Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tragdey in the Ivory Coast


For a moment, we turn away from World Cup qualifying and football to focus on real-world issues.

As many of you know, 22 football fans were killed in a match stampede in Abidjan, Ivory Coast this weekend.

More than 130 people were injured when a wall collapsed at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium shortly before a World Cup qualifier on Sunday.

It's a tremendous tragedy for the burgeoning African football power.

According to reports in The Daily Telegraph, part of a wall fell over. As collective anxiety grew into hysteria, policemen allegedly exacerbated the panic by firing tear gas into the crowd.

The tragedy occurred before the match kicked off, as supporters rushed to get into the arena. The long lines that caused the disaster are largely due to an inefficient ticketing system that means it is impossible for fans to reserve seats in advance, as numerical ordering systems are never adhered to, according to news sources.

Fans wait outside for hours in the hope of landing one of the best seats.

At least 22 people have been confirmed dead as a result of the accident. A further 134 individuals are reported as being injured.

The match was attended by over 50,000 fans, many of whom were eager to see the return of Didier Drogba, a hero in his native land, who netted two of the Ivorians' goals in a result that pales into insignificance alongside this tragedy.

On Tuesday, a member of the Malawi team that lost to the Ivory Coast 5-0 told the BBC his side had been aware of the deaths before playing the game.

"We thought that maybe the referee would ask us to pay one minute's silence, but nothing was said, so we just carried on," said defender Elvis Kafoteka.

Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo declared the three days of mourning and said the cause of the accident needed to be known to prevent such a tragedy happening again.

Following a special cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said he had advised Mr Gbagbo to establish a committee to "study, analyze and take account of all the failings that can lead to such tragic events."

"The government will take an active part in caring for those wounded and in organising funerals," AFP news agency quoted Mr Soro as saying.

MY POV: Horrible tragedy in the Ivory Coast and my heart goes out to the people who perished. While Africa has become synonymous with these types of incidents in the last few years, there's no basis to some of the calls by journalists and pundits to move the World Cup from Africa.

For one, these events are isolated. They happen, but not often. It'd be unfair to point at Africa as the only continent where this happens.

Second, South Africa's infrastructure is much more 'advanced' than the Ivory Coast's or some of the other poorer countries' infrastructure. I hate to say it that way, but it's true. South Africa has a complex ticketing system, trained security, a solid system in place for crowd control, etc.

An incident like this wouldn't take place at the World Cup.

Here's a quote from the Guardian's Paul Doyle, who wrote an excellent article about this.

Africa is not just one big homogeneous blob. Anyone who cares to look will see it offers a continent's worth of diversity. So systematically suggesting, as some have done, that Sunday's stadium disaster in the Ivory Coast means the 2010 World Cup should not be held in South Africa is like demanding London be stripped of the 2012 Olympics following a tragedy in Moldova.

South Africa has plenty of experience of hosting major events and, indeed, the Indian Premier League will shortly get under way there having been shifted from Asia over security fears and the British and Irish Lions will tour there this summer. Neither of those entail as daunting a logistical operation as football's global jamboree but they do attest to a certain expertise in staging tournaments.

Match-day culture has changed in South Africa. For many major matches it is not possible to buy tickets from the turnstiles on the day of the game. For Saturday's inaugural match at the refurbished Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, for example, only fans who had bought their tickets well beforehand got to see the Bafana Bafana beat Norway 2–1. There was a capacity 42,000 crowd and no trouble. In Abidjan on Sunday, ticketless fans were also warned not to come to the ground but unlike in Rustenburg, where surrounding streets were sealed off, it seems there was no effective plan for preventing thousands from going right up to the gate in the hope of blagging their way in anyway.
Now's not the time to walk away from Africa and the World Cup, but to embrace and make sure everything's ready for the grand event. The continent deserves that reinforcement.

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