Trouble brewing at Lebanese football games

Published March 22nd, 2017 - 03:23 GMT
Nejmeh and Ansar fans crowd the stadium during a football match in Tyre. (Photo: Wurud Skaff)
Nejmeh and Ansar fans crowd the stadium during a football match in Tyre. (Photo: Wurud Skaff)

With thousands of fans climbing onto floodlights and sitting atop the Tyre Stadium’s roof, spectators’ safety was put at risk during last month’s Beirut Football Derby between Ansar and Nejmeh.

For 90 minutes, fans sought escape from the day-to-day problems they may face in their lives. But, having set those problems aside, a number of spectators in the packed stadium endangered their lives and the lives of others as they clambered atop walls and floodlights to get a superior view of the game.

Hashem Haidar, president of Lebanon’s Football Association, was quick to deny responsibility for the alarming scenes at the Feb. 26 derby, which were broadcast by various TV stations.

“You should ask the security forces [about that], because this is not our job,” Haidar told The Daily Star when asked about his reaction to the game’s overcrowding. The Tyre Stadium, which has 6,500 seats, was far over capacity, although the exact crowd size is unknown.

“The Internal Security Forces are responsible for the safety of the fans and there is constant contact between [the federation] and the ISF,” Haidar said.

Nejmeh boasts arguably the largest fan base of any domestic football team. Ansar is in the running for having the second largest fan base, drawing huge crowds whenever the team, known as the “Green Castle,” plays. The crowd’s size was remarkable, given that the derby was played in Tyre, 82 kilometers away from both teams’ home stadiums.

A source from the ISF said that the FA’s comments were inaccurate. “Our job is to make sure the situation remains stable between fans and players. We don’t know how many people are allowed to enter the stadium,” he said. “Who is the one benefitting from all of the entries and tickets purchased?”

However, the source was quick to dismiss the idea of a rift between the FA and ISF. “There needs to be more cooperation between the FA and the clubs, and however we can help, we are ready,” he said.

“We are called to go to the games and if the situation begins to spiral out of control, we always have – and always will – step in to restore calm or prevent violence,” he said.

Meanwhile, Myriam Damoury, a sports journalist at football publication Super 1, contested Haidar’s comments. “Who holds the ISF responsible for doing their job correctly at the games that the FA asks them to be at? Is it not the FA?”

Damoury added that it was the responsibility of the clubs to ensure they have secured an appropriate stadium for big games. “Each stadium has its own administration. Camille Chamoun Stadium, for example, is headed by Riad Shaykha,” she said.

“[Shaykha] is in contact with the FA and the Youth and Sports Ministry. The Nejmeh versus Ansar game was not played at Burj Hammoud Stadium but Ahed versus Salam Zgharta was – why? Because the FA and the Burj Hammoud Stadium’s administration are not on good terms. The difference is that Ahed’s administration is working hard,” Damoury said.

Burj Hammoud Stadium reportedly can seat 10,500 spectators.

Damoury insisted that the fault lies with the club’s board and administration. “The Tyre Stadium is completely incapable of hosting such a large number of fans. Why doesn’t the club sign a contract with [Camille Chamoun Stadium]? This way, the stadium’s administration will be responsible for making sure the pitch is acceptable.”

Security issues were cited as a main factor in choosing a venue to host the most anticipated match of the Lebanese Premier League. The Camille Chamoun Stadium was in disrepair at the time, rendering the 48,000-capacity venue unavailable.

The Beirut Municipality Stadium has the capacity to host 18,000 fans and is the traditional home field of Ansar. The pitch, also in a disastrous state, was unusable.

Fans of both teams made the long journey to watch the hotly anticipated derby, squeezing into the stadium. Even as the maximum capacity was reached and surpassed, fans continued to enter, endangering their lives.

Although not every game faces such overcrowding, the potential for harm at these derbies is worrying.

Deaths as a result of stadium overcrowding are not unprecedented in international football. In 2012, a riot broke out in Egypt at the Port Said Stadium, resulting in over 70 deaths and 500 injuries.

In 1989, at England’s Hillsborough Stadium, police allowed too many fans to enter the stadium. The resulting crush left 96 spectators dead and over 700 injured.

The FA can either arrange for games anticipated to draw big crowds to be played in one of the many large stadiums available, or risk making Lebanon the site of another football stadium tragedy.

“There will be a lot finger pointing, but the blame lies with the clubs and the FA,” Damoury said.

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