Indonesian army securing the pitch following the stampede. Photo: AFP
The FIFA world cup is just over a month away, and Doha is already decked up for the occasion with the eight spectacular stadia waiting for the action to unfold. World over, fans must have begun to be in that mode, dreaming of their favourites, speculating on their chances this time. Will Cristiano Ronaldo be able to do something for Portugal, or Can Lionel Messi grab that one big Cup missing in his collection, or will Brazil get back to winning ways? Not since 2002 has this giant had a sniff at victory.
In fact, questions and questions should be keeping the fans busy in their thoughts. In this midst of expectations and dreams, the last thing any football fan would have looked forward to hearing is a disaster in a football stadium! What happened in Indonesia was just that, something that shook the football world. Not in recent times had a calamity of this magnitude come to soil the fair name of a sport, considered the most popular in the world. Perhaps, it was the price paid for the popularity.
The deadly incident happened as it were after a football match at the Kanjuruhan stadium in Malang, East Java. It was a league match involving the host team Arema FC and rival Persebaya Surabaya. Reports said that the rivalry between the two teams was so fierce that the authorities had put a clamp on the rival team’s supporters entering the 42000-capacity stadium for the match. The packed galleries then were all Arema fans, and according to one report, several more thousands had managed entry before the kickoff. An emotion-surcharged atmosphere in a football contest is never a surprise, but the ambience in Kanjuruhan seemed set for something to happen. And as things unfolded, the home team lost, which was something unthinkable to the fans, and the rest of the action followed and in the end, over 125 people died, including over thirty children. What should have been an enjoyable late evening entertainment simply slipped on to turn a catastrophe beyond words.
Many believe what happened in Malang is a sort of reminder of the grave happenings that had struck the sport over the years. Indonesia is supposed to have been the first Asian country to have participated in a World Cup back in 1938 when it was known as Dutch East Indies. Football passion thus runs deep in the nation, but only it has taken a treacherous route, often leading to violence. According to one data published in a newspaper there over 75 people had died in game-related incidents in the last 28 years. But the latest has turned the biggest of the lot. Sadly, this has come at a time when FIFA had given Indonesia the task of conducting the World Cup U-20 championship. The event should have been held in 2021, but Coronavirus forced a cancellation, and now it is slated for May-June next year. How much the latest incident will cloud FIFA’s thinking is what critics are looking into. The world body has not commented on what the impact would be but for a country which had once faced a one-year FIFA ban in 2015 for its poor administrative show, surely the latest incident would be a grave embarrassment.
But then, sadly, soccer violence is not something which is rare or restricted to certain areas. Data shows that even in the January of this year, there were eight deaths in a stampede at the Younde Olembe stadium in Cameroon during the African Cup of Nations. Host Cameroon was playing Comoros then. Ten years ago in Egypt, fans went out of control at the end of a match between rivals Al Mastry and Al Ahly at Port Said and over 70 people died. Even more ghastly was the stampede at Ghana’s Accra’s soccer stadium in 2001 where police fired tear gas at rioting fans and left 125 people dead, almost similar to what happened in Indonesia. Much earlier in England in 1989 the Hillsborough stadium disaster is still fresh in memory. Around 96 people were crushed to death in an over-crowded enclosure before a semi-final match in the FA Cup involving Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. One victim of this it is said died 32 years after the incident which had left him with severe irreversible brain damage!
It is not as though India has been an exemption. The first thought was would it have happened in the city where people breathe football day in and day out _Kolkata! Indeed, in 1980 in what else but a match between the two key rivals, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, popularly referred to as Kolkata Derby, things went out of hand, thanks to the rival supporters going berserk. The venue was the vast Eden Gardens and yet the mayhem in the stands led to 16 deaths in what has been recorded as the darkest day of the rivalry between these two glamour outfits. Again, the stampede was the key reason. Such was the shock that many believed Bengal football had lost its zeal and it was reflected in the poor attendance thereafter that stretched to two decades!
No matter the dark history that this sport has, the latest tragedy in Indonesia will weigh in the minds of the fans even as they get ready to take in the action from the Doha World Cup. Passions can run high but the wish of every football fan at this moment would be that the fair name of this beautiful sport should not be tagged with reflections of despair and anger but with heights of sheer fantasy.