Professional soccer is all too familiar with tragedies attributed to overzealous fans. Saturday’s disaster in the city of Malang in East Java, Indonesia following a match between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya’s match, was not one of those instances. Instead, incompetence and a blatant disregard for public safety by law enforcement led to the worst soccer disaster in over 50 yards. A stampede, triggered by tear gas fired by authorities, resulted in a catastrophic death toll of 131 and counting, with the total injured ticking above 300.
Prior to Saturday’s 3-2 win by Persebaya, the Arema side had won 23 straight at home against their rivals. After Arema FC’s loss, angry fans tossed projectiles and stormed the pitch. In a grossly misguided attempt to disperse the crowds, law enforcement escalated the situation by indiscriminately firing tear gas into the stands. Video taken of the tear gas billowing through the stadium illustrates just how excessively gas was dispersed by law enforcement. That reckless choice created the conditions for an unimaginable tragedy.
Even FIFA, which is no paragon of virtue or competence, has been wise to the dangers of firing tear gas into large crowds. FIFA bylaws state that no “crowd control gas” should be carried or used by stewards or police at matches. FIFA specifically prohibits the use of tear gas in part, because it exacerbates tenuous predicaments. Tear gas on its own causes blurred vision and inhibits the breathing and swallowing functions of anyone who inhales it. Factor in adrenaline, as well as thousands of high-energy, panicking fans, and the haphazard use of tear gas is an obvious recipe for disaster.
The aftermath of Saturday’s stampede mirrors the most devastating soccer disaster of the 20th century when over 300 spectators died in Lima, Peru in 1964, after police responded to fans storming the pitch with tear gas. In Peru’s Estadio Nacional’s catastrophe, hundreds died by asphyxiation, due to a combination of sucking in gas and being crushed against gates while attempting to escape the stadium. Instead of dispersing the crowds in that instance, it led spectators to their deaths when they crammed into blocked exits where hundreds lost their lives.
Similar incidents where tear gas has been administered have also resulted in panic, confusion, and, predictably, dozens of deaths due to trampling and asphyxiation in densely packed crowd surges.
The U.K.’s inquiry into the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 in Sheffield, England, found that a form of “compression asphyxiation” and “inhalation of stomach contents’’were listed as an underlying cause in the vast majority of the 97 total deaths. Saturday’s avoidable tragedy won’t fade away anytime soon, and scrutiny is already upon Indonesia’s position as host of the FIFA U-20 Men’s World Cup. Indonesia President Joko Widodo also addressed the nation in a televised speech, ordered a review of security at soccer matches, and requested the police chief to investigate the disaster.
“I regret this tragedy and hope that it will be the last to occur in Indonesian football. We cannot have any more [of this] in the future,” Widodo added.