The writings of Sindhunata are further evidence of the often greater-privileged status of global football over that of the national team and the domestic leagues of Indonesia. Sindhunata is the author of three books on football: Bola di Balik Bulan (The Ball Behind the Moon), Air Mata Bola (The Tears of the Ball) and Bola-Bola Nasib (The Balls of Fate) (2002). These books are collections of his columns written for Kompas newspaper since the late 1980s. Sindhunata graduated from Driyarkara School for Philosophy in 1980, before doing his PhD in Munich from 1986 to 1992. Many of the essays of Bola-Bola Nasib were written during this period in Munich and thus they cover many of the issues arising from games played in the Champions League, English Premier League, German League and Spanish League.
Although football columns may often have a very short ‘shelf-life’ – owing to the rapidly changing nature of the footballing landscape, Sindhunata’s essays draw on major events and games which remain in the memory of the serious and committed football connoisseur. And thus his essays, although remaining attached to the specific time and space in which they were written are still productive readings of footballing culture. Moreover, his essays frequently comment on players such as Ryan Giggs or the coach Sir Alex Ferguson – two domineering figures in global football. That is, figures who are universally known throughout the global football watching audience. Reading these essays almost 20 years since some of their first publication, reminds the reader of the cyclical nature of great moments in football, while also providing commentary on the earlier careers of particular coaches and players who may have come and gone in the ensuing years.
Football, Sindhunata shows, can be used as a means to explain and critique the Indonesian political landscape. He does this through thinly disguised metaphors, while at other times he specifically addresses the political issues and identifies them as being approachable through an awareness of football tactics. This is particularly convenient in the case of Gus Dur’s presidency, since being knowledgeable of football and a football essayist is part of the legend of Gus Dur. At the height of the political tumult enveloping Gus Dur in the early 2000s, Sindhunata wrote his “Letter for Gus Dur” which he combined with ruminations on Euro 2000, as well as an essay on the catenaccio – i.e. defensive – style of Gus Dur’s political leadership. These essays are complemented by an essay written as a direct reply to Sindhunata from Gus Dur himself. That the president would write such a reply suggests the esteem in which Sindhunata’s essays are held and to the degree with which they are read by a broad audience.
Sindhunata implores Gus Dur to form a good team (a good eleven) so that his cabinet can return a sense of pride to the nation: “so, it is our request to you, Gus. Form a good team that can make us proud, so that we can say we have become someone again, as, we have been ashamed for so long, of being no-one” (2002, p.235). The panic that is felt within the management of the Real Madrid football club is related to that which is experienced in Indonesia’s national politics. Sindhunata writes, “any kind of crisis can become the reason for panicking. Thus, the syndrome that allows this state of panic to occur, must be broken, in order to build something that is stable and that can endure for a long time – whether it be in football, or within matters of the state” (2002, p.240). It is curious that already so soon after the fall of the 32-year long Suharto-led New Order era, Sindhunata is already longing for a sense of political stability. Amidst the tumult of Gus Dur’s presidency, Sindhunata reminds him of the beautiful play of the 1974 Dutch football team, which, despite not winning the World Cup, was remembered more favourably than the winning German team. Sindhunata addresses Gus Dur directly and asserts that not only is football a handy metaphor for politics, it is also politics itself. He writes: “Gus, you surely know that football is like politics. Just as in politics, the ball is played in an open field where teams show of their skills and brilliance. Football is politics per se because it provides symbols of who is strong and powerful. Because it is related to strength and power – just as politics is – it requires a set of strict rules (2002, p.276).”
Bola-Bola Nasib includes frequent quotations of statements originally made in German or Dutch – indicative of Sindhunata’s travels and place of working. He indicates his mastery of football history through frequent references to matches played in the 1950s and to the histories of specific football clubs. He has done his reading, no doubt. Some of the essays are over-blown and a little too hyped. As magnificent as Manchester United’s last minute victory in the 1999 Champions League final was, it was probably more an example of good footballing skills, rather than being “the true champions of the human spirit”. Such a reading is naive and forgives too easily the corruption, imbalance and greed of the top tiers of football leagues and bureaucracy. Unlike the philosophical football writing of the esteemed Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, Sindhunata himself prefers to play it safe and treat football as something pure as an entity that can be taken at face value as it appears on the pitch. As if all is equal and well-managed off the pitch. Moreover, Sindhunata completely ignores the fate of the local game and local players. One gets the impression that this is a case of football-snobbery. But, this is to miss the point. Quality and insightful analysis doesn’t depend on the subject at hand, but on the writer her or himself. Sindhunata misses the possibility of giving back to the national game, and instead perpetuates the idea that ‘real football happens elsewhere’.