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How to avoid another Port Said?

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Posted on September 12, 2012

Port Said Tragedy

Following the recent feuds between Ultras Ahlawy and the Egyptian FA over the resumption of domestic football, Karim Salama of King Fut analyzes some of the necessary reforms needed to avoid another stadium disaster. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of King Fut.

On the 1st of February 2012 in the city of Port Said, Egypt witnessed its worst ever football related disaster when 79 fans lost their lives during a match between Al Ahly and Al Masry. Unlike other stadium disruptions that happened in the previous year (Zamalek fans invading the pitch during an African Champions league match against Tunisia’s Club Africain on April 2nd 2011) the cause of this tragedy was the deliberate targeting of Ahly supporters by malevolent forces.  Although there have been some arrests, the fact remains that no one has been brought to justice. It therefore comes as a surprise that having cancelled the previous league season, the governing bodies took the decision to restart domestic football by playing the Egyptian Super Cup on September 10 2012.

In the past seven months both the Egyptian national team and Egyptian clubs playing in continental competition have been able to carry on playing matches, albeit behind closed doors. There has been no inquiry or effort made by the FA, ministry of sports, or police in order to look at ways of preventing tragedies such as Port Said, or other hooligan related acts from occurring again. Basically we have learned nothing.

While the context and causes are completely different, it would be wise to look at what took place in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in the UK, although we hope it doesn’t take 23 years to reveal the truth behind the Port Said tragedy.

Hillsborough Background:

On the 15th of April 1989, 96 fans lost their lives as a result of a human-crush caused by overcrowding of confined sections in the terraces. In the build up to Hillsborough the UK had been experiencing recurring incidents of crushes and the general thought at the time was to increase the number of barriers between pens in addition to minimizing entrances to stadiums. What resulted was a series of bottlenecks that, when coupled with fans rushing into overcrowded pens, would only lead to disaster.  Following the tragedy, Lord Justice Peter Taylor was given the mandate of compiling a report on the causes of the tragedy.  Despite not unveiling the whole truth and although the families of the 96 still demand justice, the inquiry took a mere 31 days to complete 2 reports on the subject. Compare that with the 7 months that have passed in Egypt with nothing of note to report.  The first report highlighted the causes that lead to the incident (although numerous police reports were altered) while the second provided recommendations that needed to be implemented to football grounds around the country.

Taylor Report Summary:

  1. Police a primary factor In failing to control supporters
  2. Low number of turnstiles and entrances caused crowd flow issues
  3. Lack of stewards to guide fans away from crowded pens
  4. The immediate removal of all fences separating fans from the field of play

Egyptian Aftermath

Now what about the state of football in Egypt? What has been done after the number of incidents over the years? What was done after Port Said to prevent any further violence or unnecessary loss of life? The answer to this is absolutely nothing. Like following a script the responsible forces believe the solution to any problem is to:

a)   “Punish” fans by hosting matches behind closed doors

b)   Increase the number of police to “Secure” matches

c)   Limit the number of entry ways to get into a stadium

d)   Increase the number and type of barriers between fans and the field

None of these solutions has ever proved to be a viable solution, and maintaining this train of thought will never lead to improvements.

During that night on February 2012, many fans trying to escape the carnage were faced with metal gates that had been welded shut. Of all the factors that lead to the deaths of fans I believe that this one in particular was not the case of deliberate action against the victims that night. The reason being, that if you go to every stadium “approved” for use in the – which has once again been postponed – you will most likely find the majority of entry gates to be locked, welded, or blocked as a means of “.”

Stadiums

Take as an example. The 78,000 capacity national stadium is divided into 3 zones, with the main stand being 1st class, the opposite stand 2nd class, and the 2 sections behind the goals 3rd class. To guide fans into the stadium each of these sections has only 1 entrance, for a total of 4 “gates” in order to get 78,000 fans into their seats. Add this to the fact that in Egypt we do not individually assign seats thus making it an organization nightmare and a virtual free for all to find a place even if you do posses a ticket.  Anyone who has gone to a match is used to being herded into the minimum number of turnstiles by officers who seem less than thrilled to be in their positions.  Would you be happy to be the one officer who is responsible for frisking the 20,000+ fans coming through your section? I assume not.  Afterwards when you finally get inside the stadium and manage to find a seat you cant fail to see the brilliance of our security apparatus where the perimeter of every section of fans is occupied by a row of riot police.

Lets compare the journey of Cairo stadium to that of Wembley Stadium of London. Forget the fact that Wembley cost over one billion British pounds, because in the end the model for stadiums in Europe fit a similar pattern. In order to enter the stadium you must circle the perimeter until you find which of the 14 turnstiles you need to be going through. This should not be difficult, as it will be marked on your ticket. Once you enter the first stage you must then, depending which level you are on, find the gate, of which there are almost 50 per level, which will lead you to your section of seating. From that point its as simple as finding your row and number, like going to a cinema. And behold not a single police officer in sight after passing the first turnstile. No riot police assuming everyone is a hooligan, simply a handful of stewards facing outwards for the individual pitch invaders. The distinct lack of a track or “security ditch” is a notable absentee if you are used to Egyptian stadia.

In a very passive way the security of getting over 80,000 people to their seats safely is done with ease by means of breaking up the crowd by allowing easy flow of people traffic through spreading. In stark comparison the Egypt method of trying to force people into bottlenecks is as smooth as rubbing sandpaper on your face.

Going Forward

Before football continues in Egypt there needs to be major reforms to the handling of match days. With the requirement that stadiums be all-seater, the logical and necessary step is for tickets to be individualized with seat numbers. This would eliminate the need for people to go to a stadium hours before kickoff and would also get rid of the frustrations of people jumping over one another in order to grab some seats. With ticket organization taken care of, serious initiatives toward crowding will need to be made. Allowing for more access to spread the crowd would decrease the time it takes to get in and out of the stadium as well as prevent unnecessary physical contact with other spectators that may lead to flare-ups or the risk of trampling. Finally policing needs to be smarter. There is no need for a platoon of security enforcement officers to be stationed around the perimeters of seating, with their only purpose apparently to antagonize fans. Their job should be focused on making sure nobody gets anything dangerous into the stadium. There is also no need for ditches or fences or other obstructions designed to block and contain fans. An analogy would be the renovations made to oxford circus in London where the railings of sidewalks have been removed and the sidewalk itself has also been lowered to the same level as the driving lanes. The rationale behind this is that the absence of these safety elements will naturally lead people to be more aware of their actions and result in less risky behavior.

Ahly celebrate winning the controversial Super Cup (the Score)

So during this football hiatus what have the authorities done? Has any thought been given to establishing protocols to ensure fan safety and improve Egyptian football? No, instead fans were witness, on TV screens as naturally this was a closed doors affair, to the spectacle of a sham match between Ahly and , the League and Cup champions of 2 seasons ago. Peculiar given that Haras El-Hodood were leading the league prior to cancellation. I guess it was also the fair thing to do by deciding the Champions League places based on 2010-11 as well. Perhaps improving the basics of football in Egypt isn’t that much of a priority for the . If the same people continue to make the same decisions over and over again then fans might as well get used to more empty seats.

Follow Karim Salama (@ksalama) and @King_Fut on Twitter.

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