This report was published in January 2018 in 11FREUNDE #194
It’s at kilometre 243 that they appear. Just after midnight on the endless Asian Highway 2, scurrying across the fields. You can see their silhouettes in the dark. See them readying their ammunition. See them hole up in the ditch behind the roadside barrier. Little warriors, little guys, most of them no older than 15 or 16 years old. They are fans of Indonesian top-flight club Persib Bandung and this part of West Java is theirs.
The driver of the Persija bus speeds up, but it’s too late. A stone flies, then another. A direct hit. Shards on the seat. Blood on one guy’s cheek. “Stop!” someone yells and the bus screeches to a halt in the middle of the road. In the heat of the night, cars stream past, headlights glare on the asphalt, drivers shoot angry glances from behind their windscreens as the Persija Jakarta supporters ready themselves for a counter-attack. No mercy. No fear. But hati-hati, as they say here; stay on guard! They burst from the bus, arming themselves with any sticks lying around, swinging bamboo canes like samurai swords. They fire flares into the Javanese sky to light up the surrounding area. “There they are!” In the distance, the outlines of the Persib fans still visible, their faces unflinching, smiles triumphant. Already, they are too far away. “Cowardly dogs!”
“The route goes through West Java. Enemy territory. Sometimes you get a warm welcome.”
Three days earlier, on 30 October 2017, the police and football association took the decision to move Persija Jakarta’s home game against Persib Bandung to Friday afternoon in Surakarta, 600 kilometres from the Indonesian capital. The reason given? Safety concerns. Because the so-called Old Indonesia Derby or Clasico between these hated rivals often descends into violence. It was naïve, though, to think this latest measure would calm the situation. And perhaps it was naïve of me to sign up for this road trip. Eighteen hours on the motorway, 18 hours in a 59-seater bus, packed with around 75 Persija ultras in high spirits, clambering over each other, sitting, lying, like human Tetris. Eighteen hours till glory, a highway to heaven, that passes straight through hell.
My contact, himself a young supporter, texted me before my departure: “Don’t sit too close to the windows!” And by way of an explanation: “The route goes through West Java. Enemy territory. Sometimes you get a warm welcome.” A smiley face. It would have taken an hour to fly to Surakarta. On the one hand, the safest option. On the other, how can you report on the madness of Indonesian football without looking it square in the eye, at least once?
So, this is the story of an epic journey and a passionate love affair. There’s no happy ending though. Not in a story about loyalty, pride, honour and that whole sorry mess. It’s about young people, who would do anything for their club colours, even die. And that’s no throwaway line – 65 fans have died at matches in Indonesia since 1995. They are part of a story that is also about corrupt officials and crazy club owners. About a sport that’s been on life support for years and which is only being kept alive artificially. It takes place in a country that writer Elizabeth Pisani once called the “improbable nation” – and there is perhaps no better adjective for Indonesia.
Any attempt to describe the country starts with superlatives: 17,504 islands, 360 ethnicities, 719 languages. The world’s largest Muslim population. The fourth most populated nation on the planet. Greater Jakarta, with its 30 million inhabitants, is the world’s second biggest agglomeration after Tokyo. Then, it’s on the images of the country’s bloody past, that almost everyone here carries inside themselves. Three decades of dictatorship under Muhammad Suharto after a string of massacres in the 1960s. The occupation of East Timor in the 1970s. Then, the inevitable question: What is Indonesia today?
“Indonesia is the biggest invisible thing on the planet”
Famous local businessman John Riady calls it, “The biggest invisible thing on the planet”. Because what does anyone really know about it? To the West, it’s the name on the cover of a Lonely Planet guide, a destination steeped in backpacker lore, the home of dream beaches. Bali, Lombok, the Gili Islands, Nasi Goreng hawkers in Surabaya, Wayang shadow theatre in Malang, bajaj drivers in Jakarta, “Mister, mister, Taxi?” And now and again headlines like “Indonesia plans to use crocodiles to guard death row drug convicts.” Improbable? “This is Indonesia!” say people here.
