SINGAPORE: Those unfamiliar with Southeast Asian football may have assumed that the Football of Association of Malaysia (FAM) was joking last week when they requested the Indonesian authorities have on standby an armoured personnel carrier for the team’s visit to Jakarta.
But there the Malaysians were at the end of Thursday (Sep 5)’s 2022 World Cup qualifier piling on board the vehicle after a game marred by crowd trouble.
Malaysia twice came back from behind to win 3-2 in the final seconds to silence 80,000 fans packed into the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium but the drama on the pitch did not make international headlines. Incidents off it did.
There were pitch invasions and objects thrown at the visiting fans. Syed Saddiq, Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister, was with travelling supporters and publicly denounced what he called "gangsterism" on display.
The FAM has confirmed it will make an official complaint to world governing body FIFA, claiming its Jakarta counterpart did not make adequate preparations.
The violence has arguably been worse in the past. At the same stadium in 2011, two fans were killed when the teams met in the final of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
Indonesia may be the most passionate, football-loving nation in Southeast Asia but has shown on numerous occasions over the years that the line between passion and violence can be fine.
Save Our Soccer, a watchdog group that monitors the game in the world’s fourth most populous country, said in September 2018 that over 70 fans have died in football-related violence since 1994.
Indonesia has developed a reputation of becoming one of the most dangerous places to watch the beautiful game. National football captain Andritany Ardhiyasa admits the violent behaviour of fans have ruined his country’s image.
More could be done to shine the spotlight on the unruly behaviour of these hooligans. If this was a major European football nation, like England, Germany or Spain, the violence would have made major international news and would have been discussed at length.
Even certain domestic games in Indonesia are no place for the faint-hearted, especially meetings between bitter rivals Persib Bandung and Persija Jakarta. These two cities on the island of Java are just four hours apart by car, relatively close in this sprawling archipelago.
Attending one league meeting back in 2012, I was told by leaders of fan groups that the violence was simply an extension of a longstanding rivalry between the two cities.
Whatever the reasons, the atmosphere was crackling yet this pairing, which should be a showpiece for Indonesian football, has seen seven deaths in the last seven years.
SENSELESS TRAGEDY HURTS INDONESIA’S REPUTATION
Even banning fans from attending the game has not prevented senseless tragedy. Haringga Sirla had just become a member of ‘Jakmania, Persija’s famous fan group, when he went to Bandung in September 2018 to watch his team take on Persib.
Jakarta fans were officially not allowed to attend the game but the 23-year-old made the journey anyway and was confident of getting inside the stadium but just outside, he was found without Persib fan identification by home fans who were making checks. He was subsequently beaten to death.
Leaders of fan groups reacted by condemning the tragedy and declaring that the violence had to stop. Such sentiments have been expressed in the past but little has changed.
The violence is holding Indonesian football back. Just look at England where, in the 1970s and 1980s, hooliganism was rife, stadiums were crumbling and the football was basic. These days going to a football match in England is considerably safer and the English Premier League is the most popular in the world.
The English Premier League is the number one in the world partly due to the money in the game - money that would be less if there was regular violence as it drives families, sponsors and more away.
English football cleaned up its act in many ways and while hooliganism has not completely disappeared, going to a game in 2019 is a very different experience than in 1989.
This latest incident was especially bad timing for Indonesia. The day before the Malaysia clash, Indonesia - along with Peru and Brazil – officially filed its bid to FIFA to host the Under-20 World Cup in 2021.
It is an opportunity to show the world that the country can host a major international football event. It will not go unnoticed at the headquarters of FIFA, the body that will choose the host in October, that two days after receiving the bid, they were notified by FAM that an official complaint is forthcoming.
Crowd trouble at high-profile international matches can only damage Indonesia’s prospects. Holding the tournament would bring in investment from the private and public sectors and an improvement in facilities. Such developments are badly needed and hosting a major event could have signalled a break from the past from the country's troubled federation.
There have been problems at the Indonesian Football Association, known locally as PSSI for years. Nurdin Halid was the body’s CEO from 2003 to 2011 and spent some of that time in prison on charges of corruption and, incredibly, was allowed to continue in his position.
A more professional leadership could have reduced the corruption and mismanagement. Nurdin was eventually ousted in 2011 but that was not the end. Rival factions vied for supremacy and soon there were rebel leagues, national teams and federations set up in opposition to the official organisations. It was chaos.
Indonesia has a rich football culture yet all this has been overshadowed by fan violence. The big game against Malaysia should have been a great advertisement for the game in the country instead of another reminder of all too familiar problems.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene for The Guardian, New York Times, BBC, ESPN, Associated Press and others. He is the author of 3 books including ‘Lions & Tigers - the History of football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).