TEMBISA, South Africa — Thousands of soccer fans stampeded outside a stadium Sunday before an exhibition game between Nigeria and North Korea, leaving 15 people injured, including one police officer who was seriously hurt.
Several fans fell under the rush of people, many wearing Nigeria jerseys. The Makhulong Stadium in the Johannesburg suburb seats about 12,000 fans.
The mayhem happened only five days before the start of the World Cup, the first to be held in Africa.
"At this moment we have 14 civilians that were slightly injured in the process, one policeman seriously injured," police spokesman Lt. Col. Eugene Opperman said outside the stadium. The injured were being treated at a hospital, he said.
Opperman said tickets for the game were given out for free outside the stadium.
"What then occurred was large groups of people gathered outside the gates wanting to come in and wanting to get free tickets. Unfortunately in the process, the gates were opened and there was a stampede," Opperman said.
Soccer's international governing body said it had nothing to do with the ticketing.
"FIFA and the OC (local organizing committee) would like to reiterate that this friendly match has no relation whatsoever with the operational organization of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, for which we remain fully confident," FIFA said in a statement.
Police spokesman Col. Hangwani Mulaudzi added that because this was an exhibition game, the Nigerian team – the designated host – was responsible for security, not World Cup organizers. Once trouble broke out, he said, police stepped in.
"I think the fans were excited to come and see their heroes who will be participating in the World Cup," he said.
One police officer blamed FIFA for the trouble.
"FIFA made the tickets free and now look," said the policeman, who refused to identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "FIFA wanted them free."
One fan, wearing a South Africa rugby jersey and bleeding from the head, said the rampaging crowd overpowered him.
"I fell down and people just fell over me," Japhta Mombelo said. "That crowd is overpowering. The police have told me to stay around and they will organize an ambulance but I am still waiting."
The first rush came when the gates opened to allow fans into the stadium. Police soon closed the gates, but when they were reopened, a second rush occurred, with more people falling and being run over.
"When we were coming in they were just stepping on us," said Princess Mbali, who was wearing a green South Africa shirt. "I thought I was dying. I was at the bottom."
Shortly after the second rush, the gates were closed again and much of the crowd dissipated.
"The police aren't saying anything, just go and watch the match," Mbali said. "How can we watch the match when we are hurt? Maybe my ribs are broken. No one is helping us and we are South Africans."
The injured policeman was bloodied in the crush and later taken away on a stretcher. Other fans who appeared to be lightly injured walked away from the scene as it calmed down.
The Tembisa Stadium is nothing like those built or renovated for the World Cup. It has concrete terraces and is surrounded by a fence with gates and no turnstiles.
The Nigeria and North Korean teams were lining up for the national anthems when the second surge happened. They had no idea what was going on outside.
The match was suspended for about 10 minutes shortly after the second half began, but it restarted with Nigeria leading 1-0. The Nigerians won 3-1.
Security was also increased as the match went on.
"We have security plans that are there," Mulaudzi said. "I think this is one of those isolated cases where we did not anticipate the large number of people who would be interested in this game."
Such chaos is not uncommon to soccer. Last year, FIFA fined Ivory Coast's federation $46,800 after 22 people died in a stampede at a World Cup qualifying match.