By GRAHAM DUNBAR and JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The riots that killed 74 people in Egypt were sickeningly familiar for soccer: a rush to the field by fans, fighting, a deadly stampede — scenes replayed over and over at stadiums around the world. This time, however, there were important differences.
Most important, context. Soccer in the Arab world has long been tied to politics. Before the Arab Spring, attending soccer games was one of the few outlets to vent frustration about life under autocratic leaders. In Egypt, hardcore fans known as Ultras played an important role in the popular uprising that toppled former leader Hosni Mubarak last year.
"The background to the violence in Egypt and in the Middle East in soccer stadiums is fundamentally different from that anywhere else in the world," said James Dorsey, author of the blog, "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer," and an expert at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The Port Said stadium where the violence erupted Wednesday after an Egyptian league match isn't a top-class stadium like Manchester United's giant Old Trafford. But nor should it have been a death trap. Built in the 1950s, it was refurbished ahead of the Under-20 World Cup organized by world soccer's governing body and hosted by Egypt in 2009.
"I know the stadium and it's a good one. It's absolutely not a stadium where there is a danger to the spectators," said Walter Gagg, a FIFA official and stadium and security adviser to the Confederation of African Football. Gagg inspected the stadium to approve its use for the 2006 Cup of Nations.
Speaking by phone, he suggested the violence was planned and that authorities had been bracing for trouble.
"There was even a question to not play the match," he said. "We think there was premeditation for what happened. It was very difficult to organize this match."
Mark Fenwick, a partner at Fenwick Iribarren Architects that designed Espanyol's Cornella-El Prat stadium and others in Qatar, Morocco and Albania, described the riot as an "escape valve for other issues" and tied to the "general state of the country."
"It's not really anything to do with football stadiums. I don't think stadiums are the culprit even if it was very far behind in terms of design," said Fenwick, author of "The UEFA Guide for Quality Stadiums." ''It does seem to be more that social and cultural differences came to a head with the reason being a football match. It could have happened in any building. Even if you have the most modern hotel with top safety precautions, if someone blocks the doors and locks the exits, you'll have the same problems."
Witnesses spoke of supporters armed with knives, sticks and stones. An Egyptian health ministry official said some deaths were caused by stabbing. That suggests police did not carry out the careful searches and bag checks common at matches in Europe and elsewhere. In the United States, fans attending this Sunday's Super Bowl will be barred not only for carrying weapons but also for such innocuous items as beach balls and frisbees.
That some fans were armed did not alone fully explain the high death toll. Supporters fleeing the armed fans crowded into a corridor leading out of the stadium, only to be crushed against a locked gate, survivors and witnesses said.
That scenario resembled disasters at other stadiums. In 1991, at least 40 people were killed in Orkney, South Africa, when panicked fans tried to escape brawls that broke out in the grandstand. Most of the dead were trampled or crushed along riot-control fences.
"This is a crowd issue, this isn't a football issue," said Geoff Pearson, a law lecturer at the University of Liverpool and author of "Football Hooliganism: Policing and the War on the English Disease."
He noted that other events, including religious ceremonies, have been beset by fatal stampedes.
"But, of course, football is the biggest sport in the world by an absolute mile and the crowds tend to be bigger," he said. "Also, unfortunately, football fans have a reputation now for being more disorderly than other types of crowd groups. Now that's not necessarily fair, but it does mean that policing methods used to police football crowds tend to be more aggressive."