As tragic as the stampede in the Kanjuruhan Stadium, in East Java, Indonesia, that killed at least 125 people after a football game on Saturday night, was, the most telling comment on the incident was made by an injured survivor, who rightfully blamed the police for “dehumanising” the spectators. When some spectators descended onto the pitch after the game and engaged in scuffles, the police over-reacted with the use of tear gas, leading the fans on the pitch and others to scamper to the nearest gate, only to find it closed, resulting in a crowd rush and asphyxiation. This accident is reminiscent of other crowd-related tragedies such as the deaths of eight people in January 2022 during the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, those of 74 spectators in Port Said, Egypt in 2012 and 97 Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough in Yorkshire, England in 1989. In all three cases, the deaths were less the result of hooliganism and more to do with police incompetence and crowd control failure. FIFA, football’s governing body, has come up with a clear guideline on stadium safety — “no firearms or crowd control gas shall be carried or used” by police or stewards in charge of crowd control. This guideline is not without reason. Policing of this kind is done to bring order when violence goes beyond control and descends into riots and there is little thought for public safety. With stadiums being regulated and closed spaces, using firearms or tear gas for crowd control would only result in furthering chaos and threats to public safety. It is only apt that the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights is planning to investigate the use of tear gas by the police and civil society organisations are asking for the organisers and police to be brought to trial.
With legions of passionate supporters across several countries, football is unquestionably the world’s most popular spectator sport, largely due to its simplicity and emphasis on skill and team work. But the flip side of spectator passion is that their tribal emotions for and against some teams or players overcome their appreciation of the abilities of the players or actual play. This false consciousness of identifying with the actual participants in a competitive game while merely being a spectator, is a key reason for the inflamed passions that come with the territory of spectator sports, which are also fanned by commercial and political interests. While the blame for the deaths in Kanjuruhan should be on the police for overzealous crowd control, the recurrent nature of such tragedies should also make every sport fan introspect on the role of a spectator. It’s one thing to appreciate the beautiful game, it’s quite another if that appreciation turns into a fatal attraction.