Friday, February 07, 2014


No fewer than three English Premier League clubs came to town as part of their pre-season warm ups last year

"He's football crazy, he's football mad, football has gone and robbed him of the sense he ever had." So run the lyrics of a popular British song from the 1960s, which is perhaps an appropriate summation of a phenomenon that has now gone global and extended its muddy tentacles all the way over to Indonesia. Perhaps this sporting hypothesis accounts for the hundreds of rowdy local Arsenal and Manchester United fans that I encountered watching all of the big-screen action down at Kemang's new Lippo mall recently.

Indeed, so authentic was the Premier League, big-screen, nonton-bareng (watch-together) atmosphere, that my companion and I even feared a spot of British hooligan fisticuffs from the bunch of local Man. U. fans filled with lager-fuelled bonhomie who spilled out onto the street post game. The EPL has well and truly arrived in a city that lies a full 12,000km from England’s grey and unpleasant land, which is some serious air miles to be putting in if you’re attending home games. That’s 19 home games per season multiplied by 12,000km each way, which is 465,000km. Greater than the distance to the moon in fact.

Well these chaps could save their bonus air miles this month, as three of the most famous football clubs in the world, namely Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, pitched up in Jakarta to play a series of pre-season friendlies last July and to no doubt also shot a flurry of spray-on deodorant commercials while they they were in town, a full four years after Manchester United cancelled their Jakarta trip due to the (second) Marriott hotel bombing.  

Arsenal arrived first, on July 14, followed by Liverpool on July 20 and finally Chelsea on July 25. These legendary EPL clubs played against (and obviously thrashed the pants off, despite the games amounting to a gentle warm up for the three sides in question) an Indonesian 11 down at Bung Karno Stadium in Senayan and were afforded the opportunity to generate a little revenue whilst also enjoying some PR spin and pleasing local fans who usually only ever see their heroes on television.

Indonesia itself has aspirations to host the World Cup at some point and 2022 has been mooted, although maybe 2822 would be a more realistic date to aim for. FIFA, the sport's governing body, has long been mired in allegations of financial impropriety and when combined with Indonesia's own brand of seemingly boundless endemic corruption (which has most recently revolved around the construction of a sports stadium, funnily enough) it perhaps doesn't bode well for the Indonesian people themselves actually gaining much from such a tournament.

Major world sporting events have now become highly corporatised affairs. FIFA basked in USD 631 million in profits after the last World Cup in South Africa and it's not difficult to understand why. The organisation first gets the host nation to stump up for new stadiums and infrastructure before moving in for the tournament proper and setting up a corporate state-within-a-state, in which only official partner products are allowed to be sold. This is presumably why I was left supping on dishwater-bland US Budweiser whilst watching matches in Cape Town during the last World Cup finals, whilst everyone else in the city not at the games could enjoy the far tastier local suds. More recently, in Brazil, hosts of next year's World Cup as well as the next Olympics, national-football-legend-turned-politician Romario has broken ranks in order to question the whole corporate ethos of the modern sporting spectacle.

Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool played against a national 11 last year and it’s fair to say that the Indonesian national team are no Brazil. Indeed, the local game is in a real mess at the moment, despite the tremendous enthusiasm that exists for football in this country. A romantic view of poverty and football is often trotted out with regard to Brazil, namely the notion that starting off in some favela shantytown kicking a tin can around the streets imbues one with some kind of Nietzschian footballing will to power and puts soccer steel in the soul. Well, if that were all it took, then Indonesia would be multiple world champions by now, instead of being routinely thrashed six-nil by miniscule Middle Eastern oil protectorates.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the English Premier League has gone into global overdrive over the past decade, with the money side of the game spiralling to absolutely absurd levels. Players salaries have inflated massively and the clubs that have to pay them thus suffer from a kind of prune-juice effect, as revenues generated immediately slide out the back door and into centre forwards' bank accounts.

In order to bankroll all of this largesse, oligarchs and mega-rich consortiums have moved in, the kind of people who will presumably be first against the wall when the Occupy movement storms the ramparts in its silly "V for Vendetta" masks. Chelsea, for example, are bankrolled by one Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who rose to riches on the pinstriped-gangster wave of the post-Soviet 1990s. Meanwhile, newly minted Manchester City is funded by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour, who apparently sits on a family fortune of USD 1 trillion.

More deeply though, does vegging out on a sofa watching people kicking a ball around, an event of absolutely zero importance with regard to the political realities of people's day-to-day lives, actually have any value? Perhaps, as has been suggested, spectator sport is a crucial part of our social-indoctrination systems. It gets people paying attention to something of no importance whatsoever and also builds up feelings of irrational jingoism and group cohesion behind leadership elements.

“Bah humbug!” I hear you cry. Well, I have to confess that I was cheering and blowing my South African vuvuzela into the earholes of local Arsenal fans last July 14. The Indonesian national side may not be packing many budding Lionel Messis, however the atmosphere down at Gelora Bung Karno can be quite electric on match day. Shouting, chanting, lighting illegal flares, enjoying Mexican waves and a little light pick-pocketing can all be yours. Admittedly, these three games were held in the middle of the fasting month but this didn't seem to put a damper on the atmosphere too much.