Revealing the invisible hand Duncan Graham
If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was a football tragic like Peni Suparto, then Indonesia might be playing in the World Cup against Real Madrid.
But in an unreal world the leader of Indonesia is apparently into volleyball. That didn’t stop him verbally backing the nation’s chances of getting ahead in the global game when he visited Malang last month (March).
It was a brave move for a Jakarta politician not known for his football prowess or largesse. In the central East Java city soccer isn’t just another sport. It’s a life and death matter, or as some would say, more important than that.
“The president came to Malang to open the National Soccer Congress (KSN) because this is the heart of Indonesian soccer,” said Peni. “We’re the only city with two football teams. We’re fanatic, but don’t say our supporters are bonek (hooligans). They come from Surabaya. We’re Aremania.”
Arema is Malang’s top team, playing in the Republic’s Premier League. It’s named after Kebo Arema, a warrior hero of the 15th century Majapahit kingdom. Their emblem is a garish MGM-style lion, roaring from gang gateways around the city over the slogan Singo Edan – Crazy Lions.
The other team is Persema. Least said, soonest mended
Coaches who don’t perform to fans’ expectations get the graffiti treatment, their names qualified with unprintable abuse.
When he’s not talking up football as Malang City General Chairman of the All-Indonesia Football Association, Peni is the mayor of Malang, a position he’s held since 2003 as a Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP) politician.
Any challenger would need to be suffering acutely from incurable Aremania. Forget policies on fixing footpaths and plugging potholes; such municipal matters are boring, boring. There’s just one issue in the hilltown of one million, and it has nothing to do with keeping streets clean.
The KSN Malang moanfest attracted more than 500 delegates weeping about the state of Indonesian soccer. For a country with a talent catchment area of around 240 million, the world’s third most populous nation should be running rings around minnows like Spain and Brazil, let alone little Britain.
“The problem is management. We have to do this so much better,” said Peni, without going into details despite much shin-kicking. Instead he kept talking about an “invisible hand” which will direct Indonesian soccer in the future, when for many the game needs a most visible boot.
“We have a plan to make sure Indonesia will be Asian champions within five years and in the World League within 15 years,” he said. “Then our national team will be an Asian Tiger.
“Do you know why Malaysia is so good? Because they have professional management – and lots of money. There used to be money for sport when gambling was legal in Indonesia.”
The State-run lottery was abolished during the Soeharto era following pressure from Islamic groups.
Arema gets its financial support from a local tobacco manufacturer; in the politically correct West cigarette sponsorship for sport is taboo.
Peni was talking during a trip to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. Although the country has little more than four million people, the All Blacks rank number one in the International Rugby Board’s world list.
The Rugby World Cup will be played in NZ next year. Despite the domination of rugby, Wellington’s Phoenix soccer team has become the best in the country, competing internationally.
Being indifferent to sport in NZ is like being unable to talk Javanese in Java. The personable Peni was able to walk in both camps.
During his week in Wellington, where Peni headed a group of high school principals keen to develop close ties with NZ schools, the mayor took time out to check the city’s extensive sporting facilities provided by local government.
“When I was a kid in Kediri we had to play with a plastic bal,” said Peni. He’s no sofa barracker abusing referees while waving a TV channel changer at the screen.
For 21 years he played ‘the beautiful game’, as they say in Brazil, mainly as a striker. The mayor is a little lad and must have been a nimble sportsman to survive against the big boys. When not on the field he lectured in civil administration at the former Malang teacher’s college, now the University of Malang
Now he’s 64 but looks 50, proof sport can do magic things for a man’s well-being.
During his tour Peni came across two teams of seven year olds training during their holidays. They were practising on outdoor and indoor grounds, supervised by university students.
The contrast with most Indonesian cities was stark. Kampong residents will be familiar with the everyday sight of barefoot kids turning bitumen into soccer grounds, piles of shoes pegging out the goal posts.
However talented, the wannabe Maradonas will be struggling without boots and the chance to train on grass in a properly marked pitch with skilled adult direction.
“I agree facilities have to be improved,” said Peni. When reminded that a sports ground in the Malang suburb of Sawojajar is now the site of a petrol station he said nothing could be done because the land was privately owned.
“Football is egalitarian,” said Peni, watching little Kiwis dribble balls round plastic cones, then shoot for goal, doing their best to punch holes in the net.
“Anyone and everyone can play. We need talent scouts out in the regions looking for the next generation of players. We need professional quality coaches.”
Did this mean importing players and coaches from overseas? Now we’re talking serious money when the price of a top player is about equal to an aircraft carrier. Well, yes, but Peni wasn’t about to shout that from the stands to partisan crowds, not so crazy that they want to pay more tax.
“We’re nationalists. I want Malang to be Indonesia’s education city where we can exchange teachers and students – and ideas on improving sport in Indonesia.” And the cash?
“We need commitment, particularly from the national government.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 April 2010)