Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko are two top-seeded soccer teams and bitter rivals in the Ghana Premiere League. Last Saturday, we decided to go to Accra Sports Stadium to watch them play.
Easier said than done. Since our group was composed of five AFS students and two Ghanaians, we had to take two taxis to the stadium. We thought we'd be able to easily spot each other once we arrived, but Accra Sports Stadium was a madhouse. As Seth (a Ghanaian) looked for the others, Drew (an American) and I started waiting on the very long ticket line.
By the time Seth returned, the line had moved up about 50 feet. The other Americans tried to join the line, only to be yelled at and ultimately not allowed in the line. They decided to each give their 5 cedis ($3) for tickets, and sat down elsewhere to relax.
At this point, I feel it important to mention that this was no ordinary line. We were constantly being pushed and nudged forwards, and became lodged into the people in front of us. There was absolutely no room to move, and if you stepped out of the line for a second to catch your breath, you would have to fight your way back in.
It was uncomfortable from the get-go, but things quickly went from bad to worse. As we neared the front of the line, it turned into an almost standstill as we approached metal barricades put in-place to prevent the box office from being stampeded. Pressure from hundreds of people leaning forwards, forced us to stand at a 60 degree angle with our feet under the barricade to stay upright. Drew and I planted our feet, braced ourselves, and prepared for war.
It wasn't enough. Eventually the hundreds of bodies pushing forwards overwhelmed us, and the barricades started to tip over. I was genuinely worried about it falling over and being stampeded. This idea wasn't too far-fetched I later found out, in the year 2001, 127 people died as a result of a mass-stampede at a Hearts v. Kotoko match.
Luckily an army officer noticed the barricade tipping before disaster ensued. He remedied the situation by hitting people behind us with a leather belt to make them stop leaning on me. Several times the belt cracked less than 6 inches from my head. People nearby responded by trying to scurry backwards, but because those behind wouldn't move, they ended up in a strange, backbend position.
People attempted sneaking through the barricades left and right, but the army men caught most of them. Each person cutting the line or sneaking through the barricade was beaten repeatedly until they exited the line. One guy was even clipped by the belt buckle in his left eye, which he clutched as he ran away in agony.
When the officer eventually let us through the barricades, I breathed a massive sigh of relief. We were part of the select few, and the army was nearby to protect us.
My view of the officers as 'saviors' quickly changed, as people started flooding the barricades. The officers took their guns, held them sideways like battering rams, and charged at the lines of cutters. Not only did they kick them at full-force in the knees, but they also pistol-whipped them and even pointed their guns to make people back away.
At this point, the match began. For an unknown reason (probably so they could watch the game), the army officers left their posts, and all the box offices except for one closed . With nobody to guard them, the fiery gates of Hell burst open as the 'moderately organized' line quickly dissolved into a mob of hundreds of impatient soccer fans wanting tickets immediately.
Seth quickly sprinted nearby to protect us. People mobbed us from every direction – yelling, screaming, and chanting "PUSH!" We were only 5 feet from the box office, but moving was not an option. Men yelled at me, saying I should lodge myself into a nearby corner to secure my position near the front of the line. I tried my hardest to follow this advice, but couldn't even move the 12 inches required to do so.
As everyone pushed towards the box office, I was being crushed. Oxygen was quickly escaping my lungs; I was gasping for survival. At one point my feet weren't even touching the ground. Despite Seth's arm wrapped around our shoulders to make sure we would be okay, I was petrified of being pushed to the ground and being trampled.
Drew spent 15 minutes in the lead without getting us any closer to the box office. In fact, one guy picked him up and placed him several feet further away. I pushed in front of Drew to try leading for myself. In a last-ditch effort, I metaphorically screamed, "THIS IS SPARTA"and pushed forwards with all my might. This was to no avail – somehow I ended up even further away from the box office. Emotionally let-down , I tiredly said to Drew, "I miss Ticketmaster!"
After 40 minutes of being inside the mob, I realized there was no chance of us ever getting tickets. Drew and I gradually pushed our way out of line – exhausted and smelling like someone else's body odor. We were drenched with sweat, and barely had enough energy to walk.
After we made it back to the AFS office, we turned on the television to watch the game. We could clearly see hundreds of empty, unsold seats in the background – despite the fact that there was an angry mob just outside the stadium waiting to buy tickets.
All in all… my day was perfect. Call me crazy, but it was a true Ghanaian learning experience – something that couldn't be learned at school or bought from a market. I've read about similar events every so oftenin the news, but actually being inside of a soccer-crazed mob is a whole different story.
Note: As I reread this post, I can't help but feel that this type of experience is impossible to accurately communicate. It's the kind of thing where you have to 'be there for yourself' in order to understand fully. I did my best, but nothing can compare to being there in person.
Despite this being a valuable life experience, being inside of a mob is something I feel should be done only 'once in a lifetime.'