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They went to a match and never came back (Part Fifteen)

Continuing the series that looks at those thankfully rare times in football history when fans went to a football match but never made it home afterwards.

(For Part One click here; Part Two here; Part Three here; Part Four here; Part Five here; Part Six here; Part Seven here;  Part Eight here; Part Nine here; Part Ten here, Part Eleven here, part Twelve here; Part Thirteen here, and Part Fourteen here).

Although there are no agreements as to the cause of the worst stadium disaster in the history of Central American story, and the exact number of fatalities is still a matter for debate, the tragedy which unfolded in Guatemala in October 1996 had much in common with similar disasters from around the world. Poor infrastructure and stadium design, inadequate policing and stewarding, and human error all make for a potentially potent cocktail.

Mateo Flores National Stadium Disaster, Guatemala City

The Mateo Flores National Stadium in Guatemala was originally built to host the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1950.  Used mainly for football matches, thereafter, the majority of the home games of the Guatemala national team were hosted there, and it had a capacity of 45,000 spectators.

In October 1996, Guatemala were due to host Costa Rica in what was an eagerly awaited World Cup qualifier.

Crowds flocked to the match and, and hour before kick-off, the ground was packed to the rafters, with some fans perched on the press box and walls of the stadium, all but blocking the gates. At least 50,000 people had managed to make their way in, with thousands more outside.

The fact that there was a human stampede is beyond doubt, even though eyewitnesses differ on the cause. According to firefighters it was caused by fans locked outside the ground trying to force their way in, whilst FIFA blamed it on forgers, who had sold tickets for the match, despite it being over-subscribed.

Alternatively, a Guatemalan government spokesman later said that the rush had been triggered by a drunken brawl in the General Sur section. Panicked fans fled the violence, somebody tripped and fell, and that brought down a mass of bodies behind  them.

Other eyewitnesses claimed that security guards opened the gates in a bid to alleviate the crush outside, and people crowded each other and toppled over.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu Frigoyen, who was at the match, witnessed the stampede and immediately ordered that the game should be called off, although, by that time, the damage had been done.

Between 80 and 100 people died, whilst hundreds more were injured.

The dead were laid out on the pitch under the stadium lights, a number of them children dressed in Guatemalan team T-shirts. Meanwhile, local hospitals cared for the wounded, most of whom needed treatment for either broken bones, or asphyxia – the principal cause of death for most of the fatalities.

Three days of national mourning were ordered.

13 administrative directors were charged by the public prosecutor and held responsible for the deaths and injuries, although all were subsequently to have the charges against them dropped.

However, following recommendations made by FIFA, the capacity of the stadium was reduced to 26,000.

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