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?
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?
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.