Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My brush with Indonesia's football hooligans

One evening last year, I was waiting at the station in Solo, central Java, for a train back to Yogyakarta. Although the train was over an hour late, my natural irascibility was tempered by the beauty of the setting sun casting a red hue over the silhouette of a smouldering volcano in the distance.

As I sat on the platform admiring the view, the tranquility was broken by a deep murmuring noise some way off. At first I thought it could be the sound of some ageing locomotive struggling up the tracks.

But, as the noise got louder, it became clear that it was some form of chanting. I wondered if this was a special prayer train. But, as it came into full view, I discovered that it was nothing of the sort.

Hundreds of people were crammed into the train, sitting on the roof and hanging out of the windows. They were not reciting benedictions but football chants. For these, I was informed by another passenger, were the much-feared Bonek - short for bondo nekat, Javanese for "reckless mob" - the hardcore fans of Persebaya, the Surabaya football team.

As the train passed through the station at an alarmingly slow rate, I was reminded of why British police decided to ban "football special" trains. The Bonek banged out a beat on the walls of the train while shouting something that could be loosely translated as "fuck you Solo". The people around me looked just a bit concerned but luckily no stones were thrown at the platform.

That fate was reserved for the oncoming train to Yogyakarta which, by the time it pulled into the station, had had many of its windows smashed in.

I recount this tale because the Bonek are in hot water again after another similar incident at the weekend, also at Solo station. This time, the citizens of Solo (who are known for their fiery disposition) fought back, pummeling the train with rocks on its return to Surabaya after an away game at Bandung.

The Jakarta Casual blogger, who is by far and away the best source of information and insight on Southeast Asian football, reckons that the Jakarta English-language press is blowing the latest violence out of all proportion.

He seems to think there is a class issue here: "At work today the great and the good of middle class society gnarled their teeth and puffed their chests out with self righteous indignation at these Dickensian scamps having the temerity to crawl out from under their stones and blight their precious consciousness for a few hours."

While there is clearly a large class/wealth divide in Indonesia, I'm not sure he's right about this one. By trying to defend poor football fans, he seems to be condemning them. Does he really believe that the only release that Indonesia's downtrodden can obtain is by going on the rampage before and after football matches?

Nevertheless, I'm still keen to check out a local match and see how the Indonesian Super League compares to Singapore's S-League and Vietnam's V-League. If I've managed to survive trips to Grimsby and Bournemouth, I'm sure I'll be OK.



  1. Thanks Ben. Both articles linked under 'international'. Good stuff.


  2. Hi Ben

    If you're ever in Jakarta and fancy a game, with perhaps a beer or two (!) let me know!

    Jakarta Casual