COVID changing stadium security paradigms


Agustín García Puga at Coliseum LATAM Image: Agustín García Puga

The Ministry of Security of Argentina is a Ministry of the national executive power that oversees public safety and security.

The pandemic has impacted every part of the sports and entertainment industry. COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 had almost sounded the death knell on the events industry. With the vaccine rollout, things were starting to look up but with the Omicron variant causing ravages in half of Europe and South Africa, the threat of ghost games loom large over stadia again.

Nevertheless, stadium staff and visitors’ safety and security have gained more prominence in a post-COVID world.

Agustín García Puga, General Manager Security, Ministry of Security, Argentina, explains in an exclusive to ‘Coliseum’ how security can be kept high on the agenda in context to sports venues, and provides details on the ‘security layer’ of La Bombonera. He also talks about the new paradigms on the subject of security and safety and uses within stadiums and presents a case study of the Argentine sports club – Boca Juniors club.

Plush venues

Generation Z just does not visit the stadium to watch a concert or their favorite soccer players in action. As Puga pointed out, “Stadia today will have to offer premium facilities to the present crop of fans. Only if stadia operators offer fans a memorable experience in the form of added attractions, can they expect repeat visits from spectators and they will have to feel safe and secure inside the sports facility.”

Fan behavior

He stated that the Ministry conducted a research on the fan behavior – 83 percent of the fans want to come to the stadium much before the game starts because they like to visit shops which offer an astonishing range of merchandise and hang out with friends in the stadium precincts before getting into the thick of pitch action.

The young group in the age bracket of 18 and 34 constitute the real fan base. Ninety percent of the fans would like to savor the VIP experience and splurge money on food and beverages. Sixty five percent of the viewers would like to interact closely with their sporting idols.

When the pandemic was at its peak all over the world and soccer matches were played as ghost games, fans wanted their cardboard cutouts placed in the stadium seats.

Puga further pointed out that people involved in future venue projects will have to know the pulse of the new-age fans.

Soccer statistics

  • Soccer teams playing home games emerge victorious (40 percent);
  • The away team has less chances of winning (29 percent);
  • Matches ending in ties (26 percent);
  • Home teams winning sans fans in the stands (41 percent); and
  • Away teams winning sans fans in the stands (33 percent)

Stated Puga, “The above statistics show that the winning pattern is influenced to a great extent by the presence of fans in the stadiums. And there are more yellow card issues without fans in the bleachers. So, fans form the nucleus of a soccer game.”

Frenzied fans

Puga added that when the fans’ favorite team wins a match, social distancing rules go for a toss and staunch fans throw all COVID-19 rules out of the window. This is a trend mostly noticed in Latin America as well as in Europe.

Noted Puga, “During Euro 2020, 70,000 people attended the Hungary vs. Portugal fixture and the 67,215-capacity Puskás Aréna in Budapest, Hungary, was bursting at the seams.”

And there was no method in the madness and it was total mayhem when groups of England fans without tickets forced their way through the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium (London) turnstiles before England’s Euro 2020 final against Italy this year. Fans threw all COVID protocols to the wind. It is a different matter that in July 2021 the United Kingdom was totally clobbered by coronavirus.

At the CopaAmerica this year, Argentina ended its 28-year drought of major trophies with its 1-0 win against Brazil in the 78,838 Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – “Though Brazil was facing the COVID heat, 6,000 people attended the matchup – 2,500 from Argentina and 2,500 from Brazil. In Argentina, it was carnival time and fans went ecstatic and a huge crowd came out on the streets to celebrate.”

Puga wanted to drive home the fact that despite the pandemic, when a soccer team wins, there is no stopping the die-hard fans.

It is in such chaotic situations when fans refuse to go by the rule book that the security aspect comes into play as Puga stated, “We have tried our level best to convince fans to go for the jabs and maintain social distancing, but they simply go hysteric when their soccer heroes lift the trophy and it is a tough task indeed to make them see reason.”

Boca Juniors case study

Presenting a case study of the Club Atlético Boca Juniors, the Argentine sports club, Puga informed that the Boca Juniors residence – La Bombonera – was inaugurated in the year 1940, which is 80 years back. It was reconfigured in the year 1996, 25 years back and presently has a capacity to hold 54,000 spectators.

Club Atlético Boca Juniors is an Argentine sports club headquartered in La Boca, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The 54,000-capacity Alberto J. Armando Stadium is a football stadium located in La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is more popularly known as La Bombonera due to its shape, with a “flat” stand on one side of the pitch and three steep stands round the rest of the stadium.

