FIFA moved fast to calm safety concerns in South Africa after yesterday’s crush in Tembisa left 15 people – including a policeman – in hospital.
For the first time since the stars, fans and media began to arrive in South Africa, the headline writers turned on the hosts just four days before the big World Cup kick-off on June 11. The incident dominated the front pages after fans struggled to gain access to the Makhulong Stadium to see Nigeria’s warm-up game against North Korea.
I was on England’s talkSPORT radio last night and again this morning attempting to point out that the 15,000 capacity venue was not suitable for a game involving a nation with a huge migrant population, many of them living in the sprawl of Tembisa, not five miles from where I am writing this article in Centurion.
Last week in Polokwane I was told by a high-ranking official here that Nigeria’s pre-World Cup preparations had been “slightly chaotic” and that they were using a private company to organise this game. The problems came when Nigeria scored the first of their three goals in a 3-0 win... and the match was stopped for five minutes when a safety rail broke in the venue.
England have said they will “up security” for the friendly against local club Platinum Stars at the Maruleng Stadium this afternoon – but their stadium, though also not a World Cup venue – is a brand new structure with a 20,000 capacity where no such problems will occur.
FIFA point out they had “nothing to do with the ticketing of this game” where 8,000 free tickets were handed out, leading to a crush at the gates.
The FIFA Statement said "We have been informed by the South African Police Services about the incidents which have taken place.
“FIFA and the Organising Committee would like to first wish a prompt recovery to those who have been affected by these incidents.
"In addition, we would like to reiterate that this friendly match has no relation whatsoever with the operational organisation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, for which we remain fully confident.
"Contrary to some media reports, FIFA had nothing to do with the ticketing of this game."
The South Africa Police, fully in control when I saw South Africa beat Denmark 1-0 on Saturday with 40,000 going crazy at the Super Stadium in Atteridgeville, said: "Tickets were apparently being handed out by the teams outside the stadium but a number of fans wanted to enter without them.
"It would seem that there was also some confusion among the crowd as to the ticketing system which led to disruptive behaviour on the part of the crowd.
“We immediately started implementing crowd management measures but the crowd became unruly and pushed against the gates.
"One police official was seriously wounded when he was trampled by the crowd, one police official was slightly injured but remained on duty. The police did all in their power to prevent fatalities and minimise injuries."
My experiences over the past months – with both fans and police – suggest there will be no such trouble when the World Cup proper begins with exclusion zones around stadiums and strict stewarding in force.
But the whole affair raises ghosts of April, 2001, when 43 people died in a crush outside the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Yesterday was not a good day for the World Cup.
In Magaliesburg, a tiny village between Pretoria and Rustenburg, mounted police and riot squads were needed to hold back 20,000 Portuguese South Africans attempting to gain a glimpse of Cristiano Ronaldo and Co arriving in the country.
If South Africa didn’t quite know what World Cup fever was, they do now.
Neal Collins (nealcol) is in South Africa to promote his first novel A GAME APART, currently No15 on Amazon’s African best-sellers. For more information go to www.nealcollins.co.uk. To see video footage of yesterday’s events in Magaliesburg, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nIz0GAAlzc.