South Africa, Sport

Pirates, invaded: PSL owes fans safety and a critical response in wake of Loftus violence

By Antoinette Muller 13 February 2017

The scenes from Loftus over the weekend, as Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns fans clashed, was hair-raising. Journalists and spectators were caught in the crossfire of irate supporters who failed to conjure any semblance of logic to deal with their frustration. Acting out is not exclusive to South African sport, and the response to this incident from the powers-that-be needs to send a strong message. A mere fine will not be enough. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Take almost any foreign soccer fan to a match in South Africa and they are likely to respond with bemusement that – more often than not – opposing fans are not separated and fans whose team aren’t even playing are present and jovially agitating the opposition. It’s unique compared to almost anywhere else in the world.

On Saturday afternoon at Loftus, that image of bonhomie soccer-watching was shattered. In the 82nd minute of Mamelodi Sundowns’ 6-0 demolition job of Orlando Pirates at Loftus Stadium, all hell broke loose.

Play had to be stopped for over an hour as opposing fans clashed, invading the pitch and vandalising stadium and television equipment. At least 13 people were admitted to hospital with many more injured.

There were also reports of photographers being targeted with the Daily Sun’s Themba Makofane saying fans tried to steal his wallet and his spare camera while he was trying to do his job. It was only his pleading for mercy that resulted in his belongings being returned to him.

The violence and vandalism were not borne of the usual hooligan factions seen across Europe and elsewhere in the world, though. Opposing fans – and the media – were simply collateral in Pirates’ fans ire at management and the players. Indeed, reports suggested that players were fleeing for their safety as the anger from fans spilled over.

The Buccaneers are languishing mid-table in the PSL and have endured a string of horror results this season. Over the weekend, they thought it best to express that dissatisfaction through a pitch invasion.

These incidents aren’t exactly new. Last year in England, Coventry and Burnley fans were among those to take to the pitch. These invasions – for varying reasons – are such a big deal across the world that there’s a legal firm in the United Kingdom dedicated entirely to helping fans who transgress the rules. Pitch invasion is a criminal offence in the UK and there are clear protocols for dealing with these issues because it happens so often.

The situation on home soil is slightly more challenging. Security and police were clearly taken by surprise on Saturday and while they deserve some credit for eventually calming things down – and even more for getting to a point where the match could continue – the response that follows this will be critical.

Photo: Dr Irvin Khoza chairman of Orlando Pirates during Orlando Pirates Press Conference at Rand Stadium on 13 February 2017 ©Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

Orlando Pirates chairperson Irvin Khoza stepped up to address the media after the incident, saying: “Violence is not the answer, violence diminishes the reasons no matter how good they are. Now we’re talking about violence and not the reasons why you stood up from your seat.

Whether it be out of frustration, resignation or legitimate protest, once it becomes violent all the reasons diminishes even if they’re good or legitimate. Violence in sport, especially football, has got a name around the world – it is called hooliganism.”

Mamelodi Sundowns head coach Pitso Mosimane had a similar view, saying he was glad he had not taken his son to the game as he usually does, adding: “When you find unfortunate things like this it’s not nice because we’re struggling to fill the stadiums and to put a good product on the pitch.”

The silence from elsewhere, though, was deafening. It took until Monday lunchtime for Orlando Pirates to issue their official statement with Khoza once again condemning the violence and reiterating that anyone who stoops to these acts are “hooligans”.

Like manners once did, violence is now shaping and obsessing our society. If we do not stop it, it will stop us, and our children will have a bleak future,” read part of the statement.

It took until Sunday for the PSL to release its statement in which they reiterated the “hooliganism” claim, but there was no indication as to whether there would be any further action and the PSL did not respond to the Daily Maverick’s request for further comment. The South African Football Association (Safa) says it’s a PSL matter.

The perpetrators who were caught and carted off are likely to be punished – for the time being, we remain in limbo. Pirates are due to play Wits on Wednesday and it is unlikely that fans’ ire will have dissipated.

While Khoza and the PSL have said the right words, even stronger actions are required. At best, the club should be fined in order to ensure they take measures to prevent this from happening again. At worst, the next fixture should be played behind closed doors.

While that might seem like an extreme solution, the PSL would do well to remember that they have a mandate to serve and protect fans and if that means taking extreme measures, so be it. Fans’ lives should never be at risk, no matter the circumstances.

Even if these incidents remain few and far between, the league has had sufficient warning of just how badly wrong things can go – like when a fan was accidentally shot and killed while allegedly trying to take a policeman’s firearm during a pitch invasion back in May 2015.

It would do well to remember that it has a responsibility to ensure that the product it is currently struggling to sell, evident through the empty stadiums this season, needs to remain a sanctuary and not become a wreckage.

If the PSL is not confident that it has measures in place – and it surely can’t be considering its history of dealing with these incidents – it needs to take extreme action for the sake of the fans and for the sanctity of the game. DM

Photo: Orlando Pirates fans react in anger during Absa Premiership match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates at Loftus Stadium in Pretoria on 11 February 2017 ©Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix