Police firing tear gas after an Indonesian soccer match in an attempt to stop violence triggered a disastrous crush of fans making a panicked, chaotic run for the exits, leaving at least 125 people dead, most of them trampled upon or suffocated.
Attention immediately focused on police crowd-control measures at Saturday night’s match between host Arema FC of East Java’s Malang city and Persebaya Surabaya. Witnesses described officers beating them with sticks and shields before shooting tear gas canisters directly into the crowds.
It was among the deadliest disasters ever at a sporting event. President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation of security procedures, and the president of FIFA called the deaths “a dark day for all involved in football and a tragedy beyond comprehension.” While FIFA has no control over domestic games, it has advised against the use of tear gas at soccer stadiums.
Brawls are common among rival Indonesian soccer fans, so much so that the organizer had banned Persebaya supporters from Arema’s stadium. But violence still broke out when the home team lost 3-2 and some of the 42,000 Arema fans, known as “Aremania,” threw bottles and other objects at players and soccer officials.
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Witnesses said the fans flooded the Kanjuruhan Stadium pitch and demanded that Arema management explain why, after 23 years of undefeated home matches against Persebaya, this one ended in a defeat.
At least five police vehicles were toppled and set ablaze outside the stadium. Riot police responded by firing tear gas, including toward the stadium's stands, causing panic among the crowd.
“The stadium turned into a smoke-filled battleground when police fired tear gas,” said Rizky, who goes by one name. He came with his cousin to watch the game.
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“I felt hot and stinging in my eyes, I couldn’t see clearly while my head was dizzy and everything went dark ... I passed out,” he said. When he woke up, he was already in the emergency room. He said his cousin died because of head injuries.
“We wanted to entertain ourselves by watching a football match, but we got disaster,” he said.
Another spectator, Ahmad Fatoni, said police had started beating the fans with sticks and shields, and they fought back.
“Officers fired tear gas directly at spectators in the stands, forcing us to run toward the exit,” he said. “Many victims fell because of shortness of breath and difficulty seeing due to tear gas and were trampled.”
He said he climbed the roof of the stands and only came down when the situation calmed.
Others suffocated and were trampled as hundreds of people ran to the exit to avoid the tear gas. In the chaos, 34 died at the stadium, including two officers, and some reports include children among the casualties.
“Some were trampled, some fell down and some got hit,” Rian Dwi Cahyono told Sky News from the hospital, where he was being treated for an injured arm. Asked what triggered the panic, he replied: “Tear gas.”
National Police chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo said the death toll had been revised to 125 from 174, after authorities found some of the victims were counted twice. More than 100 were receiving intensive treatment in eight hospitals, 11 of them in critical condition.
East Java police chief Nico Afinta defended the use of tear gas.
“We have already done a preventive action before finally firing the tear gas as (fans) began to attack the police, acting anarchically and burning vehicles,” he told a news conference early Sunday.
Indonesia’s soccer association, known as PSSI, suspended the premier soccer league Liga 1 indefinitely in light of the tragedy and banned Arema from hosting soccer matches for the remainder of the season.
Grieving relatives waited for information about their loved ones at Malang's Saiful Anwar General Hospital. Others tried to identify the bodies laid at a morgue while medical workers put identification tags on the bodies of the victims.
“I deeply regret this tragedy and I hope this is the last soccer tragedy in this country, don’t let another human tragedy like this 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 ordered the sports minister, the national police chief and the PSSI chair to conduct a thorough evaluation of the country’s soccer and its security procedure.
Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali said the incident "has certainly injured our soccer image.” Indonesia is due to host the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup from May 20 to June 11, with 24 participating teams. As the host, the country automatically qualifies for the cup.
In a statement, FIFA President Gianni Infantino expressed condolences on behalf of the global football community, saying “the football world is in a state of shock.” The statement did not mention the use of tear gas.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis said he was praying for “those who have lost their lives and for the wounded following clashes that erupted after a soccer game in Malang, Indonesia.”
The restriction on Persebaya fans from entering the stadium was imposed after clashes between supporters of the two rival teams in East Java's Blitar stadium in February 2020 caused 250 million rupiah ($18,000) in damage. Brawls 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 the use of tear gas in the stadium by police.
Citing FIFA’s stadium safety guidelines against the use of “crowd control gas” by pitch side stewards or police, Amnesty International called on Indonesian authorities to conduct a swift investigation into the use of tear gas and ensure that those who are found to have committed violations are tried in open court and do not merely receive internal or administrative sanctions.
Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said tear gas should only be used to disperse crowds when widespread violence has occurred and other methods have failed. People must be warned that tear gas will be used and allowed to disperse. “No one should lose their lives at a football match,” Hamid said.
Hundreds of soccer fans, mostly wearing black shirts, held a candlelight vigil on Sunday night at Gelora Bung Karno, Indonesia’s largest sport stadium in the capital, Jakarta, for the victims of the disaster. They sang songs they composed to lift the spirits of the grieving Aremanias.
Despite Indonesia’s lack of international accolades in the sport, hooliganism is rife in the soccer-obsessed country where fanaticism often ends in violence, as in the 2018 death of a Persija Jakarta supporter who was killed by a mob of hardcore fans of rival club Persib Bandung in 2018.
Data from Indonesia’s soccer watchdog, Save Our Soccer, showed 78 people have died in game-related incidents over the past 28 years.
Saturday's game is already among the world's worst crowd disasters, including the 1996 World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Costa Rica in Guatemala City where over 80 died and over 100 more were injured. In April 2001, more than 40 people are crushed to death during a soccer match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa.