Simulation exercises vital to ensure FAM, police ready to tackle chaos in stadiums

There is a need for stakeholders, namely the FA of Malaysia (FAM) and police, to carry out regular simulation exercises to ensure all parties are fully prepared to handle any chaotic situation that may arise during a football match.

This call by Datuk Dell Akhbar Khan comes after at least 125 people died following a football match between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java, on Saturday night.

Indonesian police had fired tear gas in an overcrowded stadium to quell fans, triggering a stampede that resulted in one of the world’s worst stadium disasters.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday, ordered a probe into safety procedures, while Fifa president Gianni Infantino described the incident as a “dark day for all involved in football” and “a tragedy beyond comprehension”.

Indonesian police have since come under fire for their incompetence in handling the situation and for firing tear gas in the stadium – an act banned by Fifa.

“It is vital to carry out simulation exercises, and they must be carried out regularly,” said Dell Akhbar, a former football international who went on to become Kuala Lumpur police chief.

“I did my Masters on this subject (‘Police Competency in Implementing Emergency Response Plan in Football Stadiums’) in 2014. I highlighted that police personnel are subjected to transfers, and as such, you are bound to see fresh faces at the stadiums, and some of them have inadequate experience in handling large crowds at sporting venues.

“It’s important for everyone to familiarise themselves with contingencies. This will ensure that all parties, including FAM and the state FAs, know what to expect and how to react.”

Dell Akhbar, had in his thesis, analysed 15 stadium tragedies worldwide. They include Burnden Park, Bolton, England (March 9, 1946), Heysel Stadium, Brussels, Belgium (March 29, 1985) and Oppenheimer Stadium, Orkney, South Africa (Jan 13, 1981).

Almost 60 per cent of those tragedies were the result of violent spectators and overcrowding that led to a stampede.

He added M-League match organisers seemed to ignore all these tragedies as some of the stadiums in Malaysia are packed, especially in critical, and evenly contested matches.

Malaysia has experienced overcrowding in the past, especially in the 2014 and 2018 Asean Football Federation Cup finals held at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.

“The overcrowding more often has led to spectator violence. Even though Malaysia has never experienced tragedies like those highlighted, we are not far from any of them.”

Dell Akhbar, who was FAM general secretary from 2000 to 2005, said managing a large crowd requires maturity, confidence, experience, and competence.

“Relying on personnel who are young, and who lack experience and exposure in managing a rowdy crowd in a stadium, will only exacerbate the disaster.

“However, this (maintaining security in stadiums) shouldn’t be the job of the police alone. FAM must ensure that such tragic episodes are avoided by beefing up the stadium’s security personnel and the training of stadium stewards.”

While FAM is the parent body, the running of football leagues in Malaysia comes under Malaysian Football League.

Dell Akhbar, a Fifa venue security officer for the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, was invited to speak about his thesis by Dubai police and the Royal Malaysia Police upon completing his Masters from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

He added the role of the police, being a key player in stadium safety during sporting events, should be reconsidered.

“Police should urge FAM, as the governing body of football associations in Malaysia, to gradually introduce stadium stewards to manage stadium safety.

“This shift of responsibility could save thousands of man-hours, prevent police from being blamed, and litigation. It will also allow the police to focus on their core duties efficiently and effectively.”

He recommended that further studies that examine the competencies of police personnel in the states should be considered as domestic league matches are played more regularly at the state level.

“Maintaining the status quo will possibly mean taking the risk of being held fully responsible if tragedy strikes, thus affecting the image of the police as the most effective law enforcement agency in the country.

“Taking a paradigm shift, which means withdrawing from being the lead agency, reducing the presence of uniformed police personnel, and surrendering the task to the stadium authorities – which is the accepted, and best practice – is seen as the best alternative.

“Coupled with this, private sector personnel or stewards should supplant many of the roles traditionally undertaken by the police. This will see the gradual ‘phasing out’ of uniformed police personnel from the stadiums, although police will remain responsible for maintaining order in public areas outside the stadium.”

Dell Akhbar said such a shift would see a move towards a safety culture, both reflecting and influencing the wider rehabilitation of the game, with an emphasis on the creation of a more sanitised “family atmosphere”.

He added the other approach police may want to consider are the “meet-and-greet” and “we are their friend” strategies that were adopted by Vancouver police ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which were proven to be effective.