Puga asserted that the facility is in dire need of renovation and in this context, “We plan to take up a project – Bombonera 360. But the renovation work cannot be carried out unless the people connected with the project buy the two blocks facing the stadium to facilitate the stadium expansion work. Unless the two blocks are bought, the expansion project of the stadium cannot be initiated. Talks have been going on for several years now and the fate of the project hangs in balance.”

Puga lamented, “La Bombonera used to be a packed house in a pre-COVID world, but post-pandemic, the stands are totally empty. There is very limited turnout – circa 500 people which includes media professionals and sports officials. Just 500 people for a stadium boasting 50,000-plus capacity. To lend a vibrating atmosphere to the stadium a DJ has been brought in who tries to liven up the ambience with his beats. The stadium is only full of flags rather than fans in the stands.”

Robust network

The stadium authorities have deployed Access Points to enable fans to enjoy a robust network in La Bombonera once they come back to the venue with full force. This is something for the future.

In computer networking, a wireless Access Point, or more generally just Access Point, is a networking hardware device that allows other Wi-Fi devices to connect to a wired network.

With a 5G network, 300 Access Points have been deployed throughout the facility which has a capacity to support 200 cellphones and Puga further informed, “We can have up to 60,000 people well-connected to the Internet. And all this has been initiated to enhance the fan experience which plays a major role in keeping the cash registers jingling.”

Better sightlines

The fencings at the stadium have been removed to provide better sightlines to the fans that fill the bleachers. The fencings in the lower bleachers have been done away with and it has been replaced by acrylic paint. This whole exercise was carried out before coronavirus struck the planet and continues to devastate. There is a pit that separates the area of the grass and the bleachers. Sadly, only one game could be played without the fencing as soon thereafter
COVID-19 struck and put the world on the edge.

Venue design

He added, “We have also improved the venue design so that it soothes spectators’ eyes and have made it more fan-friendly, the whole architecture of La Bombonera.

Stadium security

With the pandemic affecting the number of fans allowed in a stadium at any given time, new measures such as external queueing, staggered arrival times and a greater focus on COVID measures by security personnel, leaves lot of room for nefarious elements to sneak into the stadium.

With the pandemic requiring social distancing, few sports facilities doing thermal testing and a mask mandatory policy, these are all changes that may require a different security response. There is a huge possibility that troublemakers make take advantage of the ‘mask mandatory’ clause to get into the stadium.

Puga stated that they have an operations control room in La Bombonera from where they monitor all the activities going on in the venue. State-of-the-art cameras have recently been brought in and futuristic technology in the form of IP and digital technology has been introduced – “We have installed 111 cameras to monitor the stadium activities and six work stations have been set up for the police so that they can keep track and monitor different areas of the stadium and look out for the troublemakers.”

Upgraded lighting system

To meet the rules laid down by CONMEBOL as regards the lighting system, the same has been upgraded as the old lighting system did not meet the requirements to hold international matches.

Said Puga, “The whole lighting system is computerized and we have six towers and the quality has reached 1,500 pixels. So, the imagery is great and enhances the security quotient of the venue.

Security layer

Puga explained, “To get access to the stadium, fans have to go through several security checks in La Bombonera. We have an app that scans the document when a person turns up at the stadium gate and if the app shows green, the visitor can get into the stadium, if the app turns red, the fan will have to go through more security checks and the team might have reservations over allowing such a person in because he or she may be a runaway convict. The operations team does a thorough postmortem of why a particular person has been denied entry to the venue so that they can send the cops after him or her. This whole security strategy works perfect.”

Stadium access layer

  • Fans make a queue to get into the stadium;
  • Fans get frisked by the security guards and they have to produce their tickets or ID proof;
  • The police again does a check on fans;
  • Fans get go-ahead;
  • Fans are at the venue ingress point and tickets are validated;
  • Fans proceed towards the stadium; and
  • To get final entry to the stadium, fans have to go through another security check through turnstiles and if all is fine they can finally enter the stadium.

Puga stated that it is a foolproof security system in place at the La Bombonera and leaves nothing to chance. Since the stadium is quite old, there are no two different entry and exit routes and the ingress point again becomes the egress point once the event is over and fans are headed towards home.

Security statistics

Puga and his team controlled 225 games from December 2019 to December 2020, and just after that COVID put a total halt on soccer. More than one million people were controlled and 361 people were barred from entering the arena and the runaway convicts’ figures stood at 51.

Puga concluded by stating, “The security system is very watertight and we manage to keep the criminal and sinister elements at bay.”

Puga and his team are well aware of the fact that continued coronavirus measures make way for evolving security threats for which they are installing measures that are effective in keeping every visitor and staff member as safe as they can be at the La Bombonera.

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