Ghana held Nigeria to a 1-1 draw in the Nigerian capital on Tuesday, winning the tie on away goals to become the first African country to book a ticket to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
But angry reactions from the home fans in and around the stadium blighted the “Jollof derby”, with a pitch invasion, fighting and other disturbances taking place.
Most of the vociferous crowd in Abuja had expected Nigeria to qualify for the World Cup after the first leg of their playoff ended 0-0 in Ghana on Friday.
But goalkeeper Francis Uzoho’s error allowed Thomas Partey to open the scoring for Ghana early in the second leg. William Troost-Ekong levelled from the penalty spot, but Nigeria missed several clear chances to win the match at the Moshood Abiola Stadium.
There had been signs of trouble before the match as crushes had built up outside the 60,000-capacity stadium barely an hour before kick-off, with thousands of ticketless fans approaching different gates.
There was a surge and stampede at one of the entrances after police officers began turning fans away. A journalist who tried to capture the scene was allegedly attacked by the police.
“You think watching Nigeria play a football match is worth losing my life and properties for,” one angry fan shouted. “I was beaten like a thief by the police even though I have a ticket. I will never come back here again.”
Many fans with executive and VIP tickets which cost 25,000 naira ($60) were locked out and unable to enter the stadium before kick-off. Some officials with state box tickets were shocked as state police prevented them from going inside the stadium.
Away from the VIP entrance, fights broke out in the overcrowded terraces, with some reports suggesting 75,000 fans managed to enter the stadium. Local journalists came face to face with fans who invaded the media section.
At the final whistle, fans reacted to the result by throwing objects at both the small group of visiting fans and the Ghana players, and invaded the pitch – where both sets of players were left to battle their own way towards the tunnel as fans charged at them. Fans also smashed the doors leading to the presidential box and overturned two dugouts.
The police hit the pitch invaders with their batons, and fired tear gas on the pitch to disperse them.
Cars parked outside the stadium were vandalised and properties stolen, while some vehicles parked near the exit doors had windows, wing mirrors and lights smashed. Attacks outside the ground were reported by local media, with some fans having their mobile phones stolen.
Journalist Uche Nwudoh told Al Jazeera that the disturbances were “embarrassing and sad to witness” and blamed security forces for failing to control the crowd.
“I don’t think it makes sense to mess a big day like this up for those who only came to support their national team,” Nwudoh said. “What message are we sending to those who are planning to come to the stadium in the future?”
For some, it was a déjà vu moment at the stadium. Back in October 2011, Nigeria’s 2-2 home draw against Guinea in a 2012 Nations Cup qualifier meant the hosts failed to qualify for the continental event for the first time since 1986.
Stadium doors were shattered, and VIP entrance glasses broken by angry fans. They also pelted the team bus with heavy stones, leaving some players with minor injuries.
Nigeria could face sanctions from world football’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), after this latest crowd trouble at the same venue.
Death at the ground
Meanwhile, a doping officer on duty at the match died from a suspected cardiac arrest after the game’s full time, contrary to rumours on social media he was beaten to death by irate fans. Attempts to resuscitate Joseph Kabungo failed, and the Zambian official was pronounced dead after arriving at a hospital in Abuja, according to the Nigeria Football Association (NFF).
An NFF statement said Kabungo was found “gasping for breath near the dressing room of the Ghanaian team” while on his way to find a Ghana player for a doping test.
“We mourn the passing of our CAF [Confederation of African Football] and FIFA medical officer Dr Joseph Kabungo and we extend our sincere condolences to Dr Kabungo’s family and the football family at large,” Football Association of Zambia President Andrew Kamanga said.
“He was a dedicated and widely loved member of our football community and his impact was vast, having also been part of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winning team.”
Former African footballer of the year and Zambia football legend Kalusha Bwalya wrote on Twitter that he has lost a brother and courageous man.