2022: A disastrous year for football
Another faultless 12 months for football’s authorities, where not a single significant administrator lost their job — this despite two disasters, one of them among the worst ever, another near-disaster at club football’s biggest game, and then the hosting of the sport’s most celebrated international event, which went ahead despite preparations delivering a body count of thousandsaccording to independent sources.
All of this makes you question whose interests world football’s governing body FIFAits European equivalent UEFAAfrican federation CAF and, perhaps, every one of the other institutions that run our game are serving first.
Without a doubt, it is not the fans — or the average, hard-working human beings whose labour serves up the global spectacles that make men such as FIFA president Gianni Infantino rich and famous.
The year began with haste in Cameroon, where the Africa Cup of Nations’ newest stadium was the site of a crush that killed eight and injured 38 on January 24.
Initially, the coverage described the cause as a stampede because that is the easiest thing to conclude from afar when people are seen running, even if you do not know what they are running from.
It was only with fair and closer inspection that it became clear what had really happened.
Two months before the tournament, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had doubts about the venue — the 60,000-capacity Olembe Stadium in Yaounde — with general secretary Veron Mosengo-Omba sending a letter to Cameroon’s sports minister, Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, where he also registered “serious concerns about the organisation of the tournament”.
Kombi later spoke of a “deplorable incident” where fans died “because of their passion for football”. It was, according to Kombi, a “mortal incident provoked by a massive and late influx of supporters to the stadium”.
Kombi, however, did not mention the warnings that came Cameroon’s way.
Eight weeks earlier, CAF was worried about the speed of development at the stadium, asking Kombi and the venue’s construction company to share the work plan. At that point, the Olembe did not even have a manager.
Just 54 days before the opening ceremony, CAF was still unhappy with what it saw, citing the perimeter fencing as one of several outstanding issues.
Though the delivery had been promised by November 30 last year in preparation for a handover to CAF four days later, a new date for the competition of the “exteriors” was set a week after that.
According to CAF, the handover was missed due to “technical” hitches. A day after the deadline, at least one sign was placed outside the stadium by the Canadian construction firm, Magil, threatening 10 million Central African CFA franc fines (£12,669 then) as well as the confiscation of phones and cameras for anyone taking photographs without permission.
As late as December 20, CAF’s president, a South African mining billionaire named Patrice Motsepe, still had concerns. Having undertaken his own inspection, he cited vague but “unresolved issues”, nevertheless demanding that by the tournament’s opening date of January 9, “there must be a kick-off”.
Motsepe suggested the omicron variant of COVID-19 had resulted in more pressure on workers before the start of the tournament, postponed from the previous year because of the pandemic, conceding that it was his responsibility to ensure Cameroon’s safety standards fell “in line with the rest of the world”.
In the aftermath of the disaster, there was no mention either of other causes for interruptions, such as workers walking out because of missed paydays — setting a project that could not afford any more delays back even further.
For the organisers, the show simply had to go on and it was left to survivors to detail the impact of all of this.
Eyewitnesses would corroborate each other, saying there was indeed a large crowd outside the stadium’s perimeter ahead of the round-of-16 tie between the host nation and Comoros but this was only because of a build-up caused by inadequate organisation. It had been similar at an earlier Cameroon group-stage game but lessons were not learnt.
Once the crowd were through the first checkpoint, a minimal number of stewards directed hundreds, possibly thousands of fans, towards the same gate. This buckled under the pressure of people. There was no funnelling system in place and few signposts directing supporters elsewhere. As the gate opened, people tumbled through and many fell to their deaths, including women and children.
Four months later, a comparable chain of events could have led to a similar outcome in Paris.
Preparations for the Champions League final had again been rushed, after a change of host city from Saint Petersburg following Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine.
In the executive lounges of the replacement venue the Stade de France on May 28, Motsepe’s UEFA counterpart, Aleksander Ceferin, told Liverpool’s metro mayor Steve Rotheram that UEFA staff had “killed” themselves to get the final on there in just three months.
Rotheram had been mugged outside the ground, where there was mayhem.
Like in Yaounde, thousands were waiting to get in. Like in Yaounde, they had all arrived at the same spot in good time. Like in Yaounde, there was a lack of signposts and stewarding. Like in Yaounde, the fans initially got the blame before the reality was exposed.
