Indonesia is a vast archipelago of beautiful landscapes, choking cities and fervent football fans. The country won the South East Asia Under 16 tournament for the first time this August to mass hysteria. I targeted three matches in Sumatra, the world’s sixth largest island. I ended up as a SKULL at my only game. But it was a vital slice of Indonesia at its friendliest whilst top tier football veered into another crisis.
Putra picked me up at Banda Aceh’s port. I had taken the short ferry crossing from the languid island of Palau Weh at the very north of Sumatra. Two men and two bulky bags were not going to fit on his motorbike. In a cartoon scene, my floral holdall zipped ahead of me in a becak, a motorbike with a sidecar, whilst I clung onto a pursuing Putra. We talked through humid air about the two matches I planned to watch in Banda Aceh, a sedate city of some quarter of a million that was devastated by the 2004 tsunami.
Aceh United were playing at home that evening. But not in Banda Aceh as football websites and I had assumed. “Four hours by car” said Putra, a friend of my hotel receptionist in Palau Weh. Aceh United were now playing in Bireun, further down the eastern coast of Aceh, in an attempt to attract more fans. The team were founded in 2010 by the younger brother of Irwandi Yusuf, the former governor of Banda Aceh. Irwandi Yusuf had since been imprisoned for alleged corruption which hardly improved his or Aceh United’s popularity.
Persiraja, champions during Indonesia’s amateur era in 1980, are the only Banda Aceh team. Putra and I motored across to the Haji Dimurthala stadium the following evening for their crucial Liga II clash against leaders Semen Padang. I bought match tickets for £1 each and a Semen Padang shirt outside the stadium, partly for comedy value – ‘semen’ actually means ‘cement’ in Bahasa Indonesian – and mostly because I felt sorry for the trader. He had spent 30 hours travelling by bus from Padang in western Sumatra.
Indonesia is so gargantuan that Liga II, the second tier of Indonesian football, is regionalised. The top four of the still sizeable western and eastern divisions play off for three promotion spots. The logistics of the national Liga I are even more mind-boggling. Perseru and Persipura Jayapura, two teams based in the province of Papua, take two flights to most away matches and at least three when travelling to PSMS Medan, nearly 3,000 miles to the west and my final hosts in Sumatra.
Putra went to pray. There was excited chatter and cigarette puffing from youthful Persiraja fans at the coffee shop next to the stadium. I chanced upon Rabbany, an erudite Malaysia-based Persiraja fan. He laughed when I said that Newcastle United flew to Bournemouth, the longest journey in the Premier League, by private plane. There were no such luxuries in Indonesian football. Second-placed Persiraja had enviable home form and an abominable away record. The arduous travel certainly affected travelling performances. Rabbany thought Persiraja may also benefit from playing their home games at 8.30pm, conservative Aceh authorities ruled matches should kick off after the evening Isha’a prayer.
Rabbany was a member of SKULL, the Persiraja ultra group, clad in orange shirts emblazoned with a skeletal head more Halloween than death metal album cover. “Do you want to watch with school?” asked Putra as we entered the fractured terrace behind the goal. He meant ‘SKULL’ and I did. Indonesian football had been rocked by a shocking fatality the previous day. A 23 year-old Persija Jakarta fan had been beaten to death by Bandung fans, the 70th Indonesian to die from football-related violence since 1994. But SKULL were moderates.
“You’ve picked the safest match in Indonesia” said Rabbany. There was no rivalry between Persiraja and “Sumatran brothers” Semen Padang. The two sets of hardcore fans stood next to one another without any separating barrier. A Padang fan leader was presented with a Persiraja shirt before the match. SKULL even barracked more casual Persiraja supporters amongst the bumper 8,000 crowd after they lobbed a plastic bottle towards a Padang corner-taker.
Black ribbons were worn around forearms as a mark of respect. And around my wrist, roughly the same diameter. The SKULL orchestrator, standing on rickety scaffolding six-foot-high, announced a minute’s silence, rapidly abbreviated to five seconds. “We can’t keep quiet for a minute” said Rabbany. And the fans didn’t throughout the match, booming out modern fan favourites – the Iceland clap with “SKULL” – and songs that captured their devotion to Persiraja alongside Islamic references. Several girls dressed in black headscarves and Halloween shirts joined in the revelry.
Padang defended deep and just well enough to prevent Persiraja, the brighter team, from converting a slew of first half chances. “We only need the cutting edge” said Rabbany. Luis Irsandi, the Persiraja centre back who looked and played like David Luiz, was highly watchable. He moved the ball and himself up the pitch, was committed, if a touch reckless, a two-footed challenge in the penalty area was fortunate to get the ball and the referee’s benefit.
SKULL sat down for a rest at half-time as traders tried to offload remaining parcels of fried noodles for 25p. Insects are super-sized in Indonesia. I ducked a bee the size of a fist and a giant ant crawled along the fence in front of the home support. A bat swooped from the trees behind the other goal. “It’s like Craven Cottage” said Rabbany. It really wasn’t.
Persiraja took the lead twenty minutes into a more open second half. Husruzon, a soldier, rifled in from the spot after a generous penalty decision. Asrizal, the “new Rooney”, scored a second after a flowing passing move on the counter. Padang, with an extra forward somehow sapping their attacking threat, could barely rouse themselves to combat some blatant show-boating from Persiraja, one player pretending to play a pass several times but wafting his foot over the ball before finally connecting.
Hundreds of people swarmed on to the pitch to celebrate the 2-0 win. The bobbly surface would hardly worsen. I stayed with the SKULL, taking photos of my new orange friends and appearing on numerous Indonesian Instagram feeds. Rabbany, his voice erased from singing, politely asked for my autograph, a first. There is at least one person who will buy my book in Malaysia.
I disappeared out of the stadium and into the darkness with Putra. We eventually located his motorbike amongst a plethora of identical-looking machines and breezed back to the city centre. It had been an intriguing and exhilarating night. But Persiraja would be my only Indonesian football experience. My match in Medan and all other Liga I fixtures were postponed in the wake of the death in Bandung. An attempt to watch top division football in all 47 Asian members in one season would be fraught yet fascinating.