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May 9 Disaster: Referee of Hearts-Kotoko game spills it all, 17 years on

A statue was erected on May 9, 2003 to commemorate the disaster

For 17 years the memories of the May 9th Stadium Disaster has lived with people in different ways. The images of 127 bodies piled up after violence broke out at a league game between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko has accompanied the darkest tale in Ghana football.

Protesting what they claimed was an offside call from referee Jacob Wilson Sey and his assistant, Kotoko fans ripped off seats and threw them on the tartan track. The police responded with tear gas and the ensuing stampede led to what has become Africa’s worst stadium disaster. Seventeen years on the center referee has spoken for the first time on his decisions that some fans claim triggered the violence.

“People said that my assistant raised the flag. Of course he did but it was for a different infringement. The infringement he flagged for was on the same attacker who had the ball and they had the advantage. By the rules of the game, I had to play on and I did. The player scored and that was it,” he recounted.

Many died in that tragic incident 17 years ago and Sey says it breaks his heart that many people had to pass on because of a football game.

“I feel that someone losing a brother, father and a son that makes me so sad but I still maintain that I did nothing wrong that day”.

Tensions between Hearts and Kotoko were high at the time. Hearts were in great form, the best side not just in Ghana but in Africa – fresh from winning the CAF Champions league a year earlier.

Their meeting against Kotoko naturally had taken on a bigger meaning so much so that, the identity of the referee was shrouded in secrecy until hours before the game.

Sey confirmed that the referees balloted for who they wanted at the centre because of how high profile the game was and the levels of controversy within it.

Sey won the ballot to officiate the game and till now it is a moment he defines as the pinnacle of his career.

On the match day, the game had to start at 5pm but the stadium was full by midday.

The match went on as scheduled at 5pm that day. Hearts of Oak drew level after Lawrence Adjei had opened the scoring for Asante Kotoko.

Ishmael Addo struck later on to win the game for the Phobians before their home fans at the Accra Sports Stadium.

Sey remembers how he walked off the pitch safely that evening, went in to freshen up before heading to his hotel room completely unaware of the disaster that was unfolding. It was in the room that he heard the news about the tragedy.

“I was in my hotel room when I heard about the incident. Apparently the exit gates were closed and from the stands, the staircase was so narrow. For the Ade Coker Stand where the violence broke out, that was not the first time. The police knew so they tried to curb it at the very end and they spilled tear gas into the crowd.”

The May 9 Disaster was the most defining point in Sey’s career but many years on, he has left the field to stay in the classroom fulltime.

He is now Vice Principal at the Queensland International School in Accra, a mathematician and an author of children’s books.

He worries that referees are easy scape goats when things go wrong at football matches and says the fact that fans still get away with all sorts of behaviours towards referees now is an indictment on administrators and the police and hopes it all gets better with time.

By Yaw Ofosu Larbi||Ghana

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