FIFA laments ‘dark day’ after Indonesia football stampede kills at least 125

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Panic at an Indonesian football match Saturday left around 125 dead, most of whom were trampled to death after police fired tear gas to dispel riots, making it one of the deadliest sports events in the world.

The national police chief and provincial authorities said the number of death toll had been revised downards from an earlier tally of 174, after some of the victims were found to have been counted twice.

Attention immediately focused on the police use of tear gas, which is banned at soccer stadiums by FIFA. The president of the world soccer body called the deaths at the stadium “a dark day for all involved in football and a tragedy beyond comprehension,” while President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation of security procedures.

Riots broke out after the game ended Saturday evening with host Arema FC of East Java’s Malang city lost to Persebaya of Surabaya 3-2.

Disappointed after their team’s loss, thousands of supporters of Arema, known as “Aremania,” reacted by throwing bottles and other objects at players and football officials. Fans flooded the Kanjuruhan Stadium pitch in protest and demanded that Arema management explain why, after 23 years of undefeated home games, this match ended in a loss, witnesses said.

The violence spread outside the stadium where at least five police vehicles were toppled and set ablaze amid the chaos. Riot police responded by firing tear gas, including toward the stadium’s stands, causing panic among the crowd. 

“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,” said East Java Police chief Nico Afinta in a news conference early Sunday.

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More than 300 were rushed to hospitals but many died on the way and during a treatment, Afinta said.

Indonesia’s football association, known as PSSI, suspended the premier football league Liga 1 indefinitely in light of the tragedy and banned Arema from hosting football matches for the remainder of the season.

Television reports showed police and rescuers evacuating the injured and carrying the dead to ambulances.

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.

Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo expressed his deep condolences for the dead in televised remarks Sunday.

“I deeply regret this tragedy and I hope this is the last football tragedy in this country, don’t let another human tragedy like this happen in the future,” Widodo said. “We must continue to maintain sportsmanship, humanity and a sense of brotherhood of the Indonesian nation.”

He ordered the youth and sports minister, the national police chief and the PSSI chair to conduct a thorough evaluation of the country’s football match and its security procedure.

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, but rights groups responded to the tragedy by blaming the police action.

Citing FIFA’s stadium safety guidelines that prohibit the carrying or use of “crowd control gas” by pitch side stewards or police, Amnesty International called on Indonesian authorities to conduct a swift, thorough and independent investigation into the use of tear gas at Kanjuruhan stadium.

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“Those who are found to have committed violations are tried in open court and do not merely receive 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 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.

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.

“Unfortunately, this incident has certainly injured our soccer image,” said Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali.

Ferli Hidayat, local police chief of Malang, said there were some 42,000 spectators at the game Saturday, all of whom were Aremanias because the organizer had banned Persebaya fans from entering the stadium in an effort to avoid brawls.

The restriction was imposed after clashes between supporters of the two rival football teams in East Java’s Blitar stadium in February 2020 caused a total of 250 million rupiah ($18,000) in material losses. Brawls were reported outside the stadium during and after the semifinal round match of the East Java Governor’s Cup, which ended with Persebaya beating Arema 4-2.

Despite Indonesia’s lack of international accolades in the sport, hooliganism is rife in the football -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.

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