NAIROBI, Feb 10 – Hooliganism has blighted Kenyan football in recent times and hardly a season ends without violent skirmishes hogging the media limelight.
Key stakeholders; Government through the Ministry of Sports, Football Kenya Federation, Kenyan Premier League (KPL) and sponsors have tried all measures to curb the menace but the ugly face of hooliganism still rears its ugly head over the country’s beautiful game.
The contrast could not be more pronounced than in England, a country that battled hooliganism for decades before the 1989 Heysel Disaster where 96 Liverpool fans perished, forcing the government of the day led by the late Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, to enforce stringent crowd control rules including a ban on standing on stadium terraces.
In a recent tour by this writer to the Emirates Stadium, the home of English Premier League side Arsenal, to attend the FA Cup fourth round tie between holders Arsenal and Burnley, lessons Kenya can draw in curbing hooliganism and crowd control were at every turn of the majestic sporting cathedral.
In England security is priority regardless of the status of the game and it’s in this regard, that KPL title sponsors SportPesa, intend to send football stakeholders to the Emirates Stadium to gain experience on how to manage supporters.
“The Emirates is unbelievable, much work went towards building this stadium. It’s always an event and I think for Kenya to get there it will take time. When we think of designing stadiums for future we need to take into considerations all the things Arsenal do,” SportPesa CEO, Ronald Karuri told Capital FM Sport in London.
“We have talked about hooliganism and that’s why we are planning to have some key members from the KPL come over and see how things are done so that we handle hooliganism appropriately.”
To put things into perspective, whenever our two local titans and chief catalysts of most of the football-related violence; eternal rivals Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards clash, a maximum of 300 police officers, sometimes pitifully less depending on the magnitude of the ‘Mashemeji Derby’ are deployed to man the potentially explosive encounter.
Locally, only Gor and Leopards have a handful of designated stewards who sometimes abandon their duties to fan the confrontations inside the stadium with the other 14 KPL members hiring bouncers or in the case of Ulinzi Stars, Military Police take charge.
Often, local match stewards and police officers get carried away by the beautiful game forgetting their job and in the end failing contain the situation whenever chaos erupts.
Things are different at Emirates where for example in the Arsenal VS Burnley encounter 850 stewards were on duty inside and within the perimeter of the 60,000 capacity (Moi Kasarani) stadium.
Unlike in Kenya, no tickets are sold on match day to ease flow of fans that start trickling in three hours before.
Supporters freely stream in but they find the first security check where stewards with loud speakers alert them to open their jackets and bags for proper searches to be conducted 200m from the main gate.
Here, I met a former counter terrorism and intelligence officer who works part time at Arsenal whose work is to stand at the main entrance alerting fans to be ready for security screening.
“I’m telling them to open their jackets and bags for inspection to help security. If we don’t announce they will miss kick-off and they will get very mad but that’s their fault. If you are not checked you can’t access the stadium,” The Italian national stated.
They then proceed for the first inspection where they are frisked before heading to their designated gates with the assistance of customer service employees.
Upon arrival on the gate, a final security check by stewards is done for one to access the stadium.
One section is designated for the away fans and in this case being Burnley the visiting team, they find a warm banner on their access point written ‘WELCOME BURNLEY FANS’ a situation that makes them feel at home.
Back in Kenya things are different where despite the stadium being zoned for the home and away fans, supporters mix and in case of trouble especially when Gor and Leopards clash it becomes difficult to calm the situation.
Inside the stadium over 500 stewards are assigned on different locations beside the pitch, along the terraces and at the upper deck where executive boxes (VIP) are situated.
I spoke with one of the stewards who explained how they operate including the ones who face the crowd while the match is going on.
“The stewards besides the pitch ensure no one runs onto the field while those along the terraces make sure no one climbs over. They sit on the sideway so that they can watch both the crowd and the game as well. Even if it rains they can’t move.”
“My work here at the upper deck is to supervise and ensure no one sneaks in drinks from outside. We usually report four hours before kick-off to allow regular fans access the pitch two and half hours earlier while the VIP is opened two hours before,” the steward narrated.”
Elaborating on the away side team-welcoming banner, he added, “It helps the away fans feel welcomed so that next time they will want to come back. Rarely do we witness cases of hooliganism maybe when we are playing European games but it’s unlikely.
“If one is found he/she will be charged by the law.”
When the match ends all the stewards inside the stadium remain behind to inspect the whole stadium to find out if there is anything the fans forgot or left. If found it is taken to the relevant department to track the owner.
The number of stewards is doubled when Arsenal is playing European matches like the UEFA Champions League.