Indonesia has a huge passion for football but is no stranger to tragedy | John Duerden

Indonesia’s love for football is the greatest in all of Asia but along with that passion comes a long list of tragedies. The disaster on Saturday in Malang, in which at least 125 fans died when they tried to escape being teargassed by police, is not only by far the worst ever in the history of the world’s fourth-most populous country but one of the worst anywhere.

Fans in Indonesia complain about the international media’s focus on negative stories from the archipelago rather than examples of a deep football culture, but anyone who has attended games in the country would attest that while it can be a thrilling experience, it is also often intimidating. That was, perhaps, why early reports suggested that there had been clashes between rival sets of supporters; it would not have been the first time. But on this occasion, there were only Arema Malang fans present as followers of Persebaya Surabaya were not allowed to attend in an attempt to reduce the potential for violence.

This is a country where away teams are sometimes escorted to stadiums in armoured personnel carriers. In 2019, Malaysia requested one for their World Cup qualifier in Jakarta. Violence is not uncommon. It is estimated that from 1994 to 2019 there were 74 football-related deaths (some say the figures are higher, others lower). There have been plenty of times in the past when football fan groups – such as “Jakmania”, who follow Persija Jakarta – that have six-figure memberships and plenty of influence have come together to say “no more”. One such time was in 2018 when the league was suspended after the death of Haringga Sirila, a fan of Persija who was beaten to death by fans of their bitter rivals Persib Bandung. Two years earlier a 17-year-old Persib fan, Muhammad Rovi Arrahman, suffered the same fate at the hands of Jakarta supporters.

Authorities have struggled to deal with it all, not helped by incompetence, corruption and mismanagement. The popularity of the game has attracted leaders who use it for their own ends, and care little about how it operates. Nurdin Halid served time in prison for corruption in 2007 but was still allowed to continue as president of the football association. When he was eventually banned by Fifa in 2011 for standing for a third term in office, such was the battle for power that two rival leagues, federations and national teams emerged. In 2015, Fifa banned the country from the international game.

A man holds a poster during a candle light vigil for the victims of the tragedy in Indonesia
A man holds a poster during a candle light vigil for the victims of the tragedy in Indonesia. Photograph: Dita Alangkara/AP

Yet when the suspension was lifted a year later, not much had changed. Fan groups say that authorities do not, or cannot, plan properly and that there is little attempt to manage crowds. Overcrowding is not unheard of. Authorities on Saturday said that there were 42,000 tickets issued for a 38,000 capacity arena. Those without tickets for big games can sometimes gain entry by gathering outside entrances in the hope or expectation that they will eventually be allowed in. This has happened in international games too. In the 2007 Asian Cup, when Indonesia played Saudi Arabia there was an official attendance of 88,000 and the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium was full even before thousands more managed to gain entry later to sit on steps and gangways.

Fans believe that security forces have a habit of hitting first and asking questions later when it comes to football, and police were accused of beating a 16-year-old supporter, Muhammad Fahreza, to death at a game between Persija and Persela Lamongan in 2016. Thousands of fellow supporters held a vigil for the youngster and held up signs demanding an end to police brutality against football fans.

Teargas is at a different level, however. The tragic events of the weekend come at a time when there had been some encouraging news coming out of the country. The national team, long-term underachievers in Asia with results never coming close to matching population and passion, qualified in June for the 2023 Asian Cup and will appear on the continental stage for the first time since 2007, thanks to an impressive win over Kuwait in Kuwait City. Next year Indonesia is scheduled to host the Fifa Under-20 World Cup. This tournament was driving investment in facilities and was hailed as a massive step in the country’s development and long-term dream of one day becoming the “Brazil of Asia”, not just in terms of passion and colour but also in terms of ability. While there are bigger problems at the moment, there have already been statements of concern as to whether this disaster will cause the world governing body to stage the event elsewhere.

The country’s president, Joko Widodo, has ordered a stop to all league games until there is an investigation as to what happened and an evaluation made into the security situation of all matches. “I regret that this tragedy occurred,” he said. “And I hope this is the last football tragedy in the country.” It could be that this huge and tragic loss of life finally forces real change in the attitudes of all parties: government, sporting federations and security forces, as well as the fans themselves. For the moment, however, a country mourns.