Indonesia: police brutality and capitalist profit responsible for deadly football stampede

Indonesian football has been struck by another tragedy. At least 131 people were killed, and hundreds more injured, in a deadly stampede following a match between two rival clubs, Arema Malang and Persebaya Surabaya. This was one of the deadliest disasters in the history of the sport.

The fact is, there was no riot between the two rival sets of fans, as Persebaya fans had been barred from attending the match hosted in Kanjuruhan Stadium, Malang. The use of excessive force by the police and army personnel, along with the irresponsible management on the part of club owners, the league and the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI) are ultimately responsible for this tragedy.

At first, the match proceeded without incident. After Arema lost the game 3-2, some fans rushed the field to express their disappointment. But as shown by videos circulating on social media, the police and the army immediately responded with uncalled-for brutality, kicking, stomping and hitting fans with batons. This angered other supporters, with more rushing the field and clashing with the security forces.

“The whole stand was jeering the police because there were some spectators who were beaten up. And then many more rushed the field. The police had dogs with them, shields, and the soldiers were advancing. Aremania [Arema soccer fans] retreated, but there were few of them who were surrounded by the police, and were stomped and grabbed by the hair,” recounted Dipo, one of the Arema fans.

The situation spiralled out of control when police started firing tear gas indiscriminately in the direction of the tightly packed stands. This triggered a mass panic, resulting in a deadly stampede as people rushed for the stadium’s narrow exits.

Yandi Hartantyo, a journalist who witnessed the whole event from the stadium’s media box said, “I cannot understand why tear gas was being fired at the spectators in the stands. I have no idea why they did this.”

“I saw many people were trampled on, when supporters were running away from the tear gas,” said Dwi, one of the survivors.

Another survivor, Gafandra, shared his harrowing experience: “We were both trampled on by other supporters as they rushed to exit the stadium. That time, we did not enter the field, but remained in the stand. However, things took a sudden turn after tear gas shots were fired toward the stands where we sat, prompting people to push each other toward the exit. We were lucky we could get out and are still alive now. Because many supporters died in this tragedy.”

FIFA has prohibited the use of tear gas to control crowds in a football stadium, precisely because it has caused mass casualties and deaths in the past by forcing spectators toward narrow exits. The East Java police chief Nico Afinta, however, immediately defended the use of tear gas by his forces, saying that the police had followed the correct procedure. “There was anarchy. They were about to attack the officers and had damaged the cars,” he said. Indeed, batons and tear gas have always been the normal procedure for the police when confronting the public, irrespective of any rules. The brutality of the police and soldiers was on full display that night, and the consequences were grave.

The PSSI chairman, Mochamad Iriawan, has pressed the police to investigate this matter. But he ought first to hold a mirror up to himself. The PSSI is also responsible for this tragedy. It allowed a highly tense match between two rival clubs to take place with no control over the number of spectators in the stadium. 42,000 tickets were sold for a match in a stadium with a 38,000 capacity. Profits from ticket sales were put ahead of public safety, leading to the stadium being filled over its capacity, clearly contributing to the deadly stampede.

Furthermore, the match should not have been held late at night. Football supporters’ clubs and watchdog groups have argued repeatedly in the past against late-night matches on account of the security concerns that they raise. However, the PSSI and the league insisted that the game start at 8pm local time. It is not hard to see why: 8pm is a prime TV spot, and so the game would generate higher advertising revenues. Once again, human lives have literally been sacrificed at the altar of profit.

President Jokowi has called for a thorough investigation into this bloody tragedy. But we should ask: who is being evaluated and who is doing the evaluation? Everyone involved is now pointing the finger at everyone else. But all of them – the PSSI, the police, the army, the league, and the club owners – are responsible for this tragedy.

There is now an effort underway to lay blame on the supporters, who are being accused of being “anarchistic” and “unruly”. But all the videos and testimonies contradict this. Ultimately, the blame rests squarely on those who are profiting from the football industry.

Under capitalism, football is big business, that profits from selling club rivalry. Club fanaticism is nurtured by the club owners, but it is seldom matched with achievements. Many supporters are disappointed with their clubs, but their voices are never heard. The club owners are not interested in advancing Indonesian football. They are only concerned about their bottom line. This is what often sparks the anger of the supporters during matches.

Football fans are also disgusted with the rampant corruption that plagues the sport from top to bottom. Bribery and match-fixing often take place. PSSI has been shown itself to be a very corrupt institution. The Indonesia Corruption Watch pointed out that 720 billion rupiahs [$47 million USD] go missing from the PSSI budget every year. The extent of the corruption in the sport was highlighted by Kristian Adelmund, a Dutch soccer player who once played in Indonesia, who said, “I once saw a rival club owner visiting the referees’ locker room with a pistol. Such things don’t raise alarm in Indonesia.”

But truth be told, the PSSI officials learn their craft from their counterparts at FIFA. This world soccer institution is a den of corrupt officials. One scandal after another has shaken that organisation. In 2015, it was revealed that a number of FIFA officials had allegedly accepted millions of dollars in exchange for selecting Russia and Qatar as the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup respectively. It should come as no surprise. FIFA is at the centre of a global industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Where there is money, there is corruption. Such is capitalism.

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