Getting to watch live football after the dark days of the pandemic would have counted among the pleasures and privileges of “normal” life, when the world opened up again. Stadium football can be one of the most exhilarating communal experiences in sport, filled with shared sighs and full-throated cheers. At Indonesia’s Kanjuruhan stadium, though, police resorted to tear gas when a section of the crowd ran onto the pitch after their team lost. One hundred and twenty-five lives were lost in a stampede that resulted from crowds fleeing tear gas shells, which hampered visibility, leading to chaos and nervous panic that exacerbated the situation further. It will count as one of the darkest days in football. Fans, including 17 children, struggling to breathe and dying in the football stadium is a nightmare that will blight the beautiful game forever.
The authorities who proceeded to label the crowd “anarchic” and justified the use of tear gas in what was a clear case of panicking by the stadium cops, must now be held accountable for their handling of the difficult situation. FIFA specifically prohibits “firearms or ‘crowd control gas’ — carried or used” to maintain order at a game. Using tear gas is always fraught within a stadium’s cauldron-like architecture, for it might scare the crowds, and raises spectres of the backing hoardes being crushed and trampled, and in the worst case scenario, poisoned. Passions in the Indonesian football crowds — especially in the east Java derby — have been known to flare up around games, which was all the more reason why the police ought to have been better prepared with crowd control mechanisms, instead of bombarding them with gas shells.
Tickets were over-sold, but only fans of the home club were present at the stadium — supporters of the rival club were kept out to avoid the possibility of confrontation. And still, the police failed to step up to the challenge. Lessons learnt from previous tragedies like Hillsborough, should have applied here, especially given that the stadium had only one entry/exit point. Crowd protocols in the future must necessitate measures like barricading players at the end of the match to dissuade anyone storming the field. Multiple access/egress points, well-lit too, must be made mandatory. Fans will need to be pre-emptively calmed, and police will need to be trained to handle any eventuality with sensitivity and care. Heading into a World Cup, the sport desperately needs to send out a message — win or lose, your team will play the game, for football’s magic is in its forever tomorrows.