An Indonesian hooligan at a football match in Jakarta. Image: Facebook

On September 23, Haringga Sirla, a Persija Jakarta fan, did what tens of thousands of Indonesians do every weekend: he went to watch his favorite football team play in a match.

Soon after making the 117 kilometer journey southeast from the capital to the city of Bandung, however, he was set up at the local stadium by a group of rival fans and beaten to death with rocks, sticks and planks.

At least 16 suspects were detained in connection with the killing, which was captured on shaky mobile phone footage, news reports said.

In the days following the Sirla’s death, Indonesia Soccer Association chairman Edy Rahmayadi said that the death was the league’s 95th football related death since 2005.

The league temporarily suspended match play in response but observers expect more fan violence when matches resume without significant changes to how games are policed.

Indonesian police get one of the suspects in the killing of Haringga Sirla to re-enact the crime scene in Bandung. Photo: AFP/Timur Matahari

The league’s struggle with hooliganism dates back even further than 2005, giving it Indonesia the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous place in Asia to watch a football game.

But Sirla’s death drew more attention than previous fatalities, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo weighing in to say enough is enough.

“This keeps happening,” said Widodo in remarks to the press. “There needs to be a firm commitment from all parties that this will not be repeated.”

Whether the death will spur change is still in question for a league, known locally as PSSI, that has long been a source of controversy. The situation has become so violent that some teams’ best players have resorted to traveling in armored personnel carriers to games, news reports said.

Persib, who regularly attract more than 20,000 fans in a league that this year has an average attendance of just under 11,000, have been ordered to play all their remaining home games on the distant island of Borneo.

Persib Bandung fans in a 2014 file photo. Photo: Facebook

Widodo wants a more fundamental change to the league’s policing and management, however. “Sanctions do not guarantee anything. The most important point is that the Ministry [of Youth and Sports], PSSI and supporters groups sit down together to work out what is wrong.”

There will be plenty to talk about. Harinnga was said to have been killed by ‘Vikings’, members of a Persib Bandung supporter groups with an estimated 100,000 members.

Such groups, similar in nature to the hooligan gangs that sparked violence at English Premier League games, have a strong culture of supporting their team and participating in long-running feuds with other clubs.

They also can give young men a sense of belonging. Increasingly however, the violence seems to be driven by hooligans enjoying hooliganism. “This is not about football anymore,” said local commentator Dex Glenniza. “They are just criminals.”

Still, the mass popularity of football in Indonesia has attracted politicians or those with political ambitions to particular teams.

For instance, Rahmayadi, PSSI chairman since 2016, was inaugurated as North Sumatra governor in September this year. Over the years, other politicians have helped run the game.

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PSSI players enter a stadium before match play in a February 2018 file photo. Photo: Facebook

That’s led to allegations and complaints that politicians are too distracted with their public functions to properly manage the privately-run league. In particular, fans feel that PSSI has done little to nothing to prevent escalating hooliganism.

“Football violence in Indonesia is so common because football match management is bad by PSSI and the police,” said Fajar Junaedi, a professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Yogyakarta who has studied fan culture in the country.

“Fans have no trust in the PSSI but the violence is just one of many problems in Indonesian football such as corruption, amateur management of football clubs and political intervention in the game,” he said.

Corruption has been a long-standing problem. Nurdin Halid, a former PSSI president, was convicted twice on corruption charges in the previous decade.

So blatant was political interference in the league that the world governing body FIFA suspended Indonesia from international match play in 2015, after which the government shut down PSSI and announced it would set up its own association. The ban was lifted last year.

There have been accusations of a more general lack of organization and coordination on game days. The PSSI tends to leave it to clubs to police the behavior of their own fans. Traveling supporters can be left to their own devices when arriving at the stadium where their teams are scheduled to play.

Indonesian football fans watch their national team in a 2018 match. Photo: Facebook

“The PSSI see violence as inevitable so they do nothing,” said Persija Jakarta fan Gunter Said. “They hand out a few punishments that do little to actually solve the problem.

“Really, they are not that interested in looking at the basic problems because they are part of the problem too. It is easier to [just] talk.”

England’s experience, some suggest, may offer a solution. Hooliganism was rife there in the 1970s and 1980s due to poor policing.
A series of fatal disasters culminated in the 1989 crushing deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Sheffield Stadium, in what became known as the Hillsborough disaster.

The inquest into that tragedy laid the foundation for the creation of modern all-seater stadiums and a move away from the violence of the past. Though it’s not clear yet Indonesia’s PSSI is headed in that safer direction.

“This is not the case in Indonesia, we have to learn from other countries whether in England or Asia and not just accept this,” Said added. “Suspending the league is only a step in the right direction if it helps bring about fundamental change but I am not confident that will happen.”

English stadiums are a great deal safer and the English Premier League is now the most popular and lucrative in the world. Nobody is expecting an overnight transformation in Indonesia, but clearly more needs to be done so that fans can cheer their teams without fear of violence.

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