At least 125 people have died in a stampede after tear gas fired by police sparked panic among fans rioting after a soccer match in Indonesia, in one of the worst sporting tragedies in the world.
Attention immediately focused on the police use of tear gas, which is banned at soccer stadiums by FIFA, the world soccer body, which called the incident “a tragedy beyond comprehension.”
Some suffocated and others were trampled in the crush as fans rushed to the exits following violence after the game Saturday evening at a stadium in the city of Malang, in East Java province.
Hosts Arema FC lost to visiting side Persebaya FC 3-2, with thousands of angry supporters throwing bottles and other objects at players and soccer officials. Witnesses said fans flooded the Kanjuruhan Stadium pitch and demanded that Aremamanagement explain why, after 23 years of undefeated home matches against rival Persebaya, this one ended in a loss.
Riot police responded by firing tear gas, including toward the stadium’s stands, causing panic among the crowds of fans.
At least 34 people died at the stadium, including two officers, officials said, and some reports include children among the casualties.
“I deeply regret this tragedy and I hope this is the last soccer tragedy in this country,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in a televised speech Sunday.
Widodo ordered an investigation of security procedures.
“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,” East Java police chief Nico Afinta said in a news conference early Sunday.
More than 300 people were rushed to hospitals but many died on the way and during treatment, Afinta said.
National Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo said the death toll had been revised down to 125 after authorities found some of the victims were counted twice. More than 100 were receiving intensive treatment in eight hospitals, 11 of them in critical condition.
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.
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.
Indonesia’s soccer association, known as PSSI, has suspended the premier soccer league Liga 1 indefinitely in light of the tragedy and banned Arema from hosting soccer matches for the remainder of the season.
Indonesia is due to host the 2023 FIFA under-20 World Cup, 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.
Despite Indonesia’s lack of international accolades in the sport, hooliganism is rife in the soccer-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.
Ferli Hidayat, the police chief of Malang, said there were some 42,000 spectators at the game Saturday, all of whom were Arema supporters because the organizer had banned Persebaya fans from entering the stadium in an effort to avoid brawls.
Saturday’s game is already among the world’s worst crowd disasters, including the 1996 World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Costa Rica in Guatemala City where over 80 died and over 100 more were injured. In April 2001, more than 40 people are crushed to death during a soccer match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa.