Indonesian football: a matter of life and death

Supporters from Jakarta-based club Persija pay tribute at the grave of Haringga Sirla, who was beaten to death by supporters of the rival Persib club on 23 September 2018. Photo by Dedhez Anggara for Antara.

 

Regional football interests will soon be focused on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup to be held in the United Arab Emirates in January 2019. The Socceroos will go into the tournament seeking to defend their 2015 title, which they won on their second effort, after first becoming an “Asian” football nation in 2006. Missing from this tournament will be the Garudas: the Indonesian men’s football team, which has a lowly FIFA ranking of 164.

 

Indonesia, which so often punches below its weight on the global stage, is once again missing out on an opportunity to gain positive media attention through performing well in a regional sporting context. However, the enthusiasm for the Asian Games, recently held in Jakarta and Palembang, may be a sign that politicians are starting to embrace the use of sport for regional positioning.

 

The absence of the Garudas from the AFC Asian Cup can be seen in light of the perpetual problems afflicting Indonesia’s domestic football leagues: political interference in the running of the Indonesian Football Association (Persatuan Sepakbola Seluruh Indonesia, PSSI), financially unviable “professional” clubs, abominable terms and contracts for players, corrupt refereeing and match-fixing as a normal part of the game, and the interminable violence between rival football fans. This violence is barely limited to game day or to the location of the stadium. It spreads throughout and between cities, and can happen any day of the week. For example, gangs of supporters commonly stop and search passing motorcycles and cars for members of enemy supporter groups in a practice known as “sweeping”.

 

The killing of Haringga Sirla, a fan of the Jakarta-based Persija club, by supporters of Bandung’s Persib (whose supporters are known as Bobotoh) on 23 September, curiously became global news – belying general lack of interest in the football culture of Indonesia. Even Melbourne’s The Age had a story on it. Perhaps the attention to the murder was linked to the viral quality of the first videos to emerge of the incident.

 

Fajar Junaedi of Muhammadiyah University Yogyakarta (UMY), and author of a book on the Bonek supporters of Surabaya’s Persebaya team, suggests several reasons for the global attention to Haringga’s death.

 

“First, this was the seventh death between fans of the rival teams. Second, the teams are in the top league and both have huge supporter bases. The teams come from major cities and have strong football histories. Deaths between fans of teams in the second tier, from relatively minor clubs, don’t attract such national, let alone international, attention. The final reason was the graphic nature of the video of the killing and that Persib fans themselves uploaded the video to YouTube, which was subsequently shared rapidly through social media.”

 

The almost routine killings between rival fan groups gains no traction with the AFC, let alone FIFA. AFC’s view seems to be: “Not our problem”. It has been willing, however, to punish Persija after its fans threw 50 rolls of paper onto the playing field.

 

Meanwhile, media outlets like The Age are more than happy to provide one-day coverage of a violent incident in Indonesia but have no interest in covering the humdrum developments which would otherwise place such an event in a broader, social context.

 

Yes, the Australian media is more interested in parochial sporting interests, rather than promoting any learning about regional football. But if the Socceroos are indeed a part of Asia, it would be nice, now and then, to know a little about our fellow AFC members. There is seemingly no cooperation between Australian-based football clubs and counterparts in Asia, nor any curiosity from clubs to seek out emerging talent from Indonesia.

 

Despite the brutal nature of Haringga’s death, and the widespread coverage it initially received, the local media also moved on quickly. The Jakmania supporter group, of which Haringga was affiliated, has at least publicly vowed not to take revenge. Although the league was temporarily paused in order to take stock of the gravity of the death, the PSSI is constrained by FIFA obligations to have its league fit into international football schedules. Moreover, the pausing of the league further compromised the strained conditions of professional players who already work under precarious circumstances.

 

Perhaps the wilful forgetting of this violence is a necessary moment of what Yi-Fu Tuan describes as “escapism”: in some circumstances we are moral, while at the next, we are complicit in pardoning, forgiving, or belittling suffering or the absence of justice.

 

According to the statistics gathered by local organisation Save Our Soccer, Haringga was just one of 70 football fans who have died over recent years in football-related incidents. And, with nothing having improved in terms of the game’s management, or in terms of relations between rival fan groups, it seems more than likely that Haringga’s death won’t be the last.

 

For the moment, in terms of on-field action, the Garudas must be satisfied with beating smaller nations, such as Timor Leste, and savouring the most minor indicators of progress.

 

Until administrative matters are streamlined, and football infrastructure is overhauled, there can be little realistic hope that the national team and the clubs will reach the heights that Indonesian football fans long to witness.

 

Watching a game of football in Indonesia can be incredibly intoxicating and joyful. I have been guilty, too, of becoming a part of the removed-academia who write of the fans’ incredible chanting and passion for their club, without placing such fandom within the context of a hyper-masculine ethos in which violence is used as a means of becoming a more respected member of the supporter group.

 

Fajar Junaedi has mixed feelings about the prospect of football-related conditions improving. He writes that, “one of the main problems is that fans have little faith in the PSSI. They regard Indonesia’s football administrative body as corrupt and incompetent. Nonetheless, and despite the ongoing violence, the PSSI has sought to punish recalcitrant and problematic fans. The greater challenge PSSI faces, however, is how to prevent the violence from happening in the first place.”

 

Clearly, that is a problem that the PSSI cannot solve alone. It is a problem that requires improved football infrastructure, greater transparency, and, not least of all, the fans to be able to buy into the management and trust in the policing of games.

 

Categories: Analysis Society

Tags: Football, Soccer, Sport, Violence