Stadium crush raises questions
Johannesburg - "We're prepared for every eventuality," Police Commissioner Bheki Cele says about the police's readiness to protect fans at the World Cup which kicks off on Friday.
But Sunday's stampede at a World Cup warm-up game between Nigeria and North Korea, which left 16 injured, one seriously, showed a different picture - one of a police force overwhelmed, literally, by thousands of supporters.
A policeman was crushed in the melee provoked by the rush to get into a free friendly in Makhulong stadium in Tembisa township, north of Johannesburg.
The 10 000 capacity stadium was already full but faced with a tide of supporters frustrated at being excluded. Police opened the gates twice to let more people through, causing two surges that trapped people underfoot.
"I thought I was dying. I was at the bottom," one female supporter was quoted by Johannesburg's The Star newspaper as saying in a front-page story headlined "Soccer stampede mayhem".
The ruling football body FIFA moved to distance itself from the accident, pointing out that the stadium was not a World Cup stadium and that FIFA was not involved in organising the game.
The organisation remained "fully confident" about the organisation of the World Cup, it said.
The police also downplayed their lack of preparedness, saying that they had done "all in their power to prevent fatalities and minimise injuries" and placing the blame at the foot of organisers.
"They were issuing free tickets outside the stadium. That's crazy," police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo told the German Press Agency dpa.
Many however saw the incident as a close brush with disaster and a wake-up call for the police.
Nine years ago, not far from Tembisa, 43 people were crushed to death when supporters of arch-rival premier league sides Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates stormed Ellis Park stadium in central Johannesburg, one of the World Cup venues.
Tragedy struck again last year in Ivory Coast, where 19 people were killed in a stampede outside a World Cup qualifier against Malawi.
In many cases, the nonchalance of fans is to blame.
"It is a tendency when you come to a soccer match - where the spectators come late," police Colonel Hungwani Mulaudzi told dpa.
On Sunday, the situation was compounded by the distribution of free tickets, fulfilling a requirement by FIFA, which has demanded that the teams competing at the World Cup give free access to one warm-up game.
The news spread fast through Tembisa, a township of small brick homes and tin shacks, and caused the stadium to be swamped.
In contrast with the staged display of World Cup readiness in Johannesburg recently - which saw officers jumping out of helicopters and rappelling down façades - on Sunday, "they were overpowered", Mulaudzi admitted.
The incident was fat to the fire of South Africa's critics, who had just begun to recant their doubts about the country's capacity to host the World Cup.
"The incident will raise fresh questions over South Africa's ability to host the world's largest sporting event," Britain's The Times newspaper said in an editorial.
Yet, 75 000 people thronged Soccer City stadium in Soweto township last month for a South Africa-Colombia friendly - and that passed off without incident.
Cars are barred from parking near the stadiums and concentric layers of security slow the advance of the crowds towards the turnstiles.
Some 8 500 police have received training in crowd control and the police have bought 10 new water cannons that will stand ready outside games for use in emergencies.
Fan park security has also been put to the test.
In December, some 50 000 people crowded into a narrow street in Cape Town to watch the World Cup draw.
That event, too, passed off without problem after the police opened adjoining streets to contain the overflow.