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‘We will never forget them’ . . . Mapeza says those who died will always be heroes

09 Jul, 2020 - 00:07 0 Views
‘We will never forget them’ . . . Mapeza says those who died will always be heroes Norman Mapeza

The Herald

Robson Sharuko

Senior Sports Editor

NORMAN MAPEZA still remembers it all — the teargas, the panic in the packed bays, as thousands fled towards the exit corridors, the confusion and the silence in their dressing room.

Then, the sheer weight of the tragedy, when the news filtered through, hit them hard.

First, there were whispers, many of the Warriors were in denial, before confirmation started coming through that, indeed, some people had died at the National Sports Stadium that day.

“Everything appeared to stop,’’ Mapeza told The Herald yesterday.

“People just stared at each other, things just appeared to have come to a standstill, the shock was unbearable, it’s the kind of horror you never think you will go through in your life, let alone in football.

“There was silence, the confusion was unbearable, we are football players and our job is to try and give our fans something to make them smile.

“We play to try and win matches, all the time, and there is even more responsibility when it comes to the national team because you are representing your country.

“The whole nation is looking at you to deliver and you try your very best to do just that, to make millions of people happy, because football has this powerful effect.

“Then, you hear such tragic news, in a game in which you were part of, it just destroys you and I can tell you that most of the boys who were in that Warriors team that day have been haunted by what happened that afternoon for years.

“We have quietly carried the burden and it hasn’t been easy, just knowing that you were part of the team and, on that day, 13 of your fans died.

“These are people, just like all of us who were on the pitch that day, we are one team, that’s why we sing one national anthem and, when we win, we celebrate together.

“To just imagine that we lost them was unbearable and, even now, it’s something that brings this terrible feeling, thinking about it and knowing that they died for our cause.’’

Today marks 20 years since that 13 Warriors fans, including one, as young as six, lost their lives in the stampede at the giant stadium during a 2002 World Cup qualifier between the Warriors and Bafana Bafana.

Mapeza was the Warriors’ captain that afternoon and his team had just gone down 0-2 to the visitors, in the late stages of the game, when trouble exploded.

Some Warriors fans reacted to being taunted by the visitors, after they had effectively ended the contest, by raining an assortment of missiles on the pitch.

In response, police fired teargas into the packed stands, triggering the pandemonium which ended with a stampede which left 13 fans dead in the biggest sporting disaster in the country’s history.

There had been signs that the atmosphere was highly charged in the first half when, after the referee appeared to give a wrong call against the Warriors, some fans reacted furiously and sent missiles onto the pitch.

Mapeza, as captain, led the appeals for the fans to let the game continue, with the Warriors skipper and his men confident they could wipe out the one-goal deficit and win the game.

However, when trouble again erupted, with less than 10 minutes left on the clock with Bafana Bafana enjoying a two-goal cushion, the situation could not be calmed this time.

And, at the end of the madness, 13 Warriors fans were dead.

For Mapeza, when the referee abandoned the match, the first battle was a very personal one.

“My brother Kennedy had rushed onto the pitch and came to me to say, in the confusion, he had been separated from our father,’’ said Mapeza.

“They had been sitting together in Bay 17 but, somewhere, along the way as they rushed to the exits, they got separated and, in full kit, I had to run up the stairs to go and search for my father.

“The confusion, and the fear, was just too much and, after a search, I found him sitting outside the stadium and there was a sense of relief that he was safe.

“I rushed back to join the boys and we went to the dressing rooms, that’s when the news started coming through, some of it appeared to be just speculation but it wasn’t a good dressing room to be in I can tell you.

“It’s something that you just can’t forget like that, no matter how you try, and wherever life takes us I think, as the players who were in that team, we will always carry this heavy burden.

“You know, you tell yourself that, maybe, if we were winning that match, things would not have ended up happening the way they did but, unfortunately, you can’t change anything.

“Football is meant to unite people, it’s never meant to result in tragedy, that’s why Didier Drogba and his fellow players made that decision to take their national team game to Bouake, a city in his country which was the stronghold of the rebellion, because they wanted to unite their nation.

“They achieved that goal, in a way, and that’s what this game should be all about.

“So, for it to be hit by tragedy, as we saw that day, isn’t something that you expect and to be part of the horror makes it even more difficult.

“When you read about these tragedies at stadiums, when they occur in other countries, you don’t get the true impact they have on people until one strikes on your doorstep.’’

Mapeza said, as the skipper that day, he can only pray that those who lost their beloved ones continue to find a way to be strong.

“That’s what I can do, to tell them that we still share their pain and everything they have gone through in the past 20 years because their loss is also our loss,’’ he said.

“The supporters who died that day were on a national cause so, they will always be part of our team as Warriors and, on the occasions we succeed, we should never forget them.

“It actually placed a bigger responsibility on us to do better than what we had been doing in the past, when it came to the national team games, because we had to honour their memory.’’

Mapeza, who has since coached the Warriors, say those who perished that day will always have a special place reserved for them in the history of the national team.

“Without a doubt, we are talking of our fallen heroes, they will always be with us in spirit.’’

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