Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

For kicks

Freek Colombijn

Association football, or soccer, was introduced to Indonesia in 1895, when the schoolboy John Edgar founded a club in Surabaya. The game rapidly spread from the elite to the workers and has become probably the most popular sport in Indonesia, both to play and to watch. But the history of football in Indonesia can tell us as much about Indonesia as it does about the game.

At first, matches were organised ad hoc. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century many local associations sprang up to organise leagues. Each league was confined to an irregular number of teams in one town. Usually all matches were played in a brief time span of, say, two months, on one field. The first matches between teams from different towns took place at the Colonial Exhibition in Semarang in 1914. The associations of Jakarta (then Batavia), Bandung, Semarang, and Surabaya sent teams composed of the best players of their respective leagues. These so-called 'city matches' between association teams were such a great success that they were repeated the following years. An umbrella Netherlands Indies Football Association (Nederlandsch-Indische Voetbal Bond, NIVB) was founded in 1919 to place the annual city matches on a permanent footing.

The name NIVB, later changed to NIVU, suggests it was an archipelago-wide association. But at first only the four associations present at the Colonial Exhibition were members. Gradually other associations from Java joined up, followed in the 1930s by associations from other islands. The expansion of the NIVU paralleled the way government administration and modern economic organisation was being standardised at the same time - first in Java and then spreading to the other islands.

Indonesia's enormous size has been a serious handicap for a national competition. Putting city matches at the pinnacle of the year's sporting calendar proved to be a brilliant and popular solution. By 1979 inter-island transportation had improved to such an extent that a national league was started. In order to reduce travel costs, the league is divided into a western and eastern division. In the end the national championship is decided in semi-finals and a final, reminiscent of the former city matches. As a result of the post-independence rise to predominance of the national capital, the finals no longer go from one place to another, but always take place in Jakarta. Only once, in 1999, was one held outside - in Menado. Fights between supporters had reached an unprecedented level. Perhaps reformasi had reduced respect for uniforms.


Political struggles have been fought out on the football field since colonial times. The NIVU reflected the social composition of colonial Indonesia. It had a majority of indigenous players, but Europeans dominated the board. Associations with an indigenous leadership were found at the local level, but they too were subject to the European hegemony in the umbrella organisation. In 1930, however, seven indigenous associations on Java founded the All-Indonesia Football Federation or PSSI (Persatuan Sepakbola Seluruh Indonesia). The word Indonesia in the name betrayed its nationalist ideology. The PSSI was no match for the NIVU in the number of teams and in financial muscle. But it was a useful vehicle to keep aspirations for an independent Indonesia alive in a decade in which the colonial state cracked down on all overt nationalist expressions.

During the Indonesian revolution of 1945-49, Dutch political leaders persuaded the NIVU to change its name to VUVSI/ ISNIS, an Indonesian-Dutch acronym for Football Union for the United States of Indonesia. The change of name brought the football federation into line with the short-lived and ill-fated colonial policy to encapsulate the Indonesian Republic within a federal republic sympathetic to the Dutch. The bilingual name, and the policy to co-opt more Chinese and Indonesian members onto the board, were attempts to win Indonesians to the Dutch side.

The Dutch federal policy quietly ran aground, because the various constituent states voluntarily merged with the Republic one by one. Within a year after the transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands to Indonesia, federalism had collapsed and the unitary Republic of Indonesia was proclaimed. Likewise, member associations within VUVSI/ ISNIS in each town merged with the local branch of the PSSI. The VUVSI/ ISNIS became a hollow shell and was quietly disbanded in 1951. A few independent local associations continued to reject PSSI 'centralism', but in the course of the 1950s they were all swallowed up by the PSSI anyway.

Sukarno was aware of the role a successful football team could play in nation building. Organising the Asian Games in 1962 formed an element in Sukarno's policy to carve out a self-conscious international role for Indonesia. Hotel Indonesia and the Senayan stadium, which can hold 100,000 spectators, were constructed for this event. Success depended ultimately on an Indonesian football triumph. In line with the general atmosphere at the end of Sukarno's reign, however, a corruption scandal erupted shortly before the games. Several players were purged from the national team. Yet the Indonesian eleven still made it to the final. There they lost 2-3 to Malaya, of all countries.

After the alleged communist coup of 1965, Senayan and stadiums in provincial capitals became mass prisons for the detention of adversaries of the military regime.

Already in colonial times the local associations earned well from the gate takings. By the 1920s, teams and associations were paying their best players. When a national league with club teams was started in 1979, the local associations were reluctant to give up the revenues from the local leagues. This led to the unique blending of a competition between club teams and a championship between city teams. Club teams and teams representing local associations play together in the national league.

Club teams depend on sponsors for both funds and management. When a sponsor withdraws, the club usually collapses. Even teams that have been national champion and have played in Asian cups have disappeared this way. In other cases, teams moved to another city with a new sponsor. At the end of the 1990-1991 season no less than six league teams were dissolved for financial reasons. Under these circumstances, a regular league with promotion and relegation is impossible. Solvency, rather than last year's results, determines which teams play in the national league. Reformasi has left its mark - former sponsors such as the Bakrie brothers and Prajogo Pangestu are now in trouble.


During Suharto's rule, the PSSI wrote 'development plans' using the same discourse as the state. The proclaimed aim of the PSSI was to develop football evenly throughout the country (thereby integrating all regions), based on Pancasila. This general aim was elaborated into five principles, a sacrosanct number that implicitly showed allegiance to the New Order state. Not surprisingly, the New Order football technocrats sought western knowledge to improve the level of play. Western trainers were contracted. In Sukarno's time, when Indonesia was still a leader among the non-aligned countries, the PSSI had similarly employed a Yugoslav trainer.

Promising players were sent to Europe's top clubs as apprentices. A flood of well-paid foreign players (expatriate development aid workers?) of second-rank quality came to Indonesia, where they pushed young and gifted Indonesian players aside.

The wish to increase the level of play was one of the motives for establishing a national league. However, despite the improved transportation and the league being split into a western and eastern (or sometimes three) divisions, distance remains a problem. No schedule of regular home and away matches exists. The teams make brief tours to play their matches on one particular island. This practice seriously distorts the competition results. A Jakarta team, for example, will play all its away matches on Sumatra in a short time span. Tired from the gruelling travel, and alone facing hostile crowds (for its own supporters cannot afford to follow their favourite team), the team loses many of its matches, and descends to the bottom of the league table. By contrast a team that can play at home against exhausted teams rises on the league table, but will descend when it has its turn to play a series of away matches.

Most Indonesians only watch. When it comes to playing themselves, they have few facilities. They play on a beach or a plot of vacant land, with a goal made of sagging bamboo poles and a ball of plaited bamboo. In Papuan villages one can observe how a communal ball hangs in the goal net. Everyone can play a game with it, provided the ball is hung in the net again afterwards. Local rules and not the PSSI rules, derived from the global FIFA standard, apply.

Getting a kick out of football helps Indonesians to have fun, despite all the misery that is dumped on them from Jakarta.

Freek Colombijn ( is an anthropologist at Leiden University. He began to play in 1970 and stopped as left-winger in 1997. In his last match he scored his first hat trick.

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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