Aren’t You Entertained?!

I might rue the premature usage of that holy phrase. It might be more fitting for the night of the ugly and highly controversial 2-2 overtime match between Ulsan and Hiroshima in December (although nasty Japan v Korea matches are probably strictly for the national teams), or when Japan go down 3-4 to Brazil after 0-3 half time deficit in 2013 Confederations Cup.

But my god will you look at that.

His name is Andik Vermansyah. 21 years old, 162 cm tall, attacking midfielder. In the dying minutes of last night’s ASEAN Football Fed Cup match against Singapore, he passed Daniel Bennett and unfortunately failed to unsettle goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud – but he was on that Ronaldo’s (as opposed to Cristiano Ronaldo’s) Barcelona routine. Couldn’t blame the boy for practicing.

And to be frank, I’m still not that excited about the AFF Cup. When the keywords in UEFA is ‘bloated’ (like in the World Cup qualification and the Europea League), the keyword here is ‘overlong’. Group stage will end on 1st December. Nice. But two legs semi finals on 8-13 December, and TWO LEGS FINAL on 19 and 22 December, as if they really want to see what’s it’s like on 22 December 2012.

In comparison, THE regional tournament of Asia, the East Asian Championship (Gulf? Meh) takes place in a week each two years. Yeah, there was preliminary rounds involving for example Macao and Guam, and then Hong Kong and Taiwan, and thankfully there was also qualification round in AFF involving countries like East Timor and Brunei (Myanmar and Laos survived).

But still, no need for two legs semi finals and finals – it’s a mini tournament that only deserves two weeks duration at most. By 13 December everyone wants to see Lee Keun-ho nutmegs John Terry. Three days later, Emerson will become the first Asian player representing South American champions in the Toyota Cup – the future is Asia (it’s a good guess whether number 200 Chen Zhizhao will join the team). Actually, they won’t. Chen is not included and Emerson is Brazilian, not Qatari. He said that pressure is about avoiding stray bullets, not playing Boca Juniors. Surely he’s not talking about Qatar because there are not stray bullets in Qatar.

Back to home. So yeah, Corinthians v Chelsea has been ended by the time Thailand gear up against…uh…Indonesia? Singapore? Malaysia? What an anticlimax.

There are great number of reasons to not get excited with Southeast Asian football. I’ve praised Malaysia U-23 willingness to qualify to the Olympics, only to see the Tigers eaten by the Lions. I’ve tweeted that I’m boycotting S. League after it announces punishment for the bottom of the league (Woodlands Wellington, I guess). Then, after Singaporeans somewhat got excited, the balloon was popped out by Indonesia. Did I happy with Andik’s goal? Of course.

Many Indonesians are skeptical with this team, thanks to the prolonged struggle in the Indonesian FA and terrible results in World Cup qualifications, 2008 or 2011 alike. And there’s AFF Cup 2010, when winning Indonesia attracted genuine from the middle class who usually don’t watch local football, not least thanks to half-Dutch Irfan Bachdim. Then the president started to compared himself with Nelson Mandela in Invictus – using the national team to unify the nation. The difference is Mandela wanted the blacks and whites to unite as South Africans, while Yudhoyono was just seeking personal vanity. Because of the overlong tournament, the hype had ended, Indonesia was unconvincing in dirty matches against Philippines (many of its half-white players were, and still are, as quarrelsome as West Asians – they are certainly not respectful Aussies) and then the downfall to Malaysia in the final legs.

So Indonesia did not have its best players and those who joined the national team, like venerated senior Bambang Pamungkas have fair share of new haters, although to simplify, the conflict in Indonesia football is essentially about this politician and that general. As Philippines enlisted more half-white from Europe and United States, Indonesia did the same.

Reading the squad list and I found no Chinese name in Malaysia and with the exception of Joey Sim (reserve goalkeeper), Singapore have no Singapore-born Chinese – both Qiu Li and Shi Jiayi grew up and played football in China. Indonesia raised hope in the name of Arthur Irawan, who played in Espanyol B. Like Kim Kurniawan, he hailed from Europe instead of the Chinese enclaves of Surabaya, Pontianak, or Medan, but still he’s Chinese-Indonesian.

Then Arthur Irawan was replaced at the last minute with Rafael Maitimo, who secured his Indonesian passport one day before the opening match (and scored against Laos. But then everyone should be able scoring against Laos). Hearing the news, I became convinced that like Kim Kurniawan, Irawan was not left out from the national team strictly by form, skill, or performance. He’s not chosen because he’s Chinese. The Garudas are fine with Malukus, Papuans, Timorese, Batakese, but not Chinese. Instantly I lost interest in Indonesia, and also take Singapore with great reserve.

As I had posted months ago, I want the renaissance of Thailand football. I want Thailand to win the AFF Cup. They must lead Southeast Asian football again, they must be able to challenge Oman and Jordan again. They must be able to easily overcome Philippines (2-1 recently) and Tajikistan. Because in Southeast Asia, they are the ones with the tradition and vision. Not only to entertain the local politicians and working class, but also to preserve the relevance of Southeast Asia in Asian football. To take on the continent. Now it’s their time.

