Sports stadium disasters


Dr Ramon Spaaij



The soccer stadium disaster in the Egyptian city of Port Said is one of the deadliest, in terms of loss of life, in the history of the world game. At least 73 people were killed and many others injured when spectators invaded the pitch after a match between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly.

Officials say most of the deaths were caused by concussions, stab wounds and suffocation from the stampede. In the wake of the disaster, the Egyptian Football Association postponed the domestic soccer league for an indefinite period.

Although further investigation needs to establish exactly what happened, the events in Port Said are exceptional, but not unique. The past thirty years have seen a number of major sports stadium disasters. The big question is how such disasters can be prevented, or how their effects can be minimised.

History tells us that it would be foolish to focus solely on the violent or unruly behaviour of spectators. While such behaviour can contribute or trigger stadium disasters, as was the case in Port Said, the root cause of the deadly implications often lies elsewhere: faulty organisation and inadequate safety and security management. Several sports stadium disasters have been caused by organisational failure. Luzhniki in 1982, Ibrox 1971 and Bradford 1985 all had high death tolls and no trouble between spectators.

The 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives in a stampede, is another example. Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry into the disaster attributed it to the safety inadequacy of the section of the stadium where the deaths occurred and to a complete mishandling of the emergency situation.

The police’s obsession with secure containment of Liverpool supporters at the expense of crowd safety played an important role in the unfolding of the disaster. The 1985 Heysel stadium disaster in Belgium, in which 39 people were killed, was also caused largely by inadequate organisation and co-ordination. Both Heysel and Hillsborough continued to be treated as problems in public order long after they had become ones of public safety.

South Africa’s worst sports disaster at Ellis Park stadium in 2001 claimed 43 lives and 158 injuries. It also illustrates that faulty organisation and inadequate security typically play a larger role than unruly spectator behaviour in causing sports stadium disasters. Hardly surprising then that early reports of the Port Said tragedy signal the inadequacy of security arrangements, although these reports need to be understood within the context of Egypt’s current political situation.

Important lessons can be learnt from these disasters for managing public safety in sports grounds, especially in developing and maintaining high safety standards, accountability, inter-agency cooperation, emergency preparedness and managing potential conflicts between safety and commercialism.

Clearly, there is no ‘one best way’ of managing public safety at sporting events, and approaches will vary and evolve in response to local circumstances.

Australia’s main sporting venues are known for their comprehensive safety standards, good facilities and professional management. However, a key lesson is that, to paraphrase Lord Justice Taylor, complacency is the adversary of public safety. Sports stadium disasters such as the one that occurred in Port Said should not be regarded as incapable of happening here.

All those responsible for licensing, managing and using major sports grounds should use these tragic events to reflect on their safety and security arrangements as well as on the nature and efficacy of inter-agency collaboration.

Dr Ramón Spaaij is Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe University's School of Social Sciences