Indonesia needs passion, but not violence

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden discusses what can be done to tackle the violence that continues to trouble football in Indonesia.

I don’t think I have ever experienced an atmosphere to rival the Gelora Bung Karno at the 2007 Asian Cup when Indonesia were playing, especially against Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Only Iran’s Azadi Stadium comes close. But there is more colour and even more passion – and of course more female fans – in Jakarta.

The whole arena was red, the fans didn’t stop singing from well before the start to the end. In the opening game against Bahrain, a good number climbed over the gate during the game to get to the stands. The noise was guttural yet uplifting.

In the final group game against South Korea when there were officially 88,000 present, the real number was higher. A draw for the host – who had defeated Bahrain and only lost to the Saudis in the final moments- would have been enough for the last four but they, sadly for the tournament, ended up losing a hard-fought match 1-0.

Korea coach Pim Verbeek, no stranger to cauldrons of passion from his time in the Netherlands and as assistant to Guus Hiddink at the 2002 World Cup, puffed out his cheeks, raise his eyebrows and remarked: “Well, that was some atmosphere.”

Nobody who was there could not help falling in love a little with Indonesian football. The passion was overpowering.

But as Robert De Niro said to Al Pacino in ‘Heat’: “There is a flip side to that coin.”

The passion that can delight and excite sometimes boils over and it does too often in Indonesia. People talk of China and India being Asia’s sleeping giants but they don’t dream of football. Indonesia, with its quarter of a billion population does.

Plenty has been written about the corruption, scandals and mismanagement of the game over the years (passion plays a part here too, attracting those who would use football for their own ends) but there have been improvements.

Issues remain but there is an exciting league, an improving national team and the emergence of young talents such as Egy Maulana Fikri, who has impressed for his country at the recent AFF U-18 Championships and the Toulon Tournament – where he was named the ‘Breakthrough Player’.

All promising signs but the regular outbreaks of serious crowd violence are holding the game back. Save Our Soccer, an organisation that has monitored the issue since 1990, claims that there have been over 50 football-related deaths since 1990. Most of those have come in the last five years.

In July, it seemed that there had been a change in the national mood following the death of a teenage Persib Bandung fan. Yet there was another reported fatality last week when was a Persita Tangerang supporter died during a mass brawl with PSMS Medan in a Liga 2 game.

Every time such a thing happens, the usual statements can be heard expressing regret about what has happened as well as the conviction that it can’t be allowed to happen again. Yet it keeps happening.

As well as the human tragedy involved, it is hugely damaging for the game. This comes at a time when Indonesian football is finally starting to make international headlines for the right reasons.

Brawling is not just restricted to the stands.

It comes at a time when authorities are looking to build the game at all levels. If people continue to die because they have simply gone to watch a game of football then Indonesia will never reach anything close to its massive potential.

It goes without saying that fans have to play the biggest part. There were some efforts by supporters’ groups to come together after the Persib incident. More needs to be done. There is too fine a line between passion and violence in Indonesian football.

There has to be a way to reduce the levels of violence while maintaining the levels of atmosphere. And if there is not then it is the atmosphere that needs to be sacrificed.

This is the biggest issue facing the beautiful game in this beautiful country. It is not about the potential co-hosting of future World cups and it is not about attracting more international stars to this part of the world, it is about creating a safe environment for fans.

Other countries have managed to do it. English football has cleaned itself up since the dark days of the seventies and the eighties (even if there is some overplay of how dark those days actually were). It may be true that the top tier, at least, has become overly sanitised but at least it is safe.

Indonesia does not need to follow the English way but can take its own path. There can be no more deaths or this sleeping giant will never wake up and few will care about how great the atmosphere seems to be at the Gelora Bung Karno.