Bonek Writers Forum: Words are Weapons

by Oryza A. Wirawan. Originally published at Berita Jatim & Sejarah Persebaya

How does a community of supporters try to encourage a critical understanding of football through writing? We can use the case of the Bonek Writers Forum (BWF), founded on 6th December 2017, as a means to understand this. This community has a fluid form. There is no formal leader and everyone has the same right in sharing ideas, regardless of whether or not the ideas are ‘brilliant’, as every idea is respected. 

The forum is not binding and there are no obligations. All activities are voluntary. All participants in the forum are united by a single passion: support for the Persebaya football club, football in general and writing. This makes every member of this community keen to protect their passion so that it never diminishes. The passion is protected so that it continues to burn amongst all members.

The members of BWF have different backgrounds: journalists, social media writers, authors, teachers, lecturers, historians, gender activists, football club managers, civil servants and even business people. Perhaps because of this, the ideas that emerge are also diverse. Everyone has their own perspective in regards to writing and football. 

No one can deny that football (sepakbola) is the most popular sport in Indonesia. Anthony Sutton, author of the book, ‘Sepakbola Indonesia: Way of Life’, admires the sincerity of the passion for football in Indonesia. Inter-club rivalries are fierce. The stadiums are filled with fanatical supporters. In a number of cities, football games are treated like political rallies and require strict security. 

The energy that is evident at the stadium cannot be equated with the world of writing. Lots of supporter groups have created their own, mainly online, publications. Nonetheless, there haven’t been many books published written by supporters themselves. Not many supporters have written about themselves and the clubs which they support, or about other topics which are to do with local and international football.

This contrasts with the situation in England. The book, Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby started a boom in the publication of books written by fans. These were books written by ordinary fans; not those who were a part of supporter groups. Nor hooligans who were just interested in fighting. Nick Hornby himself followed Arsenal from 1968 to 1992. There was no tension or drama in that book, except for the disappointment and joy Hornby felt when watching Arsenal. 

Life for Hornby is simple. He’s happy when Arsenal wins. But, when his London-based team loses, his life is enveloped in a heavy gloom. During the 1980s they were given the nickname of Boring Boring Arsenal.  What could they hope for? Hornby wrote, “Fever Pitch is about the life of a fan.” This famous memoir has also been translated into Indonesia by the novelist Mahfud Ikhwan. 

After Hornby, other fan memoirs appeared from fans other clubs. There is Neil Dunkin’s book: Anfield of Dreams: A Kopite’s Odyssey: From the Second Division to Sublime Istanbul. This was nominated for a prize in the British Sports Book Awards. 

There are also works which focus on smaller clubs. These include Dave Roberts’ work, The Bromley Boys: The True Story of Supporting the Worst Football Team in Britain. Supporters of teams such as Persid Jember and PSSS Situbondo in Indonesia’s Liga 3 will feel a lot better about themselves if they read this book, for they will realise that they’re not the most unfortunate supporters in the world. 

Indonesia requires a good ecosystem to foster a stronger interest in football writing. Of course, Indonesia has no shortage of talented football writers. But, it is difficult to find serious writers of football books. To become an established football author takes time. 

BWF was founded as a means of developing this ecosystem and to help develop a shared reputation. From this shared reputation, individual reputations can prosper, from which similar writing groups can be founded in other locations. Networks are the source of an ecosystem. It seems  simple; but achieving this outcome is of course not simple. 

Over its five year journey, BWF has published one digital book, three printed books and a digital newspaper. All books are part of a series. The books are Make Persebaya Great Again: Notes from the Edge of the Field(2019); Football Talismans: Essays on Football Tragdies (2020); Football and the Working Classes (2021) and Stadia: Football Temples (2022). 

For shorter articles about Persebaya and Bonek, BWF has established a website, Sejarah Persebaya (‘Persebaya History’) and activated various social media accounts. This website was inspired by lfchistory.net, a fan-run Liverpool website, for writers from throughout the world who write about Liverpool. 

So, this strategy requires time to bear fruit. But, just as with writing, everything starts from an idea. And all ideas need legs in order to move. 

*Translated by Andy Fuller, July 2022

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