125 killed as tear gas crushes Indonesia football match

Police firing tear gas after an Indonesian football match in an attempt to stop the violence sparked a disastrous crush from fans who rushed to the exits in panic and chaos, killing at least 125 people, most of them trampled on or suffocated.

During Saturday night’s match between host Arema FC of the city of Malang in East Java and Persebaya Surabaya, attention immediately turned to the crowd-control measures. Witnesses described how officers beat them with batons and shields before firing tear gas canisters directly into the crowd.

It was one of the deadliest disasters ever at a sporting event. President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation into security procedures, and FIFA president called the deaths “a dark day for everyone involved in football and an incomprehensible tragedy”. While FIFA has no control over domestic matches, it has advised against the use of tear gas in football stadiums.

Fights are common among rival Indonesian football fans, so much so that the organizer had banned Persebaya supporters from Arema’s stadium. But the violence still erupted when the home side lost 3-2 and some of the 42,000 Arema fans, known as “Aremania”, threw bottles and other objects at players and football officials.

A riot police officer fires tear gas after the football match between Arema and Persebaya at Kanjuruhan Stadium, Malang
A riot police officer fires tear gas after the Arema vs Persebaya football match at Kanjuruhan Stadium, Malang, East Java Province, Indonesia, Oct. 1, 2022, in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

Antara Photo/Ari Bowo Sucipto/via REUTERS


Witnesses said fans flooded the Kanjuruhan Stadium pitch and demanded Arema’s management to explain why, after 23 years of unbeaten home games against Persebaya, it ended in defeat.

At least five police vehicles were overthrown and set on fire outside the stadium. Riot police responded by firing tear gas, also towards the stadium stands, causing panic among the crowd.

“The stadium turned into a smoke-filled battlefield when police fired tear gas,” said Rizky, who goes by one name. He came to watch the game with his cousin.

“I felt warm and stinging in my eyes, I couldn’t see clearly as 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 as a result of a head injury.

“We wanted to enjoy ourselves by watching a football game, but we had a disaster,” he said.

Another onlooker, Ahmad Fatoni, said police began beating the fans with sticks and shields, and they fought back.

“Officers fired tear gas directly at spectators in the stands and forced us to run to the exit,” he said. “Many victims suffered from shortness of breath and difficulty seeing through tear gas and were trampled.”

He said he climbed the roof of the stands and only came down when the situation calmed down.

Others suffocated and were trampled as hundreds of people rushed to the exit to dodge the tear gas. In the chaos, 34 died in the stadium, including two officers, and some reports include children among the victims.

“Some were trampled, some fell and some were hit,” Rian Dwi Cahyono told Sky News from the hospital, where he was treated for an injured arm. When asked what caused 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 determined some victims had been counted twice. More than 100 were treated intensively at eight hospitals, 11 of which were in critical condition.

East Java police chief Nico Afinta defended the use of tear gas.

“We already took preventive action before finally firing the tear gas when (fans) started attacking the police, acting anarchist and setting vehicles on fire,” he told a news conference early Sunday.

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.

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 sports minister, the chief of police of the national police and the PSSI chairman to conduct a thorough assessment of the country’s football and security procedures.

Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali said the incident “definitely damaged our football image”. 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.

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.

People stand next to a damaged car after a riot after the league BRI Liga 1 football match between Arema vs Persebaya at Kanjuruhan Stadium
People stand next to a damaged car after a riot after the league BRI Liga 1 football match between Arema vs Persebaya at Kanjuruhan Stadium, Malang, East Java province, Indonesia, October 2, 2022, in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

Antara Photo/H Prabowo/via REUTERS


Speaking at the Vatican, Pope Francis said he prayed for “those who have lost their lives and for the injured following clashes that broke out after a football match in Malang, Indonesia”.

The restriction on Persebaya fans from entering the stadium 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.

Citing FIFA’s stadium safety guidelines against the use of “crowd control gas” by stewards or police on the pitch, Amnesty International called on Indonesian authorities to swiftly investigate the use of tear gas and ensure that those who have committed offenses are tried in open court and not only subject to internal or administrative sanctions.

Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director Usman Hamid said tear gas should only be used to disperse crowds if widespread violence has occurred and 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.

Hundreds of football fans, mostly in black shirts, held a candlelight vigil Sunday evening at Gelora Bung Karno, Indonesia’s largest sports stadium in the capital Jakarta, for the victims of the disaster. They sang songs they composed to cheer the spirits of the grieving Aremanias.

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.

Data from Indonesian football watchdog Save Our Soccer shows that 78 people have died in game-related incidents in the past 28 years.

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.

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