Knock Down the Deadly Fences

Rob Hughes
Date Published: 
International Herald Tribune

LONDON: Shrugs of futility and a minute of silence must not be the soccer world's only response to 84 dead in Guatemala's national stadium last Wednesday.

A sport that has more member countries than the United Nations, and a greater financial turnover than most industries, cannot go on absorbing periodic mass suffocation of its spectators.

For the Mateo Flores Stadium in Guatemala City, read Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, where 96 fans died in 1989. For Hillsborough, read Katmandu a year earlier, or Bastia in 1992, or Lusaka last spring.

The carnage has one crushing common denominator: the rush of bodies triggered by panic in arenas without escape. The victims ran into steel fencing.

We have seen it before — too many times. Those of us drawn to this lovable, flawed, contagious game must breath down the necks of administrators until there is no escape for them from accountability for making the playgrounds safe.

The news from Guatemala City hit me at 4 A.M. in Manchester when I flew in with Manchester United's team from a match in Istanbul. Driving home over the next three hours, I listened to shockingly familiar radio bulletins, each increasing the number of fatalities.

First there was anger. Then depression. Then remembrance that this is how it happened in England, and this is a nightmare that recurs more often than earthquakes sending tremors down the spine of a great pastime.

Soccer, which crosses all boundaries, brings death as indiscriminately as joy. Condolences from Zurich, where FIFA presides over this ever expanding sport, come with practiced regularity.

But, after the mourning, what positive steps can FIFA take? First, don't wait for the inquest. Already we hear conflicting stories from the stadium that became an instant morgue — stories of ticket forgers whose greed overcrammed the 45,000 capacity, stories of a badly designed tunnel, of a drunken brawl precipitating the stampede.

Those are contributory but not the causes of death. The fencing that men, women and children in their team's colors ran into was again the instrument of death. You rush, you panic, you blindly tread on people as they fall beneath you, and ultimately you hit that impenetrable fence, and those pressing behind you push and push until breath is gone.

"It came flooding back," said Trevor Hicks, chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. "I was driving to work on a pleasant morning when I heard of Guatemala on the radio. In a matter of five minutes, I relived Hillsborough." Where he lost his two teenaged daughters.

"I felt physically sick. Will they never learn? Have the lessons been forgotten?"

No, sir. They learned, because FIFA stipulated that stadiums must never become as overcrowded as Hillsborough's standing terraces. Indeed, FIFA backed the rush toward all-seat arenas, particularly for World Cup matches, which is what Guatemala and Costa Rica were about to play when tragedy struck.

Guatemala is oceans away from soccer's moneyed mainstream. In world rankings, it rates 113th and its 8 million people hope that their boys will one day qualify for a World Cup.

FIFA's Committee for Security Matters and Fair Play is to meet Nov. 7. The chairman is Lennart Johansson, who so much enjoyed England's stadiums — without fencing — at Euro96.

Also on the committee is Jack Warner, the member for Trinidad and Tobago, whose national team is due to play in Guatemala next month. On FIFA's executive is Isaac Sasso Sasso of Costa Rica, who witnessed the carnage.

They know the region, know the human cost, and may have a shrewd idea of what elements compounded the fatal rush. But if they listen to Sepp Blatter, FIFA's general secretary, they know the priority: Get rid of the fencing.

"We saw at Euro 96 how security and the atmosphere should be in the stadia," Blatter has said. "To see those high fences is as if the spectators are prisoners rather than football fans."

The steel cages criminalize people and threaten their lives. They are a cheap way of corralling citizens, cheaper than proper policing with surveillance cameras to detect the threatening minority.

Blatter saw enough at Euro96 to call on France to remove fencing before the World Cup in 1998. He was told that they remain by French law. Blatter, and FIFA, have no more urgent mission than to tackle the government of France.

WHAT ARE they afraid of? Fan invasions are rare. Maybe the reason is the cost. England's government, obliged under the terms of a leading judge's report on Hillsborough, has contributed £437 million on the 40 stadiums in the top two divisions during the 1990s. But FIFA should embarrass the French government, if need be. Fans must not be sent into areas that ought to carry health warnings. More-over, FIFA — soon to be awash with cash from billion-dollar television deals for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups — can afford to fund a team of safety inspectors.

The territory is vast, the responsibility greater. FIFA's "flying doctors" would drop in to diagnose, to advise remedial action where there is time, to prevent people from being sent to their death. Safety must be paramount where large and excitable crowds mass in what is both a sport and a boom industry.