Leeds in West-Java
“Welcome to Jakarta”, the Persija ultras text me after my arrival. Their club is one of the country’s biggest, but its glory days are well behind it. They have not won the league since 2001. But for now, all that matters are bragging rights in their clash with Persib. This fixture might not be as colourful as the Moroccan derby between Raja and Wydad Casablanca or as loud as an Istanbul derby. But it is as brutal as perhaps no other game in the world. It’s a duel super-charged on chaos. Total excess. The ultimate extreme. A fight between the capital and its neighbouring province West Java.
Our journey to Surakarta begins on Thursday 2 November. The meeting point is a supermarket in Tambora, West Jakarta, a stone’s throw from the city’s slums. Just the one-hour trip from central Jakarta is a hellish ride through an urban labyrinth, a dream destination for some but for others a ramshackle behemoth cobbled together from spare parts: corrugated tin huts, iron, rust, skyscrapers, shopping malls, building sites, mosques, lights, noise, mopeds, cars, the heat. At the moment, it’s especially chaotic, as Jakarta readies itself to host the 2018 Asian Games.
A few years ago, due to worsening traffic, the authorities made a law that during rush hour, cars had to contain at least three passengers. It was the cue for the super rich to take their private helicopters to work. The average rich had their chauffeurs drive them and pick up so-called “jockeys” from the side of the road, who make up the numbers for a few rupiah. Improbable? You bet.
At the supermarket in Tambora, two young men play songs by Indonesian musician Iwan Fals on the guitar. During the Suharto era, many considered him the Asian Bob Dylan. It’s not long before the first Persija fans rock up and break into a hearty rendition of his protest song Bento, as if they could drown out not only the bloody past but also the difficult present. They’re still children.
Most of them have no jobs, they speak no English, they’ve never been abroad, many of them have never left the island of Java. But they know what the two words on their t-shirts mean: Crazy Boys. It’s one of numerous Persija ultra groups. Their gang. Something in this giant, fraying city-island at least, that promises a little support and happiness. They sit down in front of the supermarket and drink a homemade spirit called Ciu from plastic bottles. The hardest strengthen it with insect repellent. “Drink!” says one of them, holding up the concoction. “What’s your name mister?” asks another, offering a shy handshake that feels like grasping at cotton wool.
Luthfi Ryan stands next to the bus. He is wearing a tracksuit top, glasses and sports a thin beard. He’s stockier than the others and the trip’s organiser. He reads out the names of today’s travellers from a list and calls them up one by one. The trip costs 300,000 Rupiah, including the bus ride, match ticket and food – about 18 euros, a small fortune for someone used to spending 50 or 60 cents on dinner. “Don’t worry,” says Luthfi. “We’re getting a police escort tonight.” All the way to Surakarta? “Sure!”
Luthfi is 20 years old and works in a copy shop. If you ask him his hopes for the future, he says he wants Persija to do well. What he knows about western culture and European football, has been gleaned by him or his friends from the internet and films. They admire Galatasaray’s ultras, are interested in French, Italian and Argentinian fan culture. But above all, it’s England they love. Bands like the Stone Roses and Oasis, football-casual style, the hip eighties hooligan look. They’ve seen Green Street Hooligans and Away Days and proudly wear the same labels as the films’ characters on their backs: Sergio Tacchini, Fila, Adidas. It’s hard not to imagine this scene as the typical Asian market – but with knock-offs of entire European subcultures being peddled instead. They’re almost indifferent to what the original really looks like, or that their references are taken from a different, bygone age. It’s about the style, the masculine posing, cut from the 1980s, pasted into modern-day Jakarta.
“No one like us, we don’t care. We are Persija!”
One young man shows off Facebook pictures by a group of Persija hooligans calling themselves the “Tiger Bois”, posing, of course, bare-chested in front of the camera, faces pixelated out. They look like the pictures of European hooligans they’ve seen. “It’s the Inter City Firm who are the toughest, right?” asks one kid in a t-shirt emblazoned “Forever Blowing Bubbles”. Soon, another kid joins us whose shirt reads, “No one likes us, we don’t care. We are Persija!” West Ham and Milwall are romanticised around here, not Paris Saint Germain and Real Madrid. It’s knuckleduster nostalgia.
