YORKSHIRE-BASED sports commentator John Helm has revealed how rioting that left more than 60 people dead in Nicaragua led to him having to be rushed out of the country at the dead of night.
Last month’s Under-17s Women’s World Cup qualifying championship had to be cancelled after looting and disorder spread across the country.
Changes to Nicaragua’s social security system sparked nine days of violence that, according to human rights’ groups, left 63 dead and hundreds more injured.
Mr Helm, who was born in Baildon, was commentating on the women’s football tournament in the capital Managua when the rioting broke out.
He had covered six of the scheduled 16 matches when organisers, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), cancelled the finals over safety fears.
“The first I heard that there were problems was on the first day of the tournament,” said Helm, who will commentate on his tenth World Cup finals this summer.
“I was reading the local ‘paper and saw there had been some student unrest. But that was it. So, I did the opening two matches on the Thursday, another two on the Friday and then on the Saturday morning I switched on the TV in my hotel and the President was speaking.
“I tried to flick through the channels but there were no others available, which hadn’t been the case the night before when I had been watching the football and the news. The other channels had been shut down overnight.
“I wondered what was going on. I then got the morning paper and there were photos of cars on fire, riots in the streets and it said there were eight or nine dead.
“It wasn’t only in the capital Managua where I was based, there was another place called Leon where there had been similar problems.”
Two more group games were played on Saturday April 21, which Helm again covered, before the problems became so bad that CONCACAF decided to cancel the tournament.
“The drive home from the stadium on the Saturday night was eerie,” added Helm. “I was in a car with a few people from CONCACAF and it was like a ghost town.
“No-one was in the streets at all, not one. Even at the dead of night there would usually be a few walking around.
“There was also rubble everywhere and a couple of burnt out cars. We got back to the hotel but it was closed, and we had to drive round a few times before we found a guard who would let us in through a padlocked gate.
“The following morning, I was told 100 rooms had checked out on the Saturday. I switched on the Ipad and saw the tournament had been cancelled, and that everyone had to get out of the country as fast as possible."
But leaving the country was not as simple as it would normally be as Mr Helm had to almost be smuggled out on a flight with the tournament officials.
“There was already a flight ticket to go home on the Monday but then a further message came through from CONCACAF that they were trying to get us out even earlier.
“They didn’t want us in the streets during the light. In the meantime, we weren’t allowed to leave the hotel and, in the end, we were woken up at 4am on the Monday and escorted to the airport.
“Me and all the tournament referees left together. I didn’t feel threatened. Thankfully, the rioting never came up to our hotel.
“But it was still worrying watching what was happening on the TV. I have seen a lot in my career but nothing like this. Being flown home was a first.”