, albeit a small minority, followers are intent on causing mayhem.

- What do you think? E-mail your comments to m[email protected] or fax (031) 308 2715.

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