In recent years, if Indonesian football gets mentioned at all in the west, it has been in connection with match-fixing, corruption or FIFA’s 2015 decision to suspend the Indonesian FA due to political interference. More recently, the transfer of former Chelsea star Michael Essien to Persib Bandung made a few headlines. But apart from that? The stereotype persists, that Indonesians prefer badminton to the beautiful game. In fact though, Indonesia is home to Asia’s most football-mad public. Even China, where a football miracle is seemingly underway, pales in comparison. Indonesia’s football boom began when Serie A hit screens here in the nineties – then afterwards English and Spanish teams conquered the country’s affections. Clubs like Real Madrid and Juventus have websites available in the country’s official language, Bahassa Indonesia. Manchester United’s Indonesian fan club boasts 31,000 members and has 114 chapters nationwide.
And then there are the domestic leagues, which barely register internationally, and whose quality is comparable to the German third division. Despite numerous scandals, they continue to thrive. Take a look at some more of those superlatives: In 1985, 150,000 people descended on the final of the national amateur league at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. Today, even a second division team like PSS Sleman regularly attracts around 30,000 fans. And a top-flight club like Persib Bandung has 10 million facebook fans – more than any other club in Asia.
I don’t want to die
We set off at around 7pm. There’s a prayer as we get underway. The fans ask god to grant the Persija players strength and speed. You’ll Never Walk Alone blares from the speakers – it’s a cover version by the Indonesian punk band Keotik. Next up is Oasis’ Live Forever – the original this time. “Maybe I just want to fly,” sings Liam Gallagher, “Want to live, I don’t want to die…” For these fans, it’s the perfect soundtrack. We make our first stop after 17 kilometres, at a rest area, and for the first time I get a sense of how big this tour is. It’s not just the Crazy Boys hitting the road to Surakarta; there are hundreds, thousands of people, a whole convoy travelling down the highway tonight. Some are even making the journey by moped. Fans stumble out of buses and cars and head towards the satay seller. Ciu bottles are passed from hand to hand. “Mister, mister, drink!” They won’t touch beer. It costs too much – and has too little effect.
“In 30 kilometres, it’s going to get dangerous.” Where’s the police escort, I ask. “The police? They’re not coming anymore.”
Before we drive off again, Rifki Haikal checks the route on his phone. The 20-year-old is wearing a windbreaker and British flat cap – Leeds in West Java. “We’re still safe for now,” he says. “But in 30 kilometres, it’s going to get dangerous.” Where’s the police escort, I ask. “The police? They’re not coming anymore.” Rifki used to work in a local supermarket, but currently he’s unemployed. He dreams of having his own company, wants to produce his own clothes, print cool slogans on T-shirts, like he imagines young people in England do. He was present last year, when Persib fans attacked a convoy with stones, killing two of his friends. One of them was already on the ground, when an attacker took an axe to him until he stopped moving. No mercy. Rifki stares out of the window. He can’t explain how the incident has affected him, nor why he’s making a similar journey tonight. “I’m following my heart,” he says. “May god protect me.” Then he falls silent.
The first sign of trouble comes at kilometre 39. A bus has been attacked and one of its windows is shattered. Thankfully, no-one is hurt. We make a quick stop, in the middle of the motorway. Dinar and Raina take a seat on the nearest crash barrier. They are 15 and 16 respectively and the only girls on our bus. They’re still at school and aren’t keen to talk about their fears either. They’d rather talk about their hopes for a strong Persija performance. What about their parents? Hati-hati, they say, be careful. Near them Anas sits on the tarmac, a 17-year-old, who is also still at school. He’s wearing an extra-small Oasis T-shirt over his tiny frame; he’s like a half-portion, so skinny, you worry the next gust of wind might blow him back to Jakarta.
“That’s just how it is with rivals, like Liverpool and Everton, West Ham and Milwall. It’s the same everywhere,” he says, trying to look tough. “It’s about life and death.” He takes a swig from a bottle of Ciu, washing down some crisps. Does he know any Persib fans personally, I ask? “Sure,” he says. “A lot of my classmates are Persib fans, even some of my friends.” So what happens if he encounters them tonight? “They’ll have to die.” He smiles. His friends smile with him and from out of the bus Liam’s voice sings, “Lately, did you ever feel the pain?”
