Reality Check: Give Ramat Gan stadium the red card

The country's premier soccer ground is a national disgrace.

ramat gan stadium 88 (photo credit: )
ramat gan stadium 88
(photo credit: )
Last week, the Liverpool football club, home to Israeli national team captain Yossi Benayoun, marked the 20th anniversary of what has become known as the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 soccer fans were crushed to death in the deadliest stadium accident in British history. Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened here, but this is due more to good fortune than any preventive measures by the Israel Football Association. Every international game staged at the Ramat Gan stadium is a disaster waiting to happen, but the authorities still prefer to believe in luck than proper policing. There are plans to replace the ground, but in an ideal world, the shabby, decrepit Ramat Gan stadium would have been torn down and rebuilt years ago, for its position as the country's premier soccer ground is a national disgrace. Built in 1951, and partly refurbished in the early 1980s, the stadium is an ugly expanse of concrete, with a large athletic track separating the crowd from the pitch. The crowd is so distant from the action that the players cannot hear the shouts of encouragement from the stands, leading to the pitiful sight of Benayoun waving his arms at the crowd during last month's match against Greece in an attempt to exhort them to recreate the atmosphere he has grown accustomed to at Anfield, Liverpool's home turf. But aesthetics and atmosphere must take second place to safety, and it is here that Ramat Gan truly is a frightening place, and not for the visiting team. The old stand on the eastern side of the ground - the cheap seats - is built into the side of a hill, meaning that at the final whistle, there are thousands of impatient football fans pushing and jostling their way down to the narrow exits. All it would take is for one person to stumble for there to be a horrific accident and yet there is no stewarding to ensure the crowd's safety. The cause of the Hillsborough disaster was mainly a buildup of fans outside the ground's entrance before the game and a mistaken decision by the police to open some exit gates to let these fans in. This led to an influx of many thousands of fans into two already-overcrowded central pens, which caused a huge crush at the front of the terrace, where people were being pressed up against fencing stopping them from getting onto the pitch by the weight of the crowd behind them. The fans were packed so tightly that many died standing up of compressive asphyxia. As a result of this disaster, the character of British football grounds changed. Firstly, the stadiums became all-seating and secondly, the fences separating the fans from the pitch were removed. Moreover, proper stewarding was introduced, with fans being shepherded to their seats, their behavior monitored to stamp out the drunkenness and violence which had marred the English game in the 1970s and '80s, and each section of the crowd was provided their own separate entrance and exit to ensure their safe arrival and dispersal from the ground. HERE, THE lessons of what happened 20 years ago in England, the home of football, have not been learned. Even at international games at the Ramat Gan stadium, when the ground is filled to its 40,000-seat capacity, there are few stewards in evidence, and those that are there are only concerned that no firecrackers or bottles are smuggled in. There is no assigned seating and there is no supervision to ensure that the crowd remains seated during the game. When the referee blows his final whistle, there is no orderly exit. Instead, thousands of people begin scrambling up the slopes of the stand to the top, where there is no fence to prevent the foolhardy from trying to slide down to the gates. The great mass of fans, meanwhile, are pressed into a narrow corral before going down a steep flight of stairs, and there is no attempt at crowd control to ensure that the descent is safely and comfortably maneuvered. If you ever really want to feel really close to your fellow Israeli, this is the place to be. Proper stewarding at other grounds, particularly Teddy Stadium, home to Betar Jerusalem, would meanwhile help stamp out the racist chanting of "Death to Arabs," which is all too common at football games. Even Arab players playing for the national team are not immune from racist remarks from the Ramat Gan crowd during international games should they mishit a pass or fail to make a tackle. If racism could be kicked out of the British game, where the first black players were routinely greeted by monkey chants, there is no reason it can't be done here. Israeli football may not be in the same league as English soccer, as shown by the national team's recent depressing performance in the World Cup qualifiers, but its supporters still deserve to be able to watch a game in safe and comfortable surroundings. There has already been one disaster near the Ramat Gan stadium when four Australian athletes died after a bridge leading to the stadium collapsed at the beginning of the 1997 Maccabiah Games - the Israel Football Association needs to take the necessary measures to ensure there won't be a second. The writer is a former editor of The Jerusalem Post.