Another faultless 12 months for the football authorities, with not a single significant administrator losing their job – this despite two disasters, one of them among the worst ever, another near disaster at club football’s biggest game, and then hosting the sport’s most famous international event, which went off the rails despite the preparations delivering a body count in the thousands, according to independent sources.
All of which makes you question whose interests world football’s governing body FIFA, its European equivalent UEFA, the African confederation CAF and perhaps all the other institutions that run our game serve first.
Arguably, it’s not the fans – or the average, hard-working people whose work serves up the global spectacles that make men like FIFA president Gianni Infantino rich and famous.
The year began with a rush 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 it’s the easiest thing to infer from afar when people are seen running, even if you don’t know what they’re running from.
It was only during a fair and closer inspection that it became clear what had actually happened.
Two months before the tournament, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was in doubt about the venue – the 60,000-capacity Olembe Stadium in Yaounde – with secretary-general Veron Mosengo-Omba sending a letter to Cameroon’s sports minister, Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, in which he also registered “serious concerns about the organization of the tournament”.
Kombi later spoke of an “unfortunate incident” where fans died “because of their passion for football”. It was, according to Kombi, a “fatal incident provoked by a massive and late influx of supporters to the stadium”.
However, Kombi did not mention the warnings that came Cameroon’s way.
Eight weeks earlier, CAF was concerned about the speed of development at the stadium, and asked Kombi and the site’s construction company to share the work plan. At the time, Olembe didn’t even have a manager.
Just 54 days before the opening ceremony, CAF were still unhappy with what they saw, citing the perimeter fence as one of several outstanding issues.
Although 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 was set by the “outsiders” a week after that.
According to CAF, the handover was missed due to “technical” issues. A day after the deadline, at least one sign was placed outside the stadium by Canadian construction company Magil, threatening fines of 10 million Central African CFA francs (£12,669 then) as well as the confiscation of phones and cameras for anyone taking pictures without permission.
As late as December 20, CAF’s president, a South African mining billionaire named Patrice Motsepe, still had concerns. After conducting his own inspection, he cited vague but “unresolved issues” but still demanded that by the tournament’s opening date of January 9, “there has to be a kick-off”.
Motsepe suggested that the omicron variant of COVID-19 had resulted in more pressure on workers before the start of the tournament, postponed from the previous year due to the pandemic, and admitted that it was his responsibility to ensure Cameroon’s safety standards fell “in line with the rest of the world”.
In the wake of the disaster, there was no mention of other causes of disruption, such as workers walking out due to lost wages – setting back a project that could not afford more delays even further.
For the organizers, the show just had to go on, and it was left to the survivors to detail the impact of it all.
Eyewitnesses would corroborate each other and said that there was indeed a large crowd outside the stadium perimeter ahead of the round of 16 match between the host nation and Comoros, but this was only due to a build-up caused by insufficient organisation. It had been similar in a previous group game in Cameroon, but the lessons were not learned.
Once the crowd was through the first checkpoint, a minimal number of stewards directed hundreds, possibly thousands, of fans toward the same gate. This broke under pressure from people. There was no funnel system in place and few signs directing supporters elsewhere. When the gate opened, people fell 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, following a change of host city from St Petersburg following Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine.
In the executive lounges at the replacement venue Stade de France on 28 May, Motsepe’s UEFA counterpart, Aleksander Ceferin, told Liverpool metro mayor Steve Rotheram that UEFA staff had “killed” themselves to get to the final there in just three months.
Rotheram had been robbed outside the ground, where there was chaos.
As in Yaounde, thousands waited to enter. As in Yaounde, they had all arrived at the same place in good time. As in Yaounde, there was a lack of guides and stewarding. As in Yaounde, the fans were first blamed before the reality was revealed.
It is a miracle that no one 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-west end of the stadium had been at Hillsborough in 1989, where 97 supporters died due to similar organizational failings. An understanding of the warning signals had therefore passed from generation to generation.
Still, some things are beyond the control of any sane person, and the night kept getting worse and worse.
While UEFA mistakenly tried to blame supporters for late arrivals by projecting a message over the stadium’s video screens, police and local youths ran matches around the inner and outer concourses of the venue. The fans were caught in the middle of this. Many were beaten themselves, both by the local population and the police, who also used pepper spray and tear gas.
Meanwhile, the crush at three entry gates intensified 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 was not working on the day.
Once the match was over, fans were attacked by locals in Saint-Denis as they left the stadium. There was no security from the police at this time, who just stood there and watched. One witness compared the scene to The Purge film series.
UEFA would quickly realize that its lie was not going to travel well due to the huge amount of contradictory evidence recorded on mobile phones, but there was no apology from the organization for more than a week, and one only came after heavy pressure from sponsors, including Real Madrid who eventually admitted that their fans had significant problems accessing the Stade de France as well.
Ceferin, it turned out, had appointed old friends to lead the botched security operation, which involved riot police acting on outdated intelligence.
Apart from being head of UEFA, there are direct links between Ceferin and what happened in Paris. Perhaps near death isn’t enough to make him question whether he should continue in his position. We don’t know if any of this rests lightly on his conscience, because he has hardly spoken about it.
Will UEFA’s independent report, due to be published in the New Year, see him come forward?
Perhaps a more public stance would make no real difference.
The front has been the approach of his FIFA equivalent, Infantino, who in October saw fit to high-five a grinning chairman of the Indonesian Football League during a charity match at the site of one of the world’s worst stadium disasters, just hours after the latest. of the 133 victims died from injuries sustained in another hug.
This happened when fans invaded the pitch at the end of a local league match between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya.
Although invasions are not a particularly uncommon sight in Indonesia, on this occasion the police did not wait for the mood to escalate. Although tear gas is banned by FIFA in all stadiums, the police that day sent it out onto the terraces, where women and children sat patiently waiting to go home. Many fled in the same direction, struggling for air, but the exit ports there were still closed and an increase in pressure led to another deadly scene.
Infantino, of course, will argue 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 on the differences between right and wrong, given the treatment it has meted 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 hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and this year’s winter version?
The primary difference is the stadiums, where workers died, and so 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 goes wrong. Perhaps the $7.5bn (£6.2bn) the organization will earn from Qatar 2022 will quell any sense of embarrassment.
For now, it does not appear that much, if any, of this money will filter down to the migrant workers or their families for abuses suffered in Qatar. Last month, human rights groups claimed FIFA was failing to meet its obligations by refusing to commit to any meaningful compensation scheme.
Indeed, it would be an admission of failure from an organization that has profited from suffering, one that has experienced steroid enrichment from its quest to “grow its game”.
It is through this quest that FIFA, UEFA and CAF now have an excuse: every time a bad thing happens at a football match, it is not the wrong behavior of the fans that caused it as before (sponsors will not like it) but the big the number of people who want to be there because of the sport’s popularity.
If it was true, then Infantino, Ceferin and Motsepe are also to blame.
Creating a similarly safe environment for those who built it, those who have always seen it, and even those who are new to it, doesn’t seem like a priority at all.
(Top photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)