What Will It Take to Stop the Violence at Indonesian Football Matches?
The death of another fan, this time in Bandung, West Java, should be a wake up call for the PSSI.
Football supporters in Jakarta's GBK stadium. Photo by Supri/Reuters
Haringga Sirla might be the man who finally makes Indonesian football confront its history of violence. The 23-year-old was brutally beaten to death on Sunday outside a match between rivals Persib and Persija in Bandung, West Java.
There are few rivalries in Indonesia more intense than Persib and Persija—two teams from neighboring cities with such a troubled history that their supporters are typically banned from attending matches outside their own hometowns.
But Haringga, a Persija fan, bought a ticket to the Persib home game anyway, arriving in the city on Sunday after taking the train down from Jakarta. In normal circumstances, it would be a simple day of watching your favorite team compete against their biggest rivals. But the circumstances on Sunday were far from normal.
Some Persib fans confronted Haringga before he even entered the stadium. The crowd, once they figured out he was a Persija fan, then turned on the 23 year old, brutally beating him to death in a horrific attack before a crowd of onlookers while chanting "Laa ilaaha illallah," or "there is no God but Allah." The entire attack was recorded and posted online.
Watch: Football's Most-Violent Rivalry
The fallout was swift. So far, 16 people, all of them Persib supporters, have been detained. Eight of them were charged in connection with the killing by Tuesday. And additional charges may be forthcoming as the investigation continues.
By Monday, football fans nationwide were piling on criticism of the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI), an organization dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, for failing to prevent these kinds of violent incidents. It wasn't that long ago that a Persib fan was killed in a similar manner at a Persija game. In total, the rivalry between these two teams alone has resulted in at least seven deaths in recent years. (That's out of the 55 people killed at football matches nationwide between 1995 and 2017, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Save Our Soccer.)
The history of violence between the two teams is so well-known in Indonesia that police routinely stop buses full of supporters on the highway, preventing them from entering rival turf over fears that it would only ignite further bloodshed.
Everyone involved in running the league, including PSSI, PT Liga Indonesia Baru (LIB), and the organizing committee, expressed their condolences to the family of victim of this latest attack. But, according to critics, they offered little to show that they were actually working to prevent future attacks from taking place.
“We express deep concern over the incident," said Risha Adi Widjaya, the CEO of PT Liga Indonesia Baru, the leagues owners, in a written statement. "PT LIB always tries our best to stop any kind of violence in football."
The league often puts the responsibility on the teams themselves to police the behavior of their own fans. Those who repeatedly fail to prevent violence, or riots, from occurring during a match, can be hit with a long list of sanctions, from point reductions and fines to "partai usiran," or the practice of requiring home teams to play in a stadium far from their fans. But, in practice, these penalties do little to curb the violence or prevent supporters from attending the matches.
Persib has tried to convince Persija fans to stay away, warning that they were putting their lives in risk by attending home matches, said Irfan Suryadireja, a media officer for Persib. But Persija fans can always ignore the warnings if they want, he explained.
"Of course supporters can watch their favorite club in our stadium," Irfan told VICE. "But it’s very risky for them."
The situation has gotten so bad that Persib and Persija might be forced to compete in a third city, somewhere far from both cities, in the future, Irfan said.
But how did it get so bad in the first place? Other cities have rivalries, but few of them end with such consistent levels of violence. Fajar Junaedi, a lecturer at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta who studies football, told VICE that the blame falls at the feet of the people who run the league.
“The main factor is that the officials employ poor procedures and management,” Fajar said. “Both the organizing committee and the security officers don’t comply to the regulations. This has been a major problem for years.”
Instead, the league seems to act like the violence is inevitable. They try to keep rival fans apart, but, the owners argue, there's only so much they can do. If only there was a solution to this kind of football violence already out there somewhere. And, the thing is, there already is.
The United Kingdom was plagued with a dark history of football-related violence as well. And the league there responded with new, advanced security measures to try to head off the worst of it. An integrated ticketing system can flag potential issues before the tickets are even purchased, using an algorithm that can notice when, say, a Leeds United fan tries to buy a regular admittance seat in London. Supporters are required to buy tickets with their government ID, which is linked to a system that tracks and flags potential issues.
Wisnu Prasetya Utomo, a football fan and media observer at Remotivi, found out about the system first-hand when he was barred from watching a Leeds United vs. Millwall match while attending school in the UK. That match was designated as having a high-risk of violence, and Wisnu, who had seen a previous Leeds match, was prevented from entering the stadium.
“I’ve tried to explain that ‘I’m not a Leeds supporter. I’m just an international student who wants to watch a football match’, but they still didn’t allow me to watch," he told VICE. "I understand that, in some cases, it’s like an early warning system that identifies away team’s supporters."
Fans of the away team are contained in a smaller, more secure part of the stadium, one with its own entrance and exit. They also have to come as a group, not individuals, so the management can determine where they sit and how many seats to put aside.
But just because there's a way to mitigate the violence aboard doesn't mean it can work in Indonesia too. A similar system here would require the involvement of the central government, which, so far, isn't involved in the ticketing process of football games.
“In England, whenever you want to buy a ticket online, you’ll need to fill in your ID-card number, address, et-cetera, so that everything is traceable," Wisnu recalled. "And you can trace back the seat number to the buyer. We’re still not able to do that here because there are a lot of scalpers."
Then there's the fact that a lot of fans in Indonesia are watching the matches without any tickets at all. The night of Haringga's death, there were nearly 50,000 people in attendance, according to Persib officials. But the stadium only holds 38,000 and there were only 36,500 tickets sold. That's 13,500 fans totally unaccounted for who, even with a new advanced system, would've remained unknown to security.
“We can’t compare what we have to how it is in England and Europe," Irfan, of Persib, told VICE. "There, people won’t go to the stadium if they don’t have the tickets. But here in Indonesia, if their favorite team is playing, they will come to the stadium regardless, hoping they will find a way in somehow.”
Still, both Persib and Persija said they were working on a system to better track who was buying which tickets to which matches.
“Persib is trying to implement online ticketing," Irfan told VICE. "They’ve stated the terms and condition to buy tickets, and how to become an official member of Persib. The problem is, when somebody buys tickets for other people, [Persib] can’t control it."
And Persija is still trying to sort out its own database of diehard fans first.
“Maybe it’s still a long way to go until we can trace a ticket to an individual, but with the existing Jakmania system, it’s easier for us to identify what the coordinators do," Budi Saputra, the head of Persija's ticketing division, told VICE. "So we will prioritize our tickets for those who are official members of Jakmania."
Without massive structural changes, it's only a matter of time before the next instance of violence rears its head. But, for Wisnu, it's all about taking that first step.
"It’s the changes in the league infrastructure and football federation that got English league to where it is now,' he said. "It seems that Indonesia today is more like English leagues in the 70s. There’s a long way to go."