Eventually, a couple of policemen do make an appearance. They stroll along the roadside barriers at a leisurely pace, with their pump-action shotguns in hand, as if they were actors playing policemen, waiting for someone to yell, “Action!” What’s real here? What’s fiction? Where did the attackers disappear to? Who knows anymore?
It’s absurd the authorities moved this game to a so-called neutral venue in Surakarta – they already banned away fans at matches between Persija and Persib years ago. The problem now is that Persija’s stadium is closed for renovations ahead of the Asian Games. The team have been playing home games in Bekasi, on Jakarta’s outskirts – but already in West Java, Persib country. The police have shunted the derby problem to someone else – creating this convoy and all that goes with it. A suicide mission.
“Psst,” hisses one of the guys. “Adjap!” He sneeks up behind one of the policeman then reveals a sticker with “A.C.A.B” emblazoned on it. Even Rifki, the boy in the windbreaker, breaks into a big smile. As if this whole trip were a game, like Battleships on the motorway. One ship’s hit, but the rest of the fleet is good to go. “Persib are weak and we are strong!” says Rifki, as the convoy gets moving again. Outside the bus, the lights from American fast food restaurants fly by, as if from a distant universe, another lifetime. McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and so on and so on. You and I are gonna live forever.
Until now, there’s been little public debate about football violence in Indonesia. Eight years ago, a film did come out that touched on the subject – Romeo Juliet, a love story between a Persija supporter and a female Persib fan. The director wanted to show that the two sides could get on. But some fans were outraged, claiming the plot was pure fantasy. Beyond that, the Indonesian magazine Tempo occasionally reports on fan culture in a knowledgeable, investigative way. A few months ago, the Guardian ran a translation of a Tempo story under the headline “Jakarta’s Hooligan Problem”. It was the first time the topic had been covered extensively in a major western news outlet.
Apart from that, it’s down to lone campaigners with little to no lobbying power to try and change the situation. That includes journalist Akmal Marhali and former official Llano Mahardika. A couple of years ago, they formed the organisation “Save our soccer” (SOS), to get some kind of monitoring system off the ground. With the help of numerous volunteers, they have shone a light on the game in Indonesia, keeping a tally of the riots, the deaths. A day before my departure for Surakarta, I meet them in a café in central Jakarta. Marhali, 38, is wearing beige trousers, a black shirt and a determined look. He’s brought a stack of documents with him. He leans closer when we speak, as if he’s scared someone will listen in. “65 deaths!” he says and lets the number hang in the hot air.
65 deaths in Indonesian football since 1995, each one catalogued by him and his volunteers. In 2017 alone, they recorded 11 football-related deaths. The real number could be even higher. Marhali shows me a graph showing how each of the victims died: punches and kicks (24), stab wounds (14), others fell from moving buses, were hit by fireworks or shot. One guy was beaten to death because he failed to celebrate a Persija goal with enough enthusiasm. The Persija fans around him assumed he was a Persib supporter who had snuck into the home end. But where does this rage come from? Why such disregard for human life?
The clues all point towards the past and the decades of dictatorship under Suharto. Some of the men who massacred over a million communists in the mid-sixties are still alive today – and are treated as heroes. They speak publicly and in gruesome detail about the murders they committed. They talk about the heads that rolled, the penises they cut off, and do it with a smile. But Indonesia’s fascination with the extreme also has something to do with the post-Suharto years, the period after 1998. Then, the country’s regions and cities took on more political significance and a strong sense of local patriotism emerged. That country was undergoing a rude awakening. Punks walked Jakarta’s streets, art galleries were opening, newspapers printed critical articles and even if football stadiums had always provided more freedom than elsewhere, suddenly you could sing, shout and swear like never before. Above all, you could fight. At the same time, the internet was taking off and showing young Indonesians, what they’d been missing all these years. All of a sudden, the world didn’t seem so big – even Indonesia with its 17,504 islands seemed orderly and easy to get a handle on. You just had to click on the right links.
“Who can young people here trust? Where are the role models for them?”
Today, the country has a democratic government but, says Marhali, that doesn’t mean everything is clean and above board. That’s especially true in football, where the people in charge were once decision-makers in the Suharto regime. “Who can young people here trust? Where are the role models for them?” asks Marhali, before embarking on a half-hour lecture about officials who make Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and co sound like boy scouts. He tells me about corrupt companies, who own four or five first-division teams at the same time, an open goal for betting syndicates from Singapore and Malaysia.
