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Black History Month: Disaster at Ellis Park

The Soweto Derby is one of the biggest in the world, and on a fateful day in 2001, it turned deadly.

(FILES) WITH AFP STORY BY MATSHELANE MAM... Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images

The Soweto Derby is one of the biggest rivalries not just in Africa, but the entire world. The Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, two clubs from the Soweto township located in Johannesburg, South Africa, battle each other every year before sold out raucous crowds at some of South Africa’s largest stadiums. However, sometimes that fierce passion both fanbases exhibit for their teams in the largest rivalry on the continent has turned into tragedy.

Tragedy had struck this rivalry once before, in 1991 when a stampede before a friendly match in Orkney between the two teams claimed 42 lives. No one believed that a tragedy of that nature would occur again. Unfortunately, tragedy would strike again.

Ellis Park Stadium is one of the most famous stadiums in the world. It served for many years as South Africa’s national stadium for both soccer and rugby. Some of the greatest moments in South Africa’s sporting history occurred there. On April 11, 2001, it was the site of the greatest tragedy in South African sports history.

The scene was set for the Soweto Derby, and Ellis Park Stadium was the site of the fierce rivalry. The capacity for the stadium was around 60,000, but the stands were more than full. Due to fraudulent tickets and poor security, estimates were that the crowd was actually between 90,000 and 120,000 fans. With 30,000-60,000 fans with no seat, the concourses were packed as the match began, with fans spilling into press boxes and any other open space inside Ellis Park.

After Orlando Pirates equalized with a goal, a surge of fans pushed towards the field. Security was poorly trained, and in an effort to stem the crowd, they fired tear gas into the stands. That triggered a massive stampede, but there was nowhere for the people to go. Security couldn’t control the flow of people in the stands, and fans were crushed.

The match was abandoned, and the dying were laid on the field while rescue authorities tried to assist everyone and clear the stadium. In the end, they couldn’t save any of them. 43 people died that day at Ellis Park and 158 were injured, the deadliest sporting accident in the nation’s history. The youngest victim was only 11 years old. The tragedy prompted an inquiry into what happened, and poor crowd control coupled with security letting in tens of thousands of people without tickets led to the stampede.

Years later, the Soweto Derby is still the biggest rivalry in Africa. The rivalry continues this Saturday at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. However, the dark day that was April 11, 2001 will forever be remembered between the two fanbases and all of South Africa. And while there have been a couple incidents since then of overcrowding, both teams are working hard to make sure that the Soweto Derby is remembered for the moments on the field and not for the tragedy that occurred off of it.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.