Politics of Soccer in Indonesia

Politics of Soccer in Indonesia

Politik Sepakbola di Indonesia

Nurdin Halid occupies the inglorious position of having been the only national soccer boss, to have run the sport’s governing body from within jail. He is perhaps also the most hated man in soccer in Indonesia: for he governed (mismanaged, corrupted) the PSSI (Perserikatan Sepak Bola Indonesia) for his own ends and regarded the PSSI as being his own play-thing. He regarded his position as ‘ketua’ (head) to be valid for life and sought to rearrange the rules so that he could easily re-appoint himself.

Soccer is a means for political expression and manipulation. The management of soccer is contested, just as the identities of teams are contested and ardently protected. And, the more  intensely a sport is contested and invested in, the greater the political intrigue. This is just as typically so in Indonesia as elsewhere. But, the cases of corruption and mismanagement in Indonesian soccer shouldn’t be considered as a besmirching of the beautiful game (and its beautiful management), but rather as an exemplary case of how mainstream politics and those of the soccer bureaucracy interact and overlap. Soccer in Indonesia doesn’t serve as a separate and discrete metaphor for ‘Indonesian society’, as some kind of parallel, but remains deeply inter-twined with the everyday machinations and Machiavellian manoeuvres of politics, money and corruption.

There are very few moments in Indonesian soccer when fans can casually enjoy the pleasures of the beautiful game. So often, the game is tinged by violence from some fans, often-valid suspicions of a corrupt referee, excessive behaviour from an individual player, interference from the police, a no-show by one of the teams, poor scheduling resulting in a low attendance, a game moved to a neutral venue to hopefully ease tensions between rival supporters, and of course, the ever over-bearing presence of politicians within the boards of soccer clubs. Perhaps it is these gross violations of the beautiful game, that supporters hang on so dearly to romanticised notions of a distant and glorified past of their teams. The slogans of ‘Save our PSIM’, ‘Bring Back the Glory Days’ by Slemania fans, Pasoepati’s ‘Bring Back Our Victory’, and Aremania’s ‘Politics out of Arema’ indicate a sense of threat amongst soccer fans. They can see their beloved team becoming the plaything of politicians; they can see their team falling into the division below as a result of mismanagement.

Nurdin Halid comic

Dorsey and Sebastian (2013) write of the complexities of the highly volatile political nature of soccer in Indonesia. They argue that despite the many reasons not to be attracted to soccer – i.e. hooliganism, the persistent failure of the national team, the problems within the PSSI (2013 p.618) – politicians seek to gain currency through their proximity to the national team and to individual players. They write, ‘football remains a channel for mass mobilization and a source of support. Politicians see supporters of the national team and football clubs as potential voters in an election. Football continues to be used by politicians to create ‘metaphors’ to generate a positive image, for both the individual politician and their political party, thereby justifying their activities and enabling them to establish a varied array of relationships between them and their target audiences’ (Dorsey and Sebastian 2013, p.620).

Although football fan groups are unlikely to admit any partial political biases, there remains an evident proximity between ultras and the interests of political parties. This is despite that ultras (or hooligans, more derogatorily) regard themselves as being anti-establishment and outside of the mainstream. As with ultra fan groups elsewhere, supporter groups also adopt the slogans such as ‘All Cops are Bastards’, which is frequently abbreviated to ACAB. This antagonistic attitude is also expressed through a particular style of clothing revolving around Adidas sneakers and polo shirts (Fred Perry, for example). Ultras, whether those of Jakmania in Jakarta or Carsi in Istanbul or elsewhere again take photographs of their match day outfit and share them on social media, such as Instagram. This facilitates an increasing uniformity of look between supporter groups, albeit with minor differences to distinguish their identity from one another. After a recent conflict on the toll road between Jakarta and Bandung between police and Jakmania, t-shirts were quickly made  available through the Tiger Store (advertised through Instagram) commemorating (memorialising?) the conflict. The conflict was articulated in the manner of an historical event; positioning Jakmania as the innocent victims of oppressive police brutality.

Nurdin turun


The degree of over-lap between soccer and politics is also evident in the incorporation of the practice of street parades, convoys and performances of political parties and supporter groups. The aesthetics of the political party convoy with that of the soccer supporter group are virtually identical. Hundreds of men on motorcycles with flags; revving their muffler-less engines, wearing t-shirts of the same colour (‘dengan attribute serba merah’ – ‘dressed up all in red’ as the Pasoepati song goes) as they ride throughout a town, a city or travel from one town to the next. These convoys relate to a trajectory of parades, rallies in so-called public space: the celebrations of the Dutch during the colonial era, the parades along Jl.Malioboro during arts festivals. The street serves as a stage: the audience is lined up along the footpath. Instagram users such as damarbrajamusti, is one users who encapsulates this cross-over between soccer-fandom and participation in political rally. His account shows him posing in his PSIM-Brajamusti t-shirts (but, significantly, not the team replica shirt) in various locations throughout central Java, but, also of his participation in PDI-P (Partai Perjuangan Indonesia – Perjuangan, Indonesian Democratic Party of Resistance) rallies. His team is blue, but his politics are red.

There is no single expression of ‘the politics of Indonesian soccer’. It can also be argued that as soccer in Indonesia has always been political, it is a false formulation to argue that ‘politics’ can be removed from a team’s management or the management of the national governing body. Soccer requires the involvement and infrastructure facilitated through national politics. What the fans, seem to be fighting against, I argue, is the lack of transparency and distance between the interests of the CEOs as politicians and as actors in a team’s management. The participation of soccer fans in street rallies serves on the way hand to identify themselves and their subculture as ‘alternative from the mainstream’, but on the other hand, they also use their rallies to support the interests of political parties, such as PDI-P. Nurdin Halid’s criminal activities while serving as the head of the PSSI, could indeed have been forgiven. Those with worse records of criminal activity, have of course, gone on to become presidential candidates. What made Halid so hated was his mismanagement of the national soccer league and the resulting poor performance of the national team. The appropriation of funds, the killing and kidnapping of civilians can be forgotten, screwing up the national team, cannot.

Nurdin Halid stencil

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