He pulls out his phone and shows me secret recordings made by him and his colleagues. In one of them, a briefcase of money swaps hands for a match to be cancelled. He tells me about Nurdin Halid, the former football association president who spent two of his eight years in power in prison for tax offences. Massive fan protests broke out in 2011 when he stood for re-election. Oil billionaire Arifin Panigoro used the incident to set up an illegal second league. He bought up all the teams in it or founded new ones. After that, 15 teams played in the national first division. Another 19 played in the parallel, illegal “Super League”. This is Indonesia!
In such a maze of madness, the issue of fan violence barely raises an eyebrow with government or the football authorities. There’s always something more important going on. In late May 2012, Islamic hardliners stopped Lady Gaga from performing in Indonesia. At roughly the same time, three Persib fans were killed at the Clasico. “Fans and violence aren’t part of our remit,” the country’s football association, the PSSI, would announce in 2016. The PSSI’s new general secretary, Ratu Tisha Destria, has nonetheless promised a more modern approach. She wants to set up a department for fan issues.
Marhali is sceptical. He flicks through a back issue of 11 Freunde. His eyes settle on an image of Bayern fans kettled by police. “We need something similar here,” he says. “Security checks at stadiums, better infrastructure, cameras, a professional ticketing system, European officials.” In a matter of moments, Marhali has laid out a mini law and order programme. Perhaps it’s a sign of his frustration. Is an iron fist really the only way to solve the problem? Marhali thinks for a moment. He would prefer, he says, a lighter touch. “Do you know what would be good?” he says, his eyes lighting up. “If we could just let football die for a few years. Just one or two. Then we could build it back up from scratch.” He would also like to organise a benefit tournament for all the victims of football violence. Every club would take part and pictures of the dead would be hung around the stadium. “We would make them visible,” he says. “That way, fans would have to talk to each other about them.” He pauses. “You know what the football association says about that? ‘Mr. Marhali, that’s not a good idea.’”
Sleep, Eat, Persija, Repeat
Kilometre 243. The bus brakes at 100 km/h on the highway, as the stone – the fifth or sixth attack of the night – hits the back window. As most of the Persija fans make chase over the fields, others sweep the broken glass away.
A few years ago, the heads of the major rival fan groups agreed a truce. “But how are you supposed to control 10,000 fans?” asks Diky Soemarno. The 30-year-old is the general secretary for Jakmania, the umbrella organisation for Persija’s fanbase. His T-shirt reads “Sleep, Eat, Persija, Repeat.” Unlike most of the others in the convoy, he speaks fluent English and has a well-paid job at a South Koren internet company. He’s a father to a five-year-old son called Mikael Zola Adidas. Zola for the former Chelsea star, Adidas for, well, Adidas. Diky’s first Persija game was in 1998. It was just before the end of the Suharto regime. He joined Jakmania the very next day. Soon after, he was exploring the internet, when he discovered the website belonging to Argentina’s Barra Bravas, who scale stadium fences in ecstasy after each goal. By the end of the 1990s. Diky saw his first fan choreographies at Indonesian club Arema Maland and thought, “Persija needs something like that, too.”
Diky is smart and eloquent. He likes Coldplay, he’s been to Singapore and Thailand. Some day soon, he’d like to visit Japan. Like the others, he believes in god, heaven and hell. But also like the others, he drifts into violent rhetoric. He is a good fighter, he says. He claims he can no longer go to Bandung, because they would kill him there. I ask him if this fan violence isn’t haram, a sin? Diky rolls his eyes. “This is Indonesia,” he says. “You can’t explain things logically.”
“This is Indonesia. You can’t explain things logically.”
