Merah Putih Fever Sweeps the Nation
Tasa Nugraza Barley & Lisa Siregar
The World Cup might be long over, but for Indonesian fans, football fever is back with a vengeance. And this time it’s come hand in hand with a burst of national pride, luring in those who don’t usually even like the sport.
The Indonesian national football team’s three consecutive victories in the Asean Football Federation’s Suzuki Cup have given birth to plenty of enthusiastic football fans eager to watch their team in person at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Senayan, South Jakarta.
Around 30,000 fans came to watch Merah Putih’s first game against Malaysia while 40,000 attended its second outing against Laos.
Tuesday’s game against Thailand, which ended in victory for the home team, attracted around 65,000 spectators, many already eager to cheer Merah Putih on during the semifinals next week.
Starting early on Tuesday morning, Twitter was abuzz with people selling and searching for tickets to Indonesia’s game with Thailand.
Five hours before kickoff, people started flowing into Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
Approaching the closing hour of ticket sales at 6 p.m., traffic around Senayan began to slow down as more and more people poured into the area.
The nearest mall to the stadium, fX, was packed with people dressed in red T-shirts.
“We decided to park at fX to avoid the jam getting out of Senayan [after the game],” said Ardila, a self-proclaimed, newborn fan of the national team.
Ardila is a university student who went to see the game with a group of friends.
“After the big win over Laos a couple of days ago, a friend talked our group into coming to the match today,” she said. “I can feel the excitement. It’s great,”
While Ardila said she didn’t really understand all the rules of football, she seemed to know all about Irfan Bachdim, the new golden boy of Indonesian football everyone is talking about.
The surprising performance of the Indonesian team has turned several players into instant celebrities, especially 34-year-old Christian Gonzales, who recently changed his nationality from Uruguayan to Indonesian, and 22-year-old Bachdim who’s half-Indonesian and half-Dutch.
With his good looks, Bachdim became an overnight sensation after he scored a goal in his national team debut against Malaysia last week.
The newfound enthusiasm for Merah Putih had many people worried about getting a ticket for Tuesday’s game. Hani arrived at the stadium at around 2 p.m. to make sure she could get a seat.
“We arrived early to buy the tickets at the gate,” she said.
Another fan, Bachtiar Hasibuan, complained about scalpers who were charging nearly double the normal price for tickets.
Bachtiar said he hadn’t watched a football game at Senayan for a very long time.
He was out for Tuesday’s game because it seems that everyone in the city, including his children who go to university, suddenly want to watch the national team play live.
“Our national team has done a surprisingly good job at the Suzuki Cup,” Bachtiar said. “I think we have all missed celebrating victories and now everyone is thirsty for one.”
Bachtiar said he felt the intensity in the stadium when Thailand scored the opening goal of the game.
He said the mood of the stadium dramatically shifted into euphoria right after one of Indonesia’s best strikers, Bambang Pamungkas, grabbed the equalizer.
“We certainly hope that Indonesia will qualify for the World Cup someday,” he said.
However, Bachtiar said he was upset about the ticketing situation and hoped that the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) would do a better job of managing ticket sales in the future.
“It would be more practical to sell tickets online,” he said.
Dela Dwinanda, a University of Indonesia student, knows nothing about football.
During her spare time, the 24-year-old usually practices Javanese dance or hangs out with her friends at the mall. But to most of her friends’ surprise, on Tuesday night she was shouting at the top of her lungs inside Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
“This was my first experience [seeing a football game live],” she said.“The best moment was when the whole crowd sang the national anthem together.”
Rena Tobing, 25, was also at the stadium for the first time. She confessed that she didn’t know much about football.
She said she had only watched a few big matches on television, like the final of this year’s World Cup in South Africa.
But that didn’t stop her from having fun. “I’m so excited,” she said, adding that it felt a little intimidating to be inside the stadium surrounded by so many football fans.
Rena said that, although the first half of the game was boring, she was entertained by the never-ending chanting and the wail of the omnipresent cheap plastic trumpets. “It was very chaotic, but I loved it.”
She particularly liked the human wave that made its way around the stadium during the game. “I’ve only seen the human wave in movies. It may sound silly, but I kind of enjoyed it,” she said, with a laugh.
Ramzi Intishar, who is 15 years old, said his parents had encouraged him to go to the stadium for the game.
“They told me that I wouldn’t regret it. And they were right, the atmosphere inside the stadium was just awesome.
“My friends are all talking about it now. So, I decided to go to watch the game because I didn’t want to be out of the loop.”
Faisal, who hadn’t watched a game at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium since 2007, said he was proud to be Indonesian at the moment. “We have a good coach and a strong team now. They deserve all of our support,” he said.
Having been mediocre at best for so many years, it seems that Indonesia’s national football team has finally roused itself from its long slumber.
Merah Putih, consisting mainly of young players and led by Austrian coach Alfred Riedl, has had a remarkable run so far at the Suzuki Cup.
Indonesia topped Group A with a perfect nine points from three wins. It opened the group with a convincing 5-1 win over Malaysia and a 6-0 rout of Laos.
Tuesday’s game against Thailand was Merah Putih’s most difficult challenge to date. Playing defensively in the first half, the Indonesian team loosened up in the second half for a rare win over its long-time rival, 2-1.
Indonesia will meet the runner-up in Group B in the semifinals.
With enthusiasm at its peak, even more fans are likely to make the trip to Senayan to watch the national team’s semifinal match, perhaps even packing Gelora Bung Karno to its maximum capacity of 100,000 spectators.