It is a miracle nobody died that day in northern Paris but it was only the collective memory of Liverpool supporters that saved lives.
Some in the queue at the south western end of the stadium had been at Hillsborough in 1989, where 97 supporters died because of similar organisational shortcomings. An understanding of the warning signals, therefore, had been passed from generation to generation.
Yet some things are beyond any knowledgeable person’s control and the night still got worse and worse.
As UEFA falsely tried to blame supporters for late arrival by projecting a message across the stadium’s video screens, police and local youths were running pitched battles around the inner and outer concourses of the venue. Fans were caught in the middle of this. Many were beaten themselves, both by the locals and police, who also used pepper spray and tear gas.
Meanwhile, the crushes at three entry gates were intensifying because stewards would not let anyone in. It was later revealed that another major problem had been the failure of UEFA’s online ticketing system, which did not work on the day.
Once the game was over, fans were then attacked by the locals of Saint-Denis while exiting the stadium. There was no provision of safety from the police at this point, who just stood there and watched. One witness compared the scene to The Purge movie series.
UEFA would realise quickly that its lie was not going to travel well because of the huge amount of contradictory evidence recorded on mobile phones but there was no apology from the organisation for more than a week and one only came after huge pressure from sponsors, as well as Real Madrid who eventually conceded their fans had significant problems accessing the Stade de France too.
Ceferin, it transpired, had appointed old friends to lead the failed security operation, which involved riot police acting on outdated intelligence.
Aside from being the leader of UEFA, there are direct links between Ceferin and what happened in Paris. Perhaps near death is not enough to prompt him to question whether he should continue in his position. We do not know whether any of this rests easily on his conscience, because he has barely spoken about it.
Will UEFA’s independent report, due to be released in the new year, prompt him to step forward?
Maybe a more public stance would not make any real difference.
Fronting up has been the approach of his FIFA equivalent, Infantino, who in October considered it appropriate to high-five a grinning Indonesian Football League chairman during a charity match at the site of one of the world’s worst stadium disastersonly hours after the last of the 133 victims passed away from injuries sustained in another crush.
This happened when fans invaded the pitch at the end of a local league game between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya.
Though invasions are not a particularly unusual sight in Indonesia, on this occasion the police did not wait around for the mood to escalate. Though tear gas is prohibited by FIFA inside any stadium, police that day sent it onto the terraces, where women and children were sitting, waiting patiently to go home. Struggling for air, many fled in the same direction but the exit gates there were still closed and a build-up of pressure led to another deadly scene.
Infantino, of course, would argue the case for Qatar (where he has property) amid criticism over its human-rights record, its attitude towards the LGBTQ community and its treatment of migrant workers ahead of the World Cup.
The West should not, according to Infantino, be lecturing about the differences between right and wrong, given the treatment it has served out to other regions for hundreds of years. Where was the fury over Russia when the World Cup was held there four years ago, or China when it staged the 2008 Summer Olympics and this year’s Winter version?
The primary difference is the stadiums, where workers perished and therefore, Infantino’s World Cup and by definition FIFA, is linked to the death of people who helped make it all possible.
Even when FIFA has time to prepare a tournament, it gets it wrong. Perhaps the $7.5billion (£6.2bn) the organisation will make from Qatar 2022 will soften any sense of embarrassment.
For the time being, it does not seem like much, if any, of that money will filter down to the migrant workers or their families for abuses suffered in Qatar. Last month, human-rights teams claimed FIFA was failing to fulfil its responsibilities by refusing to commit to any meaningful compensation scheme.
That, indeed, would be an admittance of failing from an organisation which has profiteered from suffering, one which has experienced steroid enrichment from its quest to “grow the game”.
It is through this quest that FIFA, UEFA and CAF now have an excuse: whenever a bad thing happens at a football match, it is not the misbehaviour of the fans that caused it like it did in the past (sponsors would not like that) but the sheer number of people wanting to be there due to the sport’s popularity.
If that was true, then there is blame with Infantino, Ceferin and Motsepe as well.
Creating a corresponding safe environment for those who have built it, those who have always watched it, and even those who are new to it, does not seem like a priority at all.
(Top photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)
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