By Freek Colombijn
“Football is the most important thing of unimportant things”. The truth of this quote, which I often give in my classes, but which –if I am correct– originates from a pope, was confirmed by the sad death of probably 127 spectators after a match in Malang, Indonesia on October 1st, 2022.
The local team, Arema FC, played against Persebaya from the nearby city of Surabaya. Arema FC had not lost this match for 23 years, but this year Persebaya took a decisive 3-2 lead in the 51st minute of the game. According to Indonesian media, after the match was over, the players of Arema FC gathered on the pitch and walked up to the supporters to make an apologetic gesture for the defeat. Videos on Internet show that at that moment, perhaps, at most two-hundred supporters left the stand and entered the pitch. Shortly thereafter, the supporters ran across the field chased by police forces. Later the police also used tear gas to disperse the crowd. People died by suffocation or were squeezed to death in the mayhem.
Where in the stadium exactly people died is not clear from the newspaper account or images. The Indonesian authorities report that 34 people died in the stadium and the others on their way to or in hospital. Indonesian newspapers fear that the death toll will be higher than the official numbers counted in the stadium and hospitals, because people also carried victims directly from the stadium to their homes. The demographics of the victims is yet unclear. Footage shows the bodies of only young males being carried away, but it is possible that particularly children or women are among the deaths.
Almost immediately the question was posed how this tragedy could have occurred. One high-ranking official mentioned that 42,000 tickets had been sold, while there are only 38,000 seats in the stadium. While this is possible, the discrepancy in numbers is not extreme and the footage shows that people on the stands are not in panic, do not lack space and are quietly observing the action on the pitch. Besides, there is an athlete track around the football field, so there is really ample space in the stadium. Putting the blame on the club, or the intermediaries who sell tickets on the street, acquits the authorities, but seems far from what has happened.
The police commander of East Java, Nico Afinta, stated at an improvised press conference that they had repeatedly warned that supporters of Persebaya should not have been admitted in the stadium. He concluded: “seandainya supporter mematuhi aturan, peristiwa ini tidak akan terjadi” (if the supporters respected the rules, this incident will not happen). In other words, they put the blame on the supporters.
However, there is no evidence that fights between Arema FC and Persebaya supporters triggered the chaos. Indonesia has a long history of supporter violence going back to colonial times, but the fights are rarely between groups of supporters of different clubs. The physical distance between the clubs is simply too big –up to thousands of kilometres– to allow a mass movement of supporters following their team on away matches. While Malang and Surabaya are relatively close to each other, the Kanjuruhan Stadium is, coming from Surabaya, far on “the other side” of Malang. It would still be a two-hour drive if there are no traffic jams (and this caveat is important; usually there are traffic jams). In any case the police itself stated that few Persebaya supporters were in the stadium and no violence had broken out between different supporter groups.
What is possible, though, is that the rivalry between the two clubs fed the disappointment about the unexpected defeat of Arema FC, also in the absence of Persebaya supporters. The Arema FC supporters enjoy a reputation as vigorous fans, captured in their moniker “Aremania”. It is common in Indonesian stadiums that foremen, who have more an eye for the supporters on the stand than for the action on the pitch, stir up the crowd. It is likely such foremen were always active during this match. But then, again, the pitch invasion was limited and at first not aggressive.
Of course I do not know what has happened, but what strikes me in the newspaper reports and press conferences of the authorities is that journalists and police officers all talk about the supporters, but nobody bothers to talk with the supporters. And nobody so far has asked the police how they perceive the football supporters.
Taking into account that the decisive goal was scored long before the last whistle blow of the referee, that no violence had taken place between groups of supporters, and that the pitch invasion was on a limited scale, the disappointment about the loss cannot have been a major cause of the chaos. Much more likely is a clash between supporters and the police in which the police heavily over-reacted. Two police cars inside the stadium were turned over (but the chronology of this action is unknown to me) and one police truck was burnt down outside the stadium afterwards. It was the police violence using tear gas that drove the supporters together in a corner of the stadium (between gate 10 and 12, the media write), where they were squeezed to death.
Why is it that the police treat the supporters as scum without rights? Why is it that supporters seize an opportunity to protest against the authorities? Because they are not heard or noted through other channels? These supporters are often from lower classes and underemployed and feel side-lined. Not the behaviour of the supporters is the problem, but the neglect of the supporters by the elite. Not the violence of the supporters, but the structural violence of society against the supporters is the cause of the tragic events in the stadium.
In the meantime a post circulates on social media in Indonesia: “The sorrow will disappear. The names will slowly be forgotten. The hashtag will vanish, supporters return to cheer, but the mothers? THEY WILL HATE FOOTBALL FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. (Duka nya akan hilang. Namanya perlahan dilupakan. Hastgnya tenggelam, Suporter kembali bersorak, Tetapi Ibunya? SEUMUR HIDUP AKAN MEMBENCI SEPAK BOLA)
Freek Colombijn is Associate Professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Head of Department.