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Tragedies Are Waiting to Happen

COMMENTARY

Soccer: Combine rickety stadiums with fans' passion and it's surprising there aren't more deadly incidents such as the one in Guatemala City.

October 18, 1996|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — For American sports followers, accustomed to plush, modern stadiums with adequate security and well-behaved fans, the tragedy that befell Guatemala on Wednesday night is almost unimaginable.

There have been stampedes and rioting at U.S. rock concerts, resulting in deaths and injuries, and only a few years ago, football fans were injured when a fence gave way and they were trampled by others after a game at the University of Wisconsin. But only in the worst nightmares of U.S. sports promoters and organizers could scenes such as those that occurred at Mateo Flores national stadium in Guatemala City be repeated in this country.

Long lines of corpses laid out at Dodger Stadium? Not likely. Desperate fans breaking down the doors to get into the Forum? In laid-back L.A.? Scores suffocated or crushed to death in a stampede at the Rose Bowl? Unthinkable.

Yet in the rest of the world, such tragedies occur with depressing regularity.

The latest disaster--fans trying to get into an already full stadium breaking down fences and trampling those already inside--happened Wednesday evening, shortly before the national soccer teams of Guatemala and Costa Rica were to play a qualifying game for the 1998 World Cup in France.

The final toll by the time rescue workers had completed their grim task: 84 dead and 147 injured, some of them seriously. At least two of the dead were children, as were several of those injured.

Why did it happen? Why does it keep happening?

The answer lies not in the sport of soccer itself but in the way those in charge of it on the international, national and local levels fail in their duties.

It is all about passion on one hand, and corruption, indifference and greed on the other.

For more than a century, soccer has been the people's game, the sport of the masses, the working man's escape from the tedium of his job. For 90 minutes, at least, each week during the season, the soccer stadium offers a sanctuary from the toils and troubles of everyday life. It is a place to dream and to share that dream, whether supporting club or country.

And so, for decade after decade, from father to son, the passion has been handed down, spreading from country to country and continent to continent. The same feeling that grips a coal miner in the north of England or a farmhand in South Africa is shared by a bus driver in Bolivia or a postman in Malaysia.

Or a coffee plantation worker in Guatemala.

Which is why they came by the tens of thousands to Mateo Flores stadium Wednesday evening, proudly wearing or waving the blue and white colors of their native land.

But, like their counterparts in all too many countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and, yes, Europe too, those who own or run the stadium had allowed it to become rundown and ramshackle. A coat of paint outside did not cover up the inadequacies inside. For 50 years or more, the fans had come to Mateo Flores; they weren't going to stop simply because it had not been renovated.

It is all about money, of course. Once the fans have filled the coffers, why empty them again to build new stadiums or upgrade existing ones? Some nations have learned the hard way. After the twin tragedies of the Bradford stadium fire in 1985 in which 55 fans died and the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield in 1989, when 95 people were killed in a stampede not unlike Wednesday's, English authorities ordered all major stadiums to be remodeled into modern, all-seater buildings.

But most countries do not have the resources to do that. In Mateo Flores stadium, for example, there are only 5,000 seats, and they are reserved for the rich and powerful. The other 40,000 spectators must stand. It is that way the world over, or at least the Third World over.

Fans pack into stadiums as tightly as possible. They block the aisles, they perch precariously on the stadium rim, they occupy every square inch of space. Those who cannot get in peer down from the rooftops of nearby buildings, from trees, from telephone poles. It is the same way from Quito, Ecuador, to Cairo, Egypt.

It is the passion. It is also a recipe for disaster and so, while tragic, it is not surprising that disasters occur.

Thursday, while Guatemala tried to come to grips with an event that has sent the country into three days of mourning, the rest of the soccer world took note and tried to share--and thereby perhaps ease--the grief.

In Chicago, Hank Steinbrecher, secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation, sent his and USSF President Alan Rothenberg's condolences in a letter to the Guatemalan Soccer Federation.

"The thoughts and prayers of our entire membership are certainly with you and the families of those fans of Guatemalan soccer who have suffered the loss of loved ones," the letter read.

"We offer . . . our assistance in any way that might be of service . . . in this time of great pain and sorrow."

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