The Indonesian soccer tragedy

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

On Oct. 1, 2022, tragedy struck the Kanjuruhan stadium in East Java, Indonesia. At least 125 fans lost their lives after chaos and riots. It was one of the world’s deadliest stadium disasters.

Local soccer arch-rivals Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya were playing each other, and as the match ended, visitors Persebaya Surabaya recorded a 3-2 away victory — their first victory at Arema’s stadium in 23 years. The rivalry between the two teams is known to be so intense that visiting fans are often barred from traveling to the home stadium for the game.

At the full-time whistle, furious Arema fans — known as “Aremania” — stormed the pitch to demand answers from players, with some throwing objects. Outside the stadium, fans also caused chaos, flipping and burning police cars, among other violent acts.

The police’s response was equally, if not more, violent. Video footage shows some policemen in riot gear kicking or beating fans with sticks. Moreover, tear gas was used towards the fans in the stands, causing a stampede towards the exit. The stadium was filled with approximately 42,000 fans, even though its capacity is 38,000. Many suffocated or got trampled upon, likely including women and children. It is being reported that 34 people were killed in this stampede alone, with the number rising to 125 as deaths mounted in hospitals.

As an avid soccer fan myself, the two most recent tragedies I remember are the Chapecoense plane crash in 2016 and the Emiliano Sala incident in 2019. However, this event is largely different from the two aforementioned events because it was a stadium disaster involving two distinct parties: fans and the police.

The general trend of pitch invasions has been increasing, as seen by the end of last season. These are incredibly dangerous for both fans and players alike, primarily because it can create disasters like this in which lives are lost.

Concerning the fans, with whom my perspective lies, I do not have particularly much to say. I, too, feel passionate towards a game where 22 people kick and chase after a rolling ball. When I watch games, my heartrate does rise, and I do sigh with frustration, shake my head with disbelief or — occasionally — use obscenities. Sports have that kind of power. I can only imagine how amplified these reactions will be when surrounded by thousands of other like-minded individuals with the game unfolding before your eyes.

On the other hand, invading the pitch should never be an option. I do understand frustration, I really do. Believe me, I support Tottenham Hotspur. However, at the end of the day, the players are all human — humans who strive to be the best version of themselves. Sometimes these players, like us, cannot be perfect. They are only human after all. Sure, I do think some Spurs players are far from sublime; however, these reflect my thoughts on them as soccer players — not as humans.

I am biased by saying that I would never do something such as the Aremania did. These fans almost certainly have a stronger bond with the team than I do with any sports team and will likely ever hold. To these fans, their team is a “culture and an identity,” and they are nicknamed "mania" for a reason. Like many other countries around the world, Indonesia is going through economic hardships. Soccer as a form of escapism becomes even more powerful than it already was. From a fellow fan and an outsider’s perspective, I can understand where their reactions stem from.

The police’s role in this disaster has some more nuances worth considering. To provide some context, Indonesia has one of the most violent soccer fan cultures in the world, with 74 soccer-related deaths since 1994 (not including the Oct. 1 tragedy). This was one of the matches with the highest potential to sprawl out of control. Many of the policemen were dressed in riot gear, and were equipped with tear gas, which was ultimately used. However, tear gas is banned even in warfare — why were police carrying tear gas in the first place at a soccer game?

In my view, the largest potential change to prevent any such future event is systematic. Fan behavior cannot change overnight. Culture is ingrained, and it will take a long time for impactful changes to be seen. However, better policing or crowd controlling policies is something that can be put into place within a shorter period of time. Firstly, police should never have tear gas on them, a chemical which is banned by FIFA in the first place. Tear gas symbolizes the anticipation of and preparation for chaos. More effort should be put into prevention of such disasters before they happen, not reaction after they happen. The first step could be to improve the stadiums. According to people who have watched games at Indonesian stadiums, the conditions aren’t great: signs are unclear, crowds are cramped when entering and exiting the stadium, and exits are often locked or blocked. Also, of course, the number of people in the stadium should never exceed the capacity.

Let us all hope something similar never happens again — in Indonesia or anywhere around the world — and do everything we can to prevent it.