Panic and a chaotic flight to the exit after police fired tear gas at an Indonesian football match to drive out irate fans left at least 174 dead, most of them trampled or suffocated, making it one of the deadliest sporting events in the world.
Attention immediately turned to the use of tear gas by the police, which is banned by FIFA in football stadiums. The president of the world football organization called the deaths at the stadium “a dark day for everyone involved in football and a tragedy beyond comprehension”, while President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation into the safety procedures.
Violence erupted after the match ended on Saturday night, with host Arema FC of the city of Malang in East Java losing to Persebaya of Surabaya 3-2.
Disappointed at the loss of their team, thousands of supporters of Arema, known as “Aremania”, responded by throwing bottles and other objects at players and football officials. Witnesses said fans flooded the Kanjuruhan Stadium pitch and demanded Arema’s management to explain why, after 23 years of unbeaten home games against rival Persebaya, it ended in a loss.
Violence spread outside the stadium where at least five police vehicles were overthrown and set on fire. Riot police responded by firing tear gas, also towards the stadium stands, causing panic among the crowd.
Some suffocated and others were trampled as hundreds of people rushed to the exit to avoid the tear gas. In the chaos, 34 died in the stadium, including two officers, and some reports include children among the victims.
“We already took preventive action before finally firing the tear gas when (fans) started attacking the police, acting anarchistically and setting vehicles on fire,” East Java police chief Nico Afinta said at a news conference early Sunday.
More than 300 were rushed to hospitals, but many died en route and during treatment, Afinta said.
East Java’s deputy governor Emil Dardak told Kompas TV that the death toll had risen to 174, while more than 100 injured people are receiving intensive treatment at eight hospitals, 11 of whom are in critical condition.
The Indonesian Football Association, known as PSSI, indefinitely suspended the Premier League Liga 1 due to the tragedy and banned Arema from hosting football matches for the rest of the season.
Television reports showed that police and rescue workers evacuated the injured and carried the dead to ambulances.
Grieving relatives waited for information about their loved ones at Saiful Anwar General Hospital in Malang. Others tried to identify the bodies placed in a morgue, while medical workers put identification labels on the victims’ bodies.
“I deeply regret this tragedy and I hope this is the last football tragedy in this country, do not let another human tragedy happen in the future,” Widodo said in a televised speech. “We must continue to maintain sportsmanship, humanity and a sense of brotherhood of the Indonesian nation.”
He instructed the Minister of Youth and Sports, the Chief Constable of the National Police and the PSSI Chairman to conduct a thorough assessment of football and security procedures in the country.
Minister of Youth and Sports Zainudin Amali also expressed regret that “this tragedy occurred as we were preparing for football activities, both at national and international level.”
Indonesia will host the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023 from May 20 to June 11, with 24 teams participating. As a host, the country automatically qualifies for the cup.
“Unfortunately, this incident has certainly damaged our football image,” Amali said.
In a statement, FIFA President Gianni Infantino expressed his condolences on behalf of the global football community, saying that “the football world is in a state of shock”. The statement made no mention of the use of tear gas.
Ferli Hidayat, the local Malang police chief, said the match was attended by some 42,000 spectators on Saturday, all of them Arema supporters, because the organizer had barred Persebaya fans from entering the stadium in an effort to avoid fighting.
The restriction was imposed after clashes between supporters of the two rival teams at East Java’s Blitar Stadium caused rupiah 250 million ($18,000) in damage in February 2020. Fights were reported outside the stadium during and after the semifinals of the East Java Governor’s Cup, which ended with Persebaya beating Arema 4-2.
Rights groups responded to the tragedy by blaming police for the use of tear gas in the stadium.
Amnesty International called on the Indonesian authorities to conduct a prompt, thorough and independent investigation into the use of tear gas at Kanjuruhan Stadium.
“Those who have committed violations will be tried in public courts and will not only face internal or administrative sanctions,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
He said tear gas should only be used to disperse crowds when widespread violence has occurred and when other methods have failed. People should be warned that tear gas will be used and spread. “No one should lose their life at a football game,” Hamid said.
Despite Indonesia’s lack of international awards in the sport, hooliganism is rife in the football-obsessed country where fanaticism often ends in violence, such as the 2018 death of a Persija Jakarta supporter who was killed by a mob of hardcore fans of rival club Persib Bandung. in 2018.
Saturday’s game is already one of the world’s worst public disasters, including the 1996 World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Costa Rica in Guatemala City, which left more than 80 dead and more than 100 injured. In April 2001, more than 40 people are crushed during a football match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa.