Gelora Bung Karno 1

Death of a Footballer

Senayan Stadium erupted as Sobrat’s strike escaped the grasp of the Young Indonesian’s goalkeeper, Ronny Paslah. The net bulged as the score became 1-0 for the Jonggring Salaka. Young Indonesia would find it difficult to come back from such a position: the goal had been scored in the last minute of extra-time.

But, why was it at that moment, that Sobrat’s heart stopped beating? He had just scored his 17th goal of the season in front of 70,000 people. Why didn’t it happen just moments before or after scoring the goal? Why did it happen exactly at that moment? The moment when the net of the goal bulged and when he became the season’s top scorer. Why did it have to happen at that moment – when he had proved his ability as a footballer, after so many years being left on the bench.

It was indeed a golden goal: it was the only goal scored in the decisive match of the season. Whichever team won the game would become the league’s champions. The remaining matches wouldn’t influence the outcome. The match result had already thrown the betting market into chaos. No one had guessed that Jonggring Salaka, a team that had finished last the season before, could become champions. It was all thanks to a striker named Sobrat. His feet had suddenly become magical. His passes were precise – opening up space for his team mates, and in the penalty area he was a threat: he would always score a goal. But, Sobrat had only become a striker by an accident. He was actually the reserve goal keeper. When three of the team’s attackers had been injured by the opposition’s defenders, he had to be deployed as a striker. One has to understand, the lower teams in the Galatama league only had three or four players on the bench. These teams were unlike the better teams such as Jayakarta, Warna Agung or Niac Mitra. One of the teams only had exactly 11 players. That was the reason why, Jonggring Salaka’s coach –Mormon – who was always drunk, was willing to put on Sobrat, the reserve goalkeeper, as a striker in the team’s 4-3-3 formation.

And Sobrat truly did something special. He scored a hat-trick in a draw against Niac Mitra. After that game Jonggring Salaka went on a winning spree. They even had a draw with Tottenham Hotspur in a friendly match: both goals of which were scored by Sobrat. He became a celebrity. Newspapers and magazines published photographs of him as he shot for goal. Autograph hunters, swarmed like bees around him, wherever he went. He was like a pearl that had been found a little too late. Indeed, his age was already 30 – which in football terms, is quite old.

So, why did he die at that moment? It happened in a scrimmage in the penalty box. The ball bounced up and Sobrat volleyed it into the net. The ball broke through the grasp of Young Indonesia’s goal keeper Ronny Paslah: a goal keeper who had always kept a clean sheet. Why, at that moment, did he end up, sprawled on the ground, no longer alive? His teammates jumped with joy and ran to embrace him. But all they embraced was a corpse. It was his 17th goal of the season. He had broken the record of Risdianto, his main rival from Warna Agung who had scored 16 goals. The referee blew the whistle to end the match. The crowd witnessed the player – with the number 9 on his back – being carried off the pitch.

“That’s Sobrat.”

“What’s wrong with him? Who injured him?”

“He fell over by himself.”

“Huh?”

“Maybe he has a cramp.”

“Or, he fainted because he was overwhelmed.”

“Maybe.”

“But, really?”

“He’s dead.”

“Ah, come on.”

“I have just heard Mormon crying.”

“Ah, come on!”

“Don’t believe what you hear.”

“I’m just telling you the truth.”

IMG_4162As a child, Sobrat would kick a small plastic ball in the narrow alleyways. His mother always told him, he would be better off taking an afternoon nap, or selling fried bananas. But, Sobrat never obeyed his mother. Nonetheless, Sobrat’s career never took off. He dropped out from college and wasn’t accepted in the Sontoloyo sports academy because he always looked sickly. But, he still came to training, regardless, and joined in. The coaches couldn’t turn him down and they gave him the extra task of chasing after the balls that were kicked into the drains.

He was 20 years at that time and he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to participate in a real game. And so, he changed teams. He joined Jonggring Salaka a second division team made up of Balinese living in Jakarta. The club’s owner was a middleclass businessman from Solo. He trained hard and was given the extra job of massaging the other players at the end of training. After three years, he finally made it into the team as a reserve.

“What do you want to do with your life?” his mother would always ask him.

“Mum, I want to be a footballer.”

“Why?”

“I want to do my country proud.”

His mother would then look at him touchingly, touch his head, with blinking eyes.e

“That’s not so strange, actually. When I was pregnant with you, I was craving to watch football games.”

But, Sobrat became a little more passionate when his mother asked another question.

“How are you going to make enough money to be able to eat? Are you going to eat footballs?”

“What’s up with you mum? Playing football isn’t about money. It’s about dedication, idealism. Even if we aren’t paid, we give all of our energy to the nation of Indonesia. Playing for money is no different from prostitution. It just leads to corruption. The main thing is, I’m giving my life to the greatness of Indonesian soccer.”

