. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

83 Killed in Crush at Guatemala Soccer Match

GUATEMALA CITY -- Soccer fans stampeded before a World Cup qualifying match, crushing and smothering one another in panic in one of the worst sports tragedies in years. At least 83 people -- many of them children with grotesquely broken bones -- were killed, and 180 were hurt.

President Alvaro Arzu, who witnessed Wednesday night's mayhem from a box seat at the Mateo Flores National Stadium, called off Guatemala's match with Costa Rica and declared three days of national mourning.

"It's terrible! It's terrible!" said Marlon Ivan Leon, a defender for the Guatemalan national team who stood sobbing by a long row of bodies lined up on the track inside the stadium.

"What does soccer matter now?" said Guatemala's head coach, Horacio Cordero.

Most of the bodies laid out under the glare of stadium lights were young men, women and children, some wearing T-shirts boosting the Guatemalan team. Firefighters crossed the stiffening arms of the dead neatly over their chests, and covered those whose clothes had been torn from them with blankets and their uniform jackets.

Fans had filled the 45,000-seat stadium far past capacity for the qualifying match for the 1998 World Cup tournament.

By an hour before the game's scheduled start, fans dressed in Guatemala's national colors of blue and white were perched on even the press box and stadium walls, and all but blocked the gates.

There were conflicting accounts on what then set off the stampede. Initially, firefighters attributed it to desperate fans trying to claw their way through a concrete passageway into the sold-out stadium.

The world soccer association FIFA, however, said forgers apparently had sold fake tickets to the match, bringing far more people to the stadium than could fit.

Fans outside kicked down an entrance door in the south stands, sending other spectators tumbling to stands below. As the stampede began, guards opened security gates onto the field to try to ease the crush, FIFA said in a statement issued Thursday morning from its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland.

Government spokesman Oscar Mias, however, said the rush began when fans tried to flee from a drunken brawl that broke out in the general seating bleachers in the south stands.

In all, at least 15 children were seen among the dead.