One of the worst stadium disasters in football history has caused outrage around the world and sharp criticism of the behavior of the Indonesian security forces. At least 125 people were killed in the mass panic at Kanjuruhan Stadium on the island of Java over the weekend, and around 300 others were injured, some seriously. Authorities say 17 children are among the dead.
Shocked reactions came from the world association Fifa, UN Secretary General António Guterres and Pope Francis. Fifa President Gianni Infantino spoke of a “tragedy beyond imagination”.
The first personal consequences followed on Monday. Malang City Police Chief Ferli Hidayat was relieved of his post as part of an investigation into the tragedy on Saturday night, national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said at a news conference. Nine other officers were suspended, and at least 28 police officers are being investigated for alleged breaches of professional ethics.
“We work quickly but carefully,” said Prasetyo. The announcement came after the government in Jakarta called a special meeting with senior security officials on Monday and then ordered the appointment of an independent team of experts to clarify the background. The Joint Independent Fact Finding Team will be made up of government officials, football association officials, experts and journalists, said Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud. The government has also instructed the national police to immediately investigate anyone who could be responsible for the deadly panic. “The team is expected to complete its work in two or three weeks,” Mahfud said after a meeting of senior ministers and security officials.
And then it should be clarified as much as possible why the police even used tear gas on the crowded square. Most of the victims died from lack of oxygen or were trampled to death trying to reach the emergency exits. Pictures taken by photographers give an idea of the sheer scale of the chaos: wrecked police cars in the stadium, burning objects, clouds of smoke and people being carried off the pitch, either dead or seriously injured.
The tragedy happened in East Java province in the match between Arema Malang and Persebaya Surabaya. There were about 42,000 people in the fully occupied stadium. All were Arema supporters. Because of the fierce rivalry between the two teams, fans are banned from visiting each other’s stadiums to avoid riots.
Thousands stormed the pitch following Arema’s 3-2 home defeat. Apparently they wanted to vent their anger to players and coaches as the team had not lost at home to Persebaya in 23 years. Emergency services in full protective gear reacted with massive use of tear gas and tried to push back the fans with batons. Complete chaos broke out, with people fleeing in all directions.
“The most worrying thing is that if the police had avoided such excessive, unnecessary violence, this disaster could have been prevented,” the Jakarta Post newspaper commented, adding that someone must be held accountable for this “dark episode in Indonesian football.” and, if necessary, be taken to court.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he was shocked and urged the authorities to “immediately and thoroughly investigate this incident and take all necessary measures to prevent such a tragedy from happening again”. Pope Francis also expressed his deepest shock. “I also pray for those who lost their lives and were injured in the clashes after a football match in Malang, Indonesia,” he said Sunday after praying the Angelus to worshipers in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.
Many now see the future of the football-crazy country as a venue for major sporting events in danger – especially with a view to the U20 World Cup, which is to be held in the island state next year. Indonesia has also applied for the 2023 Asian Soccer Championship. “The consequences of the Malang tragedy will be far-reaching,” predicted the Jakarta Post. The country is threatened with a ban on hosting international competitions, “mainly because of the use of tear gas, which is strictly prohibited under Fifa regulations”.
Both police commanders and ordinary civil servants must be held accountable, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. He also emphasized: “Fifa’s own rules prohibit the use of “crowd control gas” in stadiums.” However, local authorities and national associations can decide on the rules for security in their competitions themselves, the Fifa regulations are then only a recommendation.
Arema and Persebaya clubs expressed their condolences to the victims and their families. “Arema FC extends its deepest condolences for the disaster in Kanjuruhan. Arema FC’s management is also responsible for dealing with the casualties, both dead and injured,” said club boss Abdul Haris. “To the families of the victims, Arema FC’s management sincerely apologizes and stands ready to provide compensation.”
The Indonesian association initially suspended play in the first division for a week. Arema were banned from playing home games for the remainder of the season. The record of mass panic is one of the most dramatic in football history. In 1964, more than 300 people died in a match between Peru and Argentina in Lima. In 2001, 126 people were trampled to death in a stampede in Ghana’s capital, Accra. In Europe, the 1989 Hillsborough disaster killed 96 Liverpool fans and injured more than 700.
In addition to the lack of international competitiveness, Indonesian football has also had other problems to contend with in recent years. These include non-payment of salaries by clubs, match-fixing and conflicts at the umbrella organization of sport (PSSI). According to Save Our Soccer, an Indonesian soccer watchdog organization, at least 78 people have been killed in violence by rival fans since the 1990s.