For years, he served the team as a masseur in the second division. His coach, Mormon, of Polish background, didn’t regard him as being talented. He was given a shot at being a keeper. In 45 minutes of training alone, he let in 20 goals, without being able to catch a single ball. Tried as a striker, none of his shots were on target. If he wanted to shoot to the right, it went left. If he wanted to shoot left, the ball would go backwards. Mormon told him repeatedly to find another job. There was no use in him trying to become a footballer, he would say. He had no talent for it. He would be better off becoming a painter or selling fried bananas. But, he wouldn’t give up. He would mop the floor and started reading through Mormon’s collection of football books.

Leading up to the game against Young Indonesia, Sobrat disappeared from the training ground. He went to Senayan Stadium, at the crack of dawn one morning, and went on to the field. He sat cross-legged right in the centre of the field – where the ball is kicked off at the start of the game. The sky was grey and downcast. With the wind blowing around him, Sobrat began to daydream.

“Life is just like a sport,” he told himself. “If one doesn’t lose, one wins.”

“But, what is the meaning of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’?”

“What is it? Do we truly win when we win?”

“Do we truly lose when we lose?”

And Sobrat began to reflect on scoring the goals he had scored. Who actually came up with those goals? The ball game close to my feet, I would see an empty space between the goal and the keeper, I would shoot and the ball would go in. I didn’t feel special. Did the journalists know what was on the field? I was no different from the other players. I was just following the rhythm.

The movement from the ball between feet was just a matter of fate. I was just continuing the ball on its own path. The path that it willed for itself. Even though, sometimes the ball didn’t know where it was rolling towards. There is no libero in this world who is able to control the path of a ball. The ball moves by itself: truly by itself; from one foot to the next, even though it doesn’t want to. Players are just links in a chain, just like the ball itself. Just a means. Just of life on the field. We cannot say, supposing that the ball went to the right a little, or, supposing that the keeper anticipated to the left instead of the right. No such word exists after the match is over. It is unnecessary. We think we can know everything. And the goal itself, what is that? The ball enters the net, but, what does that mean for a nation of 145million people?

It was as if the benches in the stadium were talking to one another. The wind blew against Sobrat’s thoughts. From where he was sitting, the ball would be kicked and would continue to move until the end of the game. He thought of someone who had once tried to bribe him.

“Come on. Help me. This is my last time. I’m gambling everything: my house, my rice field, my car, my wife. Everything. The problem is that I’m always losing. I’ve got to make up for all of these losses. Come on, Sobrat, my mate. Help me. Give me a chance. You still have lots of opportunities to progress.”
“I gave in to others for ten years. Ten years. You know it, don’t you?”

“But, this is a matter of my life.”

“And it doesn’t involve my life?”

“I don’t know how to play football.”

“But, you want to determine the outcome of a game?”

“That’s complicated. Tell me how much.”

“I have no value, if I were to give a price.”

“So, you want me to name the price?”

Deep inside of himself, he realised that he wasn’t such a talented footballer. When he was still training with the other substitute goal keepers, he stood beneath the crossbar as if he was about to be executed.

The ball, a small dot, became bigger and bigger as it approached him and oppressed him. Before he had time to react, the ball became complete and flashed past him: a goal had been scored. As a goal keeper, he was tortured. Moreover, if it was a penalty. The empty expanse of green before him would remind him of a place he had only visited in his dreams. Then he would wait for the ball – which was making fun of him – as if he was about to be shot dead. Then he would see the ball flying towards him. He would scream on the inside, and he would try to catch it.

“That ball. I’m going to catch it.”

“Ah, it’s all in vain. Look how fast it is travelling.”

“No, I’m able to catch it.”

“Huh? What for? What’s the point in me making myself suffer. Just go on your way.”

“Ah, that ball. I’m going to catch it.”

And the ball would move gracefully – like a comet crossing the sky. Sobrat could see it fly along its trajectory. He would see the ball spinning slowly along an axis, as if it were a planet spinning. And once more, the net would bulge. It was only when he heard the crowd roaring would he wake from his day dream.

“You’re too much, Sobrat. Sitting here daydreaming on the pitch”, Mormon said. “Like I have always said. Going home to Klungkung and become a farmer. You have no talent as a footballer.”

“I wasn’t daydreaming. I know that the ball will fall to my left…”

“Ah, stop talking none-sense. Hey. Give me a massage.”

On that field, he remembered another sweet goal; a different goal. Sobrat didn’t know what had taken him to that field. Just as he didn’t know that he would leave behind the football field forever when he would score the 17th goal, right on the day of his 30th birthday in front of 70,000 people. His heart would just stop beating. Just like that. Something so normal. Just like the news of a death, that is saddening for someone, but means nothing for others.

Jakarta, 1981

*Translated by Andy Fuller, June, 2014.



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