The death toll from panic at an Indonesian soccer match climbed to 174, 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.
Several brawls between supporters of the two rival teams were reported inside the stadium after the Indonesian Premier League game ended in a 3-2 victory for Persebaya Surabaya on Saturday night local time in Malang.
The fights prompted riot police to fire tear gas, which caused panic among supporters, said East Java Police Chief Nico Afinta.
Hundreds of people ran to an exit gate in an effort to avoid the tear gas. Some suffocated in the chaos and others were trampled, killing 34 almost instantly.
The rioting 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. Tear gas is banned at soccer stadiums by FIFA.
More than 300 were rushed to nearby hospitals to treat injuries but many died on the way and during treatment, Afinta said.
East Java’s Vice Gov. Emil Dardak told Kompas TV in an interview Sunday the death toll has climbed to 174, while more than 100 injured people are receiving intensive treatment in eight hospitals without any charge, 11 of them in critical condition.
A video posted to social media showed riot police descending onto the field - using batons and shields to disperse the crowd.
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.
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 soccer 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 soccer match and its security procedure.
The PSSI has announced that they will be suspending the league for one week pending an investigation. They have also announced that Arema FC could be banned from hosting games for the rest of the season.
Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali also expressed his regret that “this tragedy happened when we were preparing for soccer game activities, both national and international level.”
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,” Amali said.
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 soccer teams in East Java's Blitar stadium in February 2020 caused a total of 250 million rupiahs ($29,000 NZD) 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 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.
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.