Stadium disaster tarnishes Indonesia's sporting ambitions

Martin Abbugao, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 04 2022 03:58 AM

A woman weeps as she pay condolence to the victims of the football match riot and stampede at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java, October 3, 2022. Mast Irham, EPA-EFE
A woman weeps as she pay condolence to the victims of the football match riot and stampede at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java, October 3, 2022. Mast Irham, EPA-EFE

Indonesia's hopes of hosting world sports events in future will depend on the credibility of its investigation into the weekend's football stadium disaster and safety reforms, analysts have warned.

The tragedy on Saturday in Malang left 125 people dead and more than 300 injured after police fired tear gas in a packed stadium to quell a pitch invasion by fans, triggering a stampede.

It was one of the deadliest disasters in the history of football.

Analysts said that while there have been similar tragedies in other countries – although rarely on such a scale – it will undoubtedly affect Indonesia's reputation when it comes to hosting big international competitions.

It could not have come at a worse time – Indonesia has bid to replace China as hosts for next year's Asian Cup football and a decision is due in two weeks.

The archipelago country of about 270 million people will also host the FIFA U-20 World Cup in May. There have been calls online for Indonesia to be stripped of that right.

Indonesia, which defied warnings about poor preparations to stage the Asian Games in 2018, has also expressed an interest in hosting an Olympics for the first time in 2036.

"It certainly tarnishes the reputation of the country and tarnishes the reputation of football there. They can't escape that," Los Angeles-based crowd management expert Paul Wertheimer told AFP.

"But it is what they do now that will determine whether the reputation sticks or not – whether they can learn from this tragedy and produce standards of care that will impress the world," said Wertheimer, who heads the consultancy Crowd Management Strategies.

"The first thing I thought was: why was tear gas being used?" he added, also highlighting overcrowding and failure in crowd management as among the possible missteps.

FIFA, football's world governing body, prohibits the use of crowd control gas by police or stewards at pitch-side.

"I think everything has to be reassessed," Wertheimer said, adding there also needs to be retraining of personnel on managing crowds as well as "an educational component that focuses on the fans and the public, what their roles and responsibilities are for the safety of themselves and everyone else".

Indonesia has formed a task force to investigate the tragic events at Kanjuruhan stadium, where 32 children were among the dead.

- 'Huge wake-up call' -

Mustafa Izzuddin, a visiting professor of international relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia, said global scrutiny will not just be on football.

It will be on Indonesia's ability as a whole to host future sporting events and even on its ambitions to become a key player in world diplomacy.

The Southeast Asian nation has struggled to shed a reputation for generally lax safety standards – its airlines were previously banned in the West because of safety issues.

"The stampede, tragic as it may be, is a huge wake-up call for Indonesia to look at all these security measures for all the sporting events that they are going to be hosting from this point forward," Izzuddin told AFP.

"It's a critical time for Indonesia to ensure that any investigation is credible and that punishments are meted out," he added.

"More importantly, Indonesia must provide the necessary assurance to the wider football community that it is serious about curbing football violence."

Having watched football matches in Indonesia, Izzuddin noted that violence often happens in places far from urban centers, making it necessary for provincial officials to play a "pivotal role" in ensuring safety.

Wertheimer said that Indonesia can salvage its reputation at home and abroad with the right response.

"Will they respond with a thorough investigation that leads to substantive changes that protects the public going forward?" he asked.

"If they do that, over time, Indonesia will reestablish a positive reputation in the international community. 

"And it probably will regain the confidence of the Indonesian public as well."