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Photo: Terry Xu

Death of 13-year-old boy raises questions about sports equipment safety in Singapore

The sudden death of 13-year-old Muhammad Hambali Sumathi from Geylang Methodist School on Monday has raised many questions about safety issues observed by the school.

The secondary one pupil lost his life after grabbing on to the top structure of the goal post to do a pull-up, causing the goal post to fall over, striking him on the head. He was brought to KK Women's and Children's Hospital unconscious, and subsequently died in hospital.

Hambali was buried on Wednesday (26 April) at the Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery after his body was brought to his aunt's home in Eunos at 2pm. Students waited for him at the home since 8am in the morning. More students including his classmate, football teammates, principal and vice-principal, as well as teachers came to his funeral at around 2.30pm. Over 200 people were present at Hambali's funeral on Wednesday.

Safety recommendations

Hambali's family, as well as netizens had raised questions regarding the safety issues practiced by the school.

For sports equipments used in schools such as goal posts, they are maintained by the schools themselves and regulated by the Ministry of Education (MOE). However, it is unknown if there are any standards set by MOE on goal posts and how they should be secured.

According to Colorado's youth football club, Riverside Soccer Club, it only takes 20 pounds (equivalent to about 10kg) of force to topple over a regular goal post weighing about 150 to 200 pounds (equivalent to about 68kg to 90kg).

These are some guidelines on safety measures implemented by the Football Association in the UK, along with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Health and Safety Executive and the British Standards Institution:

  •  For safety reasons, goalposts of any size (including those which are portable and not installed permanently at a pitch or practice field) must always be anchored securely to the ground or have a weighted back bar.
  • Portable goalposts must be secured as per the manufacturer’s instructions; this is also a requirement for the Laws of the Game.
  • Under no circumstances should children or adults be allowed to climb on, swing or play with the structure of the goalposts;
  • Particular attention is drawn to the fact that if not properly assembled and secured, portable goalposts may overturn; and
  • Regular inspections of goalposts must be carried out to check that they are properly maintained.

In 1994, the Committee For Security Matters And Fair Play of FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, issued mandatory instructions to all associations to securely anchor goals to the ground.

Singapore Sport Council's handbook on sports safety has a checklist for safe practices when playing football. In it, one of the safety practices checklist that should be made by the player is, "Is the goal-post properly secured to the ground?"

Fatalities and serious injuries from being struck by a goal post

Hambali's death, although the first in Singapore, is not the first globally. There has been multiple cases of children being pinned down by goal posts after the structure fell on them.

There has been at least four deaths in Ireland due to accidents involving unsafe goalposts. A committee on goalpost safety was established by the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) for the sole purpose of preventing potential serious injuries or deaths.

The Irish Times reported that in 2003, a 10-year-old boy died on a football pitch in Navan, Co Meath, after the crossbar collapsed and struck him. He was standing next to the goal during a match when the upper structure fell and struck him on the head.

In another accident and much older case, a 13-year-old boy died in 1998 when portable metal goalposts fell on him during a kick-about with friends. The year before, a seven-year-old  boy died after a set of steel goal posts he was erecting collapsed on him.

In a more recent case in 2011 in the United States, a group of boys leaning on an unsecured soccer goal post during recess caused the goal post to flip, striking one of the boys on the head. The incident claimed the life of the boy.

When TOC visited one secondary school to check on its goal posts, they were unsecured to the ground, only being kept in place from their own weight, contrary to what other country's standard for safety would have deemed necessary.

A portable goal post with wheels seen at one secondary school / Photo: Terry Xu

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in the United States, there has been at least 34 fatalities and 51 major injuries nationwide during the period 1979 to 2008 linked to unanchored or portable goal posts, four in 1990 alone.

Below is another example of how countries have set standards for how dangers surrounding goal posts should be mitigated:

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While the local media dubbed the incident to be a "freak" accident, global coverage of similar incidents have shown that there is an inherent risk that children face when goal posts are unsecured, especially for the ones that are portable.

Deaths such as Hambali's are rare and unheard of in Singapore, but to parents and those who care, a single death is one too many. In light of the potential risk that is present, should MOE look into the issue to ensure no such accidents recur in the future?