Thursday, October 05, 2006

South East Asia, Soccer Insanity and Sir Alex.

"He's football crazy, he's football mad, football has gone and robbed him of the sense he ever had." These lyrics, taken from a popular British song from the 1960s, are an apposite reflection of the Jakartan mindset at the beginning of the third millennium. Next week sees the start of the new English Premiership season and viewers the length and breadth of Indonesia, Southeast Asia and China will reactivate their shared insanity as they huddle around TV sets in order to watch grossly overpaid grown men kick leather balls up and down rectangular fields some 6000 miles away. Football games have recently been declared the only programs to be exempt from the nation's current electricity economy drive; a power saving measure that sees all other shows grind to a halt as the balls keep rolling. Noam Chomsky, famous lefty theorist and scourge of the American political establishment, has described sport as an activity through which simmering social and political tensions are sublimated. So much energy, he reasons, that would otherwise be channeled towards political ends and improving society, is wasted by young men the world over on something completely meaningless, i.e. the number of times a ball passes between two posts. So, is this why soccer broadcasts in Indonesia must continue at all costs, even when other programs have bitten the dust, to prevent a revolution? Must RI's incongruously tobacco sponsored footy shows carry on in order to stop the reform movement coming back to life and actually changing something this time around?

Conspiracy theories aside, European, and particularly English soccer, is huge business in Asia. In Indonesia, one can watch live Premiership games for free on local television, something you certainly can’t do in England these days. It's also a common sight in Jakarta, if one is out on the streets at such an ungodly hour, to see guys gathered around TV sets in warungs watching European Champions' League games at 3 AM. And there's worse. I'm currently writing this piece in the new Manchester United Restaurant and Bar which can be found on top of the Sarinah building on Jl. Thamrin where the Hard Rock Cafe used to sit. To my mind, a restaurant and bar dedicated solely to one English football club, in Jakarta of all places, does seem faintly ludicrous, even if that team is the richest and most famous in the world. Mind you, Planet Hollywood also used to seem rather tastelessly superfluous to requirements to me but I've got used to the whole plastic-volcano-wanking stupidity of it all over the years. A Manchester United restaurant though, God help us all.

Inside, the old Hard Rock layout remains; restaurant on the left, bar on the right. However, instead of lame top 40 covers bands, one can savor the delights of looped Ruud Van Nistelroy goals whilst eating one's Man. U. Steak & Ale Pie (Rp. 68,000++). It's all rather off-putting for an Arsenal supporter like me. They do love their MU in Indonesia and Singapore though; there can be little argument about that. The waiters and waitresses all wear Man. U. shirts, naturally, and you even get to flash a red card in the air in order to attract their attention, although this didn't seem to work very well in practice. The menu is full of wholesome steaks (not so cheap at Rp.98,000 - Rp.150,000) plus plenty of Asian and pasta dishes. There's a good value happy hour between 3pm and 8pm every day during which you can drink a free flow of draught beer for only Rp.60,000. After that your nose should be as red as Sir Alex Ferguson's. The menu also features several "Fun Football Facts" for the hard of thinking such as, "In football, a hat-trick occurs when a player scores three goals in a single game." Well I never.

The Manchester United Bar and Restaurant was almost completely empty when I dined there are dinnertime on a Tuesday. The team had better win something soon if the restaurant wants to shift those Man. U Combo BBQ Ribs. Still, the food was of a high-quality and I found the restaurant, as the Hard Rock was before it, a mellow enough place in which to spend 90 minutes (plus three-minutes of stoppage time in the toilet). I'm still waiting for the Arsenal Wine Bar and Bistro to materialize though.

Simon Pitchforth