BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
This Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of what is easily the biggest football tragedy to have ever befallen Nigeria.
On the night of August 13, 1979, television viewers got more than they expected. Results and analyses of the presidential election held two days earlier were just trickling in.
But the sports-inclined were awaiting the outcome of the epic encounter between IICC Shooting Stars and Bendel Insurance in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup.
Both had met the previous year at the same stage and Bendel were not just surprise winners of the match, but also of the Challenge Cup.
Moreover, both were hot contenders for the National League title that Bendel had just won.
Within the regulation time, the Shooting Stars had become victorious, winning 2-1. But there was no time for the expected celebration.
Their moment of joy had turned national grief. Sports Village Square recalls that 24 fans had died in a stampede that ensued minutes after the match when the floodlights were suddenly switched off.
The tightly packed crowd made frantic and hurried rush towards the 72 exit points of the main bowl where iron gates had just been mounted.
But unknown to the rushing crowd, the exit points at the northern end of the stadium, the gates A and B were still locked. Early arrivals to the locked gates were trapped to the barrier in the ensuing stampede.
The gates collapsed under the weight of the surging crowd and the early arrivals were trampled upon.
The unlucky fans were pressed upon the iron gates, which later fell under the weight of the surging crowd.
Some of them died of suffocation. Worse still, the National Sports Commission (NSC) medical centre was not opened.
So, there was no immediate medical attention. Ambulances at the sports complex could not also function for lack of personnel. About 50 others in convulsive conditions were rushed to hospitals.
By the time calm was restored, 24 fans were dead. Almost 30 others were seriously wounded. The death toll was relayed in the late news announcement on television where viewers were possibly just awaiting electoral results and that of the classic Bendel Insurance /IICC Shooting Stars clash.
Two medical personnel, Dr. Alaba Efunkoya, a former chairman of Nigeria Table Tennis Association and Commander Sojinrin, a naval doctor who had come to watch the match and who was to become chairman of National Sports Commission some years later, assisted in offering first aid to some of the victims.