As Indonesian families bury their dead, questions are being asked as to how a soccer match attended only by supporters of the home team descended into chaos resulting in one of the sport’s worst ever tragedies.

At least 125 people were killed and more than 300 others injured at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java on Saturday after angry Arema Football Club fans ran onto the pitch following their team’s 3-2 defeat to rivals Persebaya Surabaya.

Among the dead were 32 children, including one as young as 3 years old, an official with the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection said. Eight of the children who lost their lives were girls and 24 were boys. At least seven more minors remain hospitalized, the official said.

Many of those killed were trampled to death or died from asphyxiation and other breathing problems, according to health officials. All were fans of Arema, one of the most popular teams in Indonesia, where passionate support and intense rivalries have often boiled over into violence, observers say.

Persebaya supporters, from the neighboring city of Surabaya, had been barred from the stadium Saturday by organizers in an effort to prevent trouble between rival fans.

Survivors told CNN that angry chants filled the air after Arema’s loss – its first to Persebaya at home in 23 years – and fans ran onto the pitch and into the path of security officers who fired tear gas at the crowd.

Riyu, a friend of two teenagers killed in the mayhem, told CNN Indonesia his friends fled back into the stands after the police fired tear gas. “(People) keep panicking. I don’t know why I was beaten by the police, I don’t know anything,” he said.

East Java police officials confirmed that tear gas had been used and maintained they were forced to control “rioting” fans.

“It had gotten anarchic. They started attacking officers, they damaged cars,” said police chief inspector Nico Afinta at a news conference Sunday, adding that two officers were among the dead.

Gilang Widya Pramana, president of Arema FC, delivered a public apology on Monday and said he would take “full responsibility” for the events.

Also on Monday, Indonesian security minister Mahfud MD said a “joint independent fact-finding team” would investigate the role of police and military in the incident. The team will include government officials, professional football associations, observers, academics and members of the media, he added.

Fans and rights groups want investigators to examine why tear gas was used on fans inside a stadium, in violation of guidelines set by FIFA, the sport’s governing body.

“No one should lose their lives at a football match,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia. “The police themselves have stated that the deaths occurred after police use of tear gas on the crowd resulted in a stampede at the stadium exits. This loss of life cannot go unanswered.”

‘It was madness’

Arema fan Yusuf Yunus had been watching the match from the eastern stands on Saturday night and told CNN he saw fans run onto the pitch.

“It was madness … Everyone was angry and frustrated that Arema FC lost,” he said.

Yunus added that he didn’t “think much” about the fans’ antics. “Their behavior was pretty standard,” he said.

But within minutes, more supporters left the stands and flowed onto the field, then he heard screams and smelled something in the air. He said he saw riot police “hitting male fans” and then clounds of white tear gas swirling around the crowd.

“From that moment I knew there was no turning back,” he said.

Hundreds of terrified and panicking people then attempted to flee the stadium, he said, rushing toward exit doors and “throwing” those in their way.

Muhammad Fahmi, 22, told CNN he had attended the game with his friend and cousin but they became separated during the chaos before being eventually reunited outside.

“The stadium looked like a war zone,” he said. “There was so much screaming and explosions. (It) felt surreal.”

Ahmad Rizal Habibi, who had been inside the stadium, said he heard explosions and people screaming. “I felt it becoming more difficult to breathe and my eyes got irritated then I saw smoke coming out from one corner of the stands,” he told AFPTV.

“We were indeed sad because (Arema) lost, but we paid for it with people’s lives.”

More than a sport

Soccer is hugely popular in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation and home to more than 273 million people.

But violence and mismanagement have plagued the country’s soccer leagues for decades, with accounts of hooliganism and heavy-handed policing often reported, according to Indonesian sports analyst Dex Glenniza.

“There is indeed a problem with Indonesia’s toxic football culture both on the pitch and off,” said Glenniza, who also noted that riot police and tactical armored vehicles were the norm at big matches.

“All sports clubs – not just soccer teams – that compete between cities are always intense. They’re fighting for the ‘bragging rights’,” he said.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, repeated calls for an independent investigation into the deaths, and the use of tear gas on supporters.

“Indonesia was apparently not listening when the issue of tear gas was discussed within FIFA,” he said. “The police should have recognized the peril but they seemed so focused on clearing fans from the field that they apparently didn’t think twice before proceeding.

“What this shows is how easily and quickly Indonesian police authorize use of tear gas, with little or no concern about how bystanders and onlookers will be negatively affected.”

FIFA issued a statement Sunday calling the events in Malang a “tragedy beyond comprehension,” but it did not address the use of tear gas by Indonesian security forces. However, Indonesian sports experts and observers noted that the Arema vs Persebaya game was “a domestic league match” not under FIFA’s direct jurisdiction.

“Incidents in league matches are punished by their relevant country associations,” said analyst Glenniza. “If FIFA punishes Indonesia, the Indonesian league will be affected for sure. The government is now worried because we are hosting the Under-20s World Cup next year.”

The 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup is scheduled to take place across six Indonesian cities in May and June next year.

All league matches in Indonesia have been suspended following the tragedy under orders of President Joko Widodo. “Sportsmanship, humanity and brotherhood should be upheld in Indonesia,” said Widodo, also known as Jokowi, in a somber televised speech on Sunday.

“I hope that it will be the last to occur in Indonesian football. We cannot have any more (of this) in the future.”

On Monday, funeral arrangements were underway for the dead, as supporters laid flowers outside the stadium. Some fans said the tragedy had made them think twice about supporting their team.

“I’ve learned my lesson and honestly for me, I will take a break from supporting Arema FC,” Al Jalurohman, 17, told Reuters.

Fahmi told CNN the events of Saturday had changed his lifelong commitment to the game.

“I grew up watching and playing football and I supported Arema my whole life,” he said. “But I can do without football, especially after what happened on Saturday,” he said.

“We will not die because there is no football – but we can die from watching it.”

Credit: CNN

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