Diky does explain how the war with Persib started. It wasn’t over fans’ faith like Celtic and Rangers. Nor was it about rich and poor like the Argentina’s Boca Juniors and River Plate rivalry – even if Persija fans like to claim Persib can only afford players like Michael Essien, because they are backed by Indonesia’s fourth richest man Anthoni Salim. Diky says the rivalry, like so much in Indonesia, was just a matter of chance. As if one day, supporters of both teams decided they needed a good enemy. Until the end of the millennium, the derby was actually between PSMA Medan and Persib – to this day, many still call this match Indonesia’s real Clasico. An eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth. Of course, there are countless other stories about the origins of the rivalry doing the rounds, and of course, Persib fans claim the war was started by Persija supporters. One version claims it began in 2001, when fans from both teams took part in a television quiz. On the way home to Bandung, the story goes, Persija fans attacked the Persib contingent because they were angry to have lost the quiz.
It’s late morning by the time the bus makes it out of West Java. We make one last stop at Kendal, about 100 kilometres from Surakarta. A shop there sells hijabs and Hello Kitty dolls. We breakfast on instant noodles, coffee and cigarettes. The Ciu and the attacks have left their mark. Faces are puffy. The buses are missing windows. Some of the group sidle off to a mosque on the other side of the road. They thank god, that everyone emerged unscathed. And they pray again, for Persija’s players to be strong and fast.
The convoy reaches Surakarta’s Manahan stadium at 1pm – it’s a giant concrete structure in the city centre. Its three terraces are sold out and decked out in orange, full of banners and flags. Some 18,000 spectators have come, mostly from Jakarta. The thermometer reads 35 degrees Celsius. Nonetheless, many fans are wearing jeans, anoraks and hats. Four capos are packed on to a podium at the fence in front of the fans. Behind a large metal gate hundreds of supporters who couldn’t get tickets try to catch a glimpse of the game. The mood is relaxed. Hardly any police. Lax security. Because of the ban on them attending away games, there are no Persib fans to be seen. But appearances can be deceptive. The match will serve up 90 minutes of Indonesian football madness. Anguish in the stands, a sending-off, a wrongly ruled-out goal, a brawl – and by the time it’s all over, almost another death.
But first, the skies open above the chanting fans. A monsoon-like rain pours down on Surakarta and the fans look less like they’ve travelled through West Java and more like they’ve swum the Indian Ocean to be here. The referee waves play on, as a shaman in the stadium concourse appeals to nature for better weather and Persib scores what looks like a legitimate goal. Even from 100 meters away, you can see the ball cross the line, bulge the net, then roll back out on to the pitch. There’s outrage in the stands, then relief. The ref rules out the goal, saying it hit the crossbar.
The shaman is clearly a professional – the storm lifts for the second half. But in the 70th minute, a red mist descends on the fans. All of a sudden hundreds of them pour down the terrace steps and begin beating a fellow spectator. A couple of indifferent policeman watch it happen. The capos try to calm the situation but it’s too late – the guy has no chance. When three stewards finally wade in to pull the injured man on to the running track, he looks like he’s gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. Rumours start to fly. The victim was a Persib fan. He’d infiltrated the Persija support. It was him who revealed the convoy’s route to his Persib friends. The atmosphere is tense now – at least for a moment. Then, in the 77th minute, the referee gives a penalty to Persija for a push and all is right in the world. Bruno Lopes converts the spot kick to make it 1-0, the winning goal.
The fans almost suffocate on their own celebrations. Maybe I just want to fly. But five minutes later, the emotional rollercoaster has moved on again. In the 83rd minute, there’s a Persib sending off. Minute 84: a brawl on the halfway line. The Persib players crowd the referee, then leave the pitch before he can blow the final whistle. Persija win. Rifki, Luthfi, Raina and the others head back to the bus. Time for the trip home. 18 hours back to Jakarta. 18 hours on the highway to heaven – with another trip through hell. On the journey back, the fans discover that the kid who was beaten up, came from Surakarta. He was a neutral spectator, but the hem of his T-shirt was blue – Persib’s colour. He was lucky. But the body count in Indonesian football seems set to tick up unchecked.
At the end of November, with Bali’s volcano Agung threatening to erupt and thousands of people forced to evacuate their homes, Akmal Marhali from Save Our Soccer, sends me a press release. He’s attached fresh statistics to his message. There’s been another death – the 66th since his records begin or the 12th of 2017. That’s more deaths in a year than ever before. Marhali says the dead fan was called Rizal. He was a Persija Jakarta fan who was beaten to death just nine days after the Clasico, at the match against Bhayangkara. He was buried the next day.
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