It’s at kilo­metre 243 that they appear. Just after mid­night on the end­less Asian Highway 2, scur­rying across the fields. You can see their sil­hou­ettes in the dark. See them rea­dying their ammu­ni­tion. See them hole up in the ditch behind the roadside bar­rier. Little war­riors, little guys, most of them no older than 15 or 16 years old. They are fans of Indo­ne­sian top-flight club Persib Ban­dung and this part of West Java is theirs.

The driver of the Per­sija bus speeds up, but it’s too late. A stone flies, then ano­ther. A direct hit. Shards on the seat. Blood on one guy’s cheek. Stop!” someone yells and the bus scree­ches to a halt in the middle of the road. In the heat of the night, cars stream past, head­lights glare on the asphalt, dri­vers shoot angry glances from behind their winds­creens as the Per­sija Jakarta sup­por­ters ready them­selves for a counter-attack. No mercy. No fear. But hati-hati, as they say here; stay on guard! They burst from the bus, arming them­selves with any sticks lying around, swin­ging bamboo canes like samurai swords. They fire flares into the Java­nese sky to light up the sur­roun­ding area. There they are!” In the distance, the out­lines of the Persib fans still visible, their faces unflin­ching, smiles tri­um­phant. Already, they are too far away. Cowardly dogs!”

The route goes through West Java. Enemy ter­ri­tory. Some­times you get a warm wel­come.”

Three days ear­lier, on 30 October 2017, the police and foot­ball asso­cia­tion took the decision to move Per­sija Jakarta’s home game against Persib Ban­dung to Friday after­noon in Sura­karta, 600 kilo­me­tres from the Indo­ne­sian capital. The reason given? Safety con­cerns. Because the so-called Old Indo­nesia Derby or Cla­sico bet­ween these hated rivals often descends into vio­lence. It was naïve, though, to think this latest mea­sure would calm the situa­tion. And perhaps it was naïve of me to sign up for this road trip. Eigh­teen hours on the motorway, 18 hours in a 59-seater bus, packed with around 75 Per­sija ultras in high spi­rits, clam­be­ring over each other, sit­ting, lying, like human Tetris. Eigh­teen hours till glory, a highway to heaven, that passes straight through hell.

My con­tact, himself a young sup­porter, texted me before my depar­ture: Don’t sit too close to the win­dows!” And by way of an explana­tion: The route goes through West Java. Enemy ter­ri­tory. Some­times you get a warm wel­come.” A smiley face. It would have taken an hour to fly to Sura­karta. On the one hand, the safest option. On the other, how can you report on the mad­ness of Indo­ne­sian foot­ball without loo­king it square in the eye, at least once?

An impro­bable nation

So, this is the story of an epic journey and a pas­sio­nate love affair. There’s no happy ending though. Not in a story about loyalty, pride, honour and that whole sorry mess. It’s about young people, who would do anything for their club colours, even die. And that’s no thro­waway line – 65 fans have died at matches in Indo­nesia since 1995. They are part of a story that is also about cor­rupt offi­cials and crazy club owners. About a sport that’s been on life sup­port for years and which is only being kept alive arti­fi­cially. It takes place in a country that writer Eliza­beth Pisani once called the impro­bable nation” – and there is perhaps no better adjec­tive for Indo­nesia.

Any attempt to describe the country starts with super­la­tives: 17,504 islands, 360 eth­ni­ci­ties, 719 lan­guages. The world’s lar­gest Muslim popu­la­tion. The fourth most popu­lated nation on the planet. Greater Jakarta, with its 30 mil­lion inha­bi­tants, is the world’s second big­gest agglo­me­ra­tion after Tokyo. Then, it’s on the images of the country’s bloody past, that almost ever­yone here car­ries inside them­selves. Three decades of dic­ta­tor­ship under Muhammad Suharto after a string of mas­sa­cres in the 1960s. The occup­a­tion of East Timor in the 1970s. Then, the ine­vi­table ques­tion: What is Indo­nesia today?

Indo­nesia is the big­gest invi­sible thing on the planet”

Famous local busi­nessman John Riady calls it, The big­gest invi­sible thing on the planet”. Because what does anyone really know about it? To the West, it’s the name on the cover of a Lonely Planet guide, a desti­na­tion steeped in back­pa­cker lore, the home of dream beaches. Bali, Lombok, the Gili Islands, Nasi Goreng haw­kers in Sura­baya, Wayang shadow theatre in Malang, bajaj dri­vers in Jakarta, Mister, mister, Taxi?” And now and again head­lines like Indo­nesia plans to use cro­co­diles to guard death row drug con­victs.” Impro­bable? This is Indo­nesia!” say people here.