Support your local club

The night after Internazionale, Robbie Fowler, and Michael Mols (he was Glasgow Rangers’ top striker in 1999, before bumping onto Oliver Kahn) visited Indonesia, ESPN Asia showed two news items on Indonesian football. First item – the negotiation between the FA and the Pro Footballers Association (including star striker Bambang Pamungkas, who was not in the friendly against Internazionale. A naughty boy for standing up against the FA). Second item, a brawl between Persija Jakarta and Persib Bandung which left three people died. The video accompanying the news showed Persija supporters, clad in orange shirts, hitting on some unidentified person(s) on the stand.

The next day, the story became headline in Bandung newspapers but not in Jakarta’s. The first dead victim had been identified – a Jakartan who happened to wear blue shirt, the color of Persib Bandung. Two people were not identified yet, but one of them was a teenager. When all victims had been identified, only one was confirmed to be Bandung-born – the two others were locals.

Jakartan newspapers, however, erroneously described the incident as ‘brawl between Persija and Persib supporters’. If it was a brawl between opposing supporters, we would have seen dozens of orange shirts against dozens of blue shirts. But that wasn’t what ESPN and several local channels showed. A Persija firm was quoted to blame Persib supporters for starting the incident – online. Then he blamed Persib supporters for still showing up in Jakarta, denying them their rights to support their team. He also admitted that Persija’s ultras demanded to see IDs of people they suspected to come from Bandung. Media agreed that the police didn’t offer enough protection for the Persib team and to any away supporter.

Last weekend, a rumor was spreading throughout BlackBerry Messenger (and text messages, for those unlucky enough to have Android and Windows phones rather than BB) – cars sporting Jakartan plates would be hunted down in Bandung for revenge. Many Jakartan residents visit Bandung for weekend trip and the rumor did unsettle many of them. Persib had a match on Saturday which went peacefully, and its firms handed out flowers for cars entering Bandung.

The media coverage and the rumor showed a glaring difference between football culture in Jakarta and Bandung. First, in Indonesia no Chinese will watch a football match in a stadium. It’s the same rule like in South America, half of Europe (which some unfortunate Asians experienced in Ukraine), and half of Southeast Asia. But in Bandung, many middle class Chinese love Persib Bandung. They buy the merchandise, their mood is affected by the result, and they know the players. Bandung newspapers show previews and reviews at the headline and the sports page. They tune in for the match, even if they never dream to enter the stadium. They also avoid the streets before and after the match.

In Jakarta, however, the middle class upward shows no care for Persija Jakarta. They don’t know the players, they care not about the team, and the media care only about the national team and top clubs in England, Spain, and Italy. When the police are capturing the perpetrators of the tragedy, they are uncovering another one – kids boasting on their Facebook their act of violence, complete with photos – on personal accounts with their real names and phone numbers listed. In the precinct they said “Well I did it for Persija! That idiot didn’t wear orange shirt and wasn’t look happy when we scored, so I guessed he was some Persib goon!”

That kind of statement, added with the spreading of Bandung rumor, terrified me on what has happened to Jakarta. Everywhere, angry men from the slums and the projects look forward for the matchday for a reason – they can be kings in the stadium and on the streets. The level of supporters’ violence and brutality correspond with the national level of corruption and poverty, although I’ve heard that Swedish stadiums could be unsettling as well. Bandung ultras’ attitude are somewhat controlled by focused attentions from Bandung media and middle class, who advocate fair play and rationality through Twitter, newspapers, and programs on local channels.

Unfortunately, I have the impression that Jakarta’s middle class – all, not just the Chinese – steers away from Persija and not only because they are terrified with the ultras. In the capital, local football is seen as a poor man’s game, and a proper affluent person would only pay attention to Internazionale and the national team (because nationalism is cool here). The disengagement, even if it’s not realized by both classes, prevents the check and balance culture that is working in Bandung. The sub-working class is thinking that Persija is their pride against the world, and even might desire for the shock values of their violence and defiance. Your color might be red and blue, sucker, but mine is orange.

In the 1980s, when the league was still semi-pro, rivalries between Persija and Persib had been developed, along with Persebaya Surabaya. When the professional league was developed in the 1990s, Jakartan middle class looked at some others glitzier clubs, especially Pelita Jaya, which recruited Roberto Donadoni and Roger Milla. Now that PJ has moved out of the proper capital, Persija is still the only Jakartan team, and its working-class root and image are only hardened.

Outside Europe, we Asians have the privilege to choose our favorite EPL team. MU or now MC? Chelsea or Arsenal? And we can mock our friends whose favorite team loses for this week as if they are native of that city. I can only imagine that as an Englishman, you can’t feel love for another team but your hometown, or your parents’. My best friend’s father hails from Charlton, London, and he cannot bring himself to love Arsenal, although his son does. We are bemused by Europeans who ask “I’m going to move to this city in Asia. Which club do you recommend?”, as we care not for Asian clubs. In Australia I was relieved to see that many Asian-Australians don’t care at all about Australian rules football or rugby (or any team sport for that matter), but I was also impressed by Asians who went to the stadium to support Melbourne Victory or the Socceroos.

I’m still yet to see any club football beyond on the television. My first and only football match so far was Australia v France friendly in 2001. I don’t dream I can see Persib or anything while in Indonesia. I would only able to come to a football stadium in Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, and so on (yes, club football in Australia was also a vicious affair before 2005-06). But that doesn’t hinder my feeling for Persib.

I don’t see how the middle class in Jakarta would support Persija. Perhaps they don’t have to. But if they can give a little care and attention for the city’s only football team, it may help the city a bit.