More than 125 people are dead, after police fired tear gas at football fans in Malang, East Java, over the weekend, in one of the world’s worst football disasters. After home side Arema FC lost to Persebaya Surabaya 2-3, some Arema fans invaded the field. Police responded excessively, firing tear gas into crowds and triggering panic as fans tried to escape, leading to many being suffocated or crushed.
This tragedy was entirely avoidable. But as usual, those who are culpable are likely to escape without appropriate punishment. A few lower ranking police or officials may be punished. But this is a tragedy caused by long-standing structural problems, which can’t be rectified by punishing a few misbehaving police or blaming individual fan groups.
Indonesia’s football culture has long captured global interest from football journalists and global fans. There is a curious mixture of reasons why. Indonesia is little known to much of the Global North. Despite the richness and diversity of its culinary, literary and cinematic traditions, its food hasn’t travelled that well, its films don’t become hits, and its authors usually escape global attention.
But the passion of Indonesian football fans, whether for the domestic league, the European leagues, or the World Cup, rivals the passion of fans anywhere in the world. During World Cups, fans adopt nations and turn out in droves to live screening events (nonton bareng), where large screens are erected in public spaces. European clubs have official supporter groups throughout the archipelago.
In sporting terms, Indonesia excels in the relatively boutique sport of badminton. But in football, it is an incredible under-performer. For context, Indonesia is ranked 155th on the FIFA rankings. The passion of Indonesian fans is disproportionate to the quality of the domestic leagues and the national team.
The underlying causes of the national team’s poor performances are well known and have been highlighted for years: the pitches are waterlogged, the referees are corrupt, the players are poorly insured, the clubs have unstable finances, the stadiums are unsafe, schedules change too frequently, and transport to and from games is shambolic. Fans can easily break through the barriers to get into stadiums without a ticket, and, once inside, can easily access the pitch.
These factors all converge to create a highly volatile situation. On 1 October, this culminated in more than 125 people – at last count, the number is likely to increase – losing their lives. But simply saying they “lost their lives” does not do their lives justice. These people died through suffocation or being trampled on. They died inhaling tear gas, their eyes and skin burning from the gas, being trampled on as they struggled to escape through locked gates, their throats constricting, each breath harder than the last.
In the two decades since the fall of Soeharto, there have been a steady number of killings between football fans in Indonesia. These killings often happen away from the stadiums, and often on non-game days. They are largely ignored by the authorities.
A few years ago, there was widespread media outrage, in Indonesia and abroad, after a Persija Jakarta fan, Haringga Sirla, was killed at the Persib Bandung stadium. The global media coverage was mainly because of the viral nature of the tragedy – the moments before his death were captured on video and shared widely on social media.
This time, the sheer number of people killed mean that there will be no one person who will serve as a symbol for the tragedy. Perhaps it will be a statistic that sticks – the fact that at least 32 of the victims were children aged three to 17 years old.
A horrific event like this has long been on the cards. The relevant authorities, including the Indonesian Police (Polri), the Indonesian Football Federation (PSSI), the Asian Football Confederation, FIFA, and even President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, all knew this. All could have acted earlier to prevent this tragedy from unfolding.
Killings between rival fans have always been brushed aside by football authorities. They have been viewed as a law and order problem, a problem for the police to manage. But police have never seemed to have any real interest in providing adequate security at stadiums or the surrounding areas. Their first instinct appears to be violence against fans, rather than any attempts to manage or contain dangerous situations.
The president is willing to spend trillions of rupiah on his pet project, a new capital city for the nation. How little, by comparison, would it cost to update the nation’s stadiums and provide adequate conditions for millions of fans?
It is hard not to conclude that for politicians and bureaucrats, the lives of Indonesian football fans aren’t of importance. They certainly do not seem to be a major concern of FIFA, which rewarded Indonesia for its indifference by giving the nation the right to host the U-20 World Cup in 2023. Politicians and football administrators regularly talk about bidding to host the (men’s) World Cup. This misplaced confidence would almost be comical, were it not for the fact that lives continue to be at stake in the neglected domestic leagues.
Each time a spectator death occurs in Indonesia there are calls for it to be “the last death”. Each time, nothing happens.
Indonesia’s footballing infrastructure needs to be overhauled from the ground up. The authorities, especially PSSI and the police, need to be held accountable.
On 3 October, the government announced it would establish an “independent” fact-finding team, to be formed by Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD, on top of internal investigations being done by the police and PSSI. But there is no reason to be optimistic about change. There will be a superficial report and short-term media coverage. Blame will be shifted to the fans, who are mostly the urban poor, and the police and bureaucrats will be exonerated. Yet again.
This piece was first published on Andy Fuller’s blog, readingsideways.net.