Talking Indonesian Football

I spoke with Dr.Ken Setiawan, McKenzie Fellow at The University of Melbourne, regarding football in Indonesia for the podcast, Talking Indonesia. The interview can be found here Football and Fan Culture. Below is an excerpt from the conversation.

What got you into studying football in Indonesia?

From the time I started visiting Indonesia regularly in the late 1990s, I had always found that what so many people wanted to talk about was football. Talking about football was also the easiest way to practice my language skills. I was at a bit of a loose end with my research three or so years ago, and I thought I should just study what was of a strong part of my everyday life – football of whatever variety.

Moreover, football is all over the place in Indonesia. One sees people wearing the shirts of European teams everywhere. But this also made me curious: what about the state of the domestic leagues? What do the fans do? Why do people seem to love European leagues so much and why are the domestic leagues given so little coverage? Peoples’ love for their local team is literally inscribed in the city walls of Yogya, Surabaya or Solo or wherever you travel. The answer to what I should investigate was staring me literally in the face.

Football is so popular in Indonesia. Why?

Well, of course, this is incredibly difficult to answer. Football is the world game and it offers so many rich and complex stories. Football in Indonesia, however, is incredibly problematic. And the fans need to be recognised for their love of the game despite the horror-show that is football in Indonesia. Some of the problems include: a lack of a stable league, systemic corruption amongst officials and administrators, poorly managed clubs which leads to clubs relocating at the drop of a hat; poorly maintained pitches and stadiums; poorly paid players who in the end take bribes to cover their costs and heavily corrupted referees who overwhelmingly favour home teams and take home handy bonuses having ensured the home team’s victory.

Fans love the game, but unfortunately, they get so few opportunities to witness ‘the beautiful game’ on their own home soil. It is no surprise that so many fans adopt and seriously follow the English Premier League and adopt Liverpool or Man U as their own teams. But for many fans, nothing beats standing in the stadium and singing their team’s anthem.

What form does the violence take?

Well, there are various kinds of violence. During the 1980s and 1990s the Bonek of Surabaya were known for their rioting at train stations. For example, they would loot the stalls at train stations on their way to and from ‘away games’. This earned the supporters a very bad reputation. Yet, it is also the Bonek that have persistently stood up against the all-corrupt practices of the Indonesian Football Federation (i.e. The PSSI). Over the last decade or so fans, in general, have increasingly travelled to away games in convoys of private vehicles and buses. The trains had in some cases become easy targets from rival fans who would wait along train lines and then pelt the passing train with stones. I came to learn of this through being unexpectedly caught up in such attack.

The use of private cars and buses has been part of an effort to pass through the cities of rivals more surreptitiously. But, in some cases, fans are able to track the movements of their enemies through the activities on their social media accounts and then adjust their attacks accordingly. In the most extreme cases, angry fans in Yogya or Solo or Bandung or Jakarta will attack at random any vehicle with a number plate coming from their rival’s city. Some fan groups will also perform impromptu ‘sweeping’ on motorists while looking for rival supporters.

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Where does the violence happen?

The main image of violence one has, is perhaps fighting within the stadium between rival groups of fans. Security in stadiums in Europe have been overhauled in terms of their security over the last twenty years, but, this has not yet happened in Indonesian football stadiums. The police and some informal militias provide the security: there is very little policing of tickets, there are no security cameras. Often times the police have more of an interest in watching the game rather than in actually doing their job. Quite often they are eventually called onto the pitch in the dying minutes of the game to protect the referee from angry fans or angry players and to shield him under a storm of projectiles. The buses of rival teams are also sometimes attacked as they leave or arrive at a game.

The ultra supporters, that is, the hardcore supporters, increasingly invite rival fan groups for fights at pre-arranged locations. This is an attempt to escape the surveillance from police whom usually gather at games. Fans of one club, if they have a score to settle, might arrange a fight to take place at a relatively secluded location, such as a beach or highway late at night. The fight will take place between a certain number of combatants. This follows the fighting practices that are common amongst ultra groups in countries such as Poland and Russia.

The in-between places for example between Bandung and Jakarta or between Malang and Surabaya are also particularly fraught. For example, in the town of Pasuruan, half-way between Malang and Surabaya, a young man was killed simply for donning his Arema t-shirt after finishing his shift at a convenience store in late 2014. He had stepped outside, just at the wrong moment: a group of Bonek were passing and attacked him immediately, leaving him for dead.

Where is football the strongest?

Surabaya is perhaps arguably Indonesia’s strongest football city. The club, Persebaya has been long-succesful, even though it is in disarray at the moment. The Bonek fans are legendary and their dedication goes beyond the normal limits of fandom. Yet, currently the Bonek fans have no legitimate team after the club was disbanded by the Indonesian Football Federation. The current team representing the city of Surabaya is a transplanted team from Kalimantan and has no drawing power with the local fans. The Bonek have taken their struggle to FIFA and particularly against Jerome Valcke, who was recently sanctioned from FIFA. The legendary stadium in the heart of Surabaya, Tambak Sari, has hosted friendly games against Arsenal and Inter Milan, yet, for the moment it is free from the cheers and shouting of the Bonek fans.

Yogyakarta was relatively strong in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Galatama League was functioning in a healthy manner. PSIM received support from the Sultan of Yogyakarta, yet, over the years he has withdrawn this support, most likely because of the unruly habits of the PSIM fans. The absence of serious support from the local government has been reflected in continuing poor performance from PSIM, whose team is in the second division and is made up of part-time players, many of whom are still studying.

Bandung and its team Persib is currently a succesful ‘football city’. The local government has invested in the stadium and team and moreover, public screenings are held of important matches. This contrasts significantly with the approach of other cities towards their football supporters which actively seeks to contain and pacify them. Persib is a well-run club and is one of the few clubs that has been succesful in attracting sponsorship for their team, leading to a healthy financial situation.

Do you imagine a cross-over between Indonesia and Australia in terms of football?

Well, I have to say I hope that there is an increase in collaboration between the FFA and a re-invigorated Indonesian Football Federation. One can only imagine the Asian Cup held in Australia a couple of years ago and how different it would have been if Indonesia had participated. Wherever Indonesia would have played the stadiums would have been full. By the same token, I watched the final between Australia and South Korea at the airport in Jakarta: no-one cared, except for a few of us Aussies who happened to be watching. This was a strange scene.

The FFA could be one of the stakeholders in a better footballing future for Indonesia. Of course, it is not their job to solve the Indonesia’s footballing problems, but a healthy rivalry would be a great boon for both countries. Sometimes I think we try too hard to think what can act as a bridge between the sometimes fractious nations; collaboration through football would be one kind of sporting diplomacy which could add an extra dimension to Indonesian-Australian relations.

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*All photos of Persikama fans by Agit Primaswara


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