A Stain On The Game The mass deaths of fans is soccer's recurring tragedy, but it's barely noticed here

May 20, 2001

What did you feel (if anything at all) when you heard last week
(if you heard at all) that 126 people died in a soccer stadium in
Ghana, only three days after two people died in a soccer stadium
in Iran and a man died in a soccer stadium in Ivory Coast, only
seven days after seven people died in a soccer stadium in Congo,
a scant 18 days after 43 people died in a soccer stadium in South
Africa? I felt nothing, beyond a split second's pang of regret.
"A single death is a tragedy," said Joseph Stalin, "a million
deaths is a statistic."

By the abysmal standards of international soccer spectating, 179
deaths in 29 days is unremarkable. Stalin, after all, couldn't
have become history's most prolific mass murderer without the
passive complicity of his fellow beings, who often see
ZIP-code-sized death tolls--the result of Mexican earthquakes,
say, or Indian rail disasters--as abstractions.

Which is what soccer stadium catastrophes have become--a
Stalinesque statistical litany with little resonance: 25 killed
in Scotland (April 5, 1902), 33 in England (March 6, 1946), six
in Chile (March 30, 1955), 318 in Peru (May 24, 1964), 74 in
Argentina (June 23, 1968), 66 in Scotland (Jan. 2, 1971), 49 in
Egypt (Feb. 17, 1974), 56 in England (May 11, 1985), 39 in
Belgium (May 29, 1985), 93 in Nepal (March 12, 1988), 96 in
England (April 15, 1989), 40 in South Africa (Jan. 13, 1991), 17
in Corsica (May 5, 1992), nine in Zambia (June 16, 1996), 84 in
Guatemala (Oct. 16, 1996), five in Nigeria (April 6, 1997), 13 in
Zimbabwe (July 9, 2000). You are, at this moment, suppressing a
yawn.

It is nearly impossible to interest a great many Americans in
events overseas, except in the most accessible of ways, so I was
resigned this week to writing another breezy, no-brain-required
installment of Carnac the Magnificent...

A: Cataracts.

Q: What kind of cars did Wang Zhizhi buy after signing with the
Dallas Mavericks?

...when I was reminded that being human requires (or ought to
require) sympathy for one's cohabitants on earth, and that
something larger is lost when so many lives pass unacknowledged.
"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them,
but to be indifferent to them," wrote George Bernard Shaw.
"That's the essence of inhumanity."

A man whose letter was recently published in this magazine called
the 30,000 annual gun deaths in America "statistically
insignificant," and it's unlikely that he'd consider his own
willful indifference to be part of the problem. A wise man said,
"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

When Dale Earnhardt became the fourth driver in a year to be
killed on a NASCAR track, it was said that no other sport would
tolerate so much carnage among its participants. Surely no
sport--other than soccer--would tolerate so many fatalities among
its spectators. The vast majority of soccer disasters are the
result of decrepit stadiums and/or horrendous crowd control, not,
as is widely assumed in the U.S., hooligan violence. These are
unnatural disasters, not acts of God: They are eminently
preventable.

England dithered on the issue for decades. But after 96 fans were
crushed to death in an overcrowded standing-room terrace at
Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15, 1989, the
government gave every major professional team in Great Britain a
choice: Make your stadium a safe "all-seat" venue or fold your
franchise. So the stadiums were improved.

However, what of poor nations in South America and Africa, where
these calamities are still commonplace? The problem appears
enormously complicated, bound up as it is in poverty and grossly
negligent governments. Still, the barest start of a solution is
simple: To pause for a moment over that paragraph in the paper,
when the plunging bus or barge claims 100 souls. Or when 126
lives are unnecessarily extinguished in Accra, Ghana. Otherwise,
we become the snowflake, or the lunatic on the LETTERS page.

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in
mankind," wrote John Donne, in the coda to his profoundly wise,
no-man-is-an-island rap. "Therefore, never send to know for whom
the bell tolls...."

Sports fans, it tolls for thee.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)