A close bond that the Soviet Union could not break.
While Brazilians recall their glorious past by glancing at the silverware in their trophy cabinet, Indonesians can associate their greatest time in football with the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
One of only two games they played in the competition turned out to be the best page in the over a century-old book of Indonesian football. It was against the mighty Soviet Union.
Powered by the great Lev Yashin, team captain Igor Netto, and genius attacker Eduard Streltsov, this was the Soviet golden generation playing under Gavril Kachalin as coach. Indonesia played fearlessly throughout the match and managed to survive the opponents’ bombardment. They even nearly scored one themselves through Rusli Ramang, the country’s legendary forward. Through ninety minutes of dogged determination, Indonesia held out for a goalless draw.
Indonesian football’s story began long before that match when the country was still referred to as the Dutch East Indies. In the 19th century, with the technological advancements made possible by the industrial revolution and the implementation of a liberal economy in the Dutch East Indies, more Dutch people came to the Pacific region on business and stayed. Most resided in the big cities, especially on the islands of Java and Sumatra, and built Western style settlements. Nearing the end of the century, football was already flourishing in Europe and the resource-seeking Europeans brought it with them to their new homes.
The Dutch workers and soldiers played football for fun. The Indonesians and Chinese, who had lived and worked in the region since time immemorial, soon followed, though not without hindrance. There was a social stratification back then. The Dutch government regulated the Europeans to be regarded as first-class citizens, the Far Easterners (the Chinese included) second-class, and the Indonesian natives bottom of the hierarchy. At first, only the Chinese and upper-class Indonesians were allowed to join the Dutch in playing the game. Football spread among the population soon after but, nevertheless, this stratification would still affect the initial development of this novel sport.
According to football historian RN Bayu Aji, the first football club in the Dutch East Indies was Rood Wit, established in 1894 in Batavia (now Jakarta). Two years later, schoolboy John Edgar founded another in Surabaya, called Victory. In Sumatra, as noted in a research paper by Freek Columbijn, Padangsche Voetbal Club was established in 1901 also by and for Dutchmen. But since the implementation of the Dutch ethical policy in 1900, which gave people wider opportunities to assemble and accesses to many new things, football clubs began to grow in number for both Chinese and Indonesians. By 1912, there had been many Chinese football clubs in big cities—Union Makes Strength (UMS) in Batavia, Young Men’s Combination (YMC) in Bandung, and Tionghoa in Surabaya to name but a few.
Shortly, football matches began to apply attendance charges. For the Dutch, it was to finance the clubs, for the Chinese and Indonesian teams, it was often for charity. They used football games to provide funding to develop education, aid their fellow citizens, or, for the Chinese, to help people back home in China. But no matter what the reasons were, one thing is obvious: football had the potential to build togetherness and to raise a lot of money. Later, during the struggle for independence, football became a medium for the Chinese and Indonesians to fight for patriotic pride, showing that they were equal to the Dutch colonials, and for political campaign.
The first inter-city competition in the Dutch East Indies was held in 1914 in Semarang by the Dutch, engaging teams from four big cities - Batavia, Bandung, Semarang, and Surabaya. Then in 1919, the Dutch formed a football association called NIVB (Nederlandsch Indische Voetbal Bond). Benefiting from their higher position in the stratification, the Chinese were ahead of the Indonesians to emulate this example. They started an inter-city competition themselves in 1917 and inaugurated their own football association CKTH (Comite Kampioenswedstrijden Tiong Hoa) in 1927. In 1930, CKTH was changed into HNVB (Hwa Nan Voetbal Bond) due to dissatisfaction from some of the members, particularly Batavia’s UMS, over the organization. Meanwhile in the same year, Indonesians set up a football association, the PSSI (Persatuan Sepakraga Seluruh Indonesia).
By 1930 there were no less than three football associations in the Dutch East Indies: NIVB representing the Dutch, HNVB the Chinese, and PSSI the Indonesians.
For the Chinese, football developed quickly both on and off the field. Friendly matches with other clubs, often from abroad were frequently arranged. Tionghoa Surabaya, for instance, once played against the long established Lo Hua club from China, whom they surprisingly defeated.
At least in football, the Chinese and Indonesians began to stand equal with the Dutch. The three football associations cooperated with one another in arranging matches and competitions, but even so, the relationship was not without friction.
A book on football history in Java by Srie Agustina Palupi tells that on May 13 1932, having been sick of the Dutch’ unfairness for years, Chinese journalist Liem Koen Hian encouraged people to boycott a match held by the NIVB on that day and instead attend another match pitting Indonesia Marine versus a Chinese-Arab team. His effort succeeded. Not only were the NIVB embarrassed, they also suffered a big financial loss.
Despite many obstacles such as racial segregation and the lack of football pitches even for training, the Chinese gradually made their name as the finest footballers in the Dutch East Indies; the Tionghoa Surabaya club might be the perfect model of a Chinese-Indonesian powerhouse. Considered second-class citizens, the Chinese were allowed to join the Dutch competition held by the Surabaya Voetbal Bond (SVB) under the NIVB. And in 1939, they gloriously won a treble after coming first in the HNVB Cup, SVB Cup, and Java Club Kampion.
Fast forward to 1956 and one can find many ways to explain what happened in the game against the Soviet Union. Fortune obviously played a big part, but Indonesia’s remarkable guts—the patriotic spirit that elevates a young nation according to Croatian legend Slaven Bilic—might be another factor. And there was also the involvement of Chinese-Indonesian players. Remembered for their “courage, tenacity and refusal to admit inferiority,” as journalist Bill Fleming of The Age wrote back then, the Indonesian World Cup squad featured not only indigenous Indonesians, but Chinese-Indonesians Kiat Sek Kwee, Liong How Tan, Sian Liong Phwa, Tjiang Thio Him and Endang Witarsa aka Liem Soen Joe. All played their part in the nation’s finest footballing hour.
TheTionghoa Surabaya team that dominated Indonesian football in the 1930s as well as the 1956 Indonesian Olympic squad consisted of many Chinese-Indonesian players. So too when the Dutch East Indies was invited to participate in the first World Cup in 1938 in Paris, in which the national team included Tan Hong Djien, Tan Mo Heng, and Tan See Han. In later years, Surya Lesmana aka Liem Soei Liang was a legend in Indonesia and among the first Indonesian players to ply their trade abroad when he signed a contract with a Hong Kong club in 1974.
Today there are many footballers of Chinese descent in the two Indonesian football leagues. You can bring up, for instance, Nova Arianto, Irvin Museng, and most recently Kim Kurniawan, whose grandfather was also a fine footballer who played for UMS. Their number and influence, however, are now modest compared to their predecessors’. My friend, a contemporary Indonesian football fan, recently said, “I can hardly remember the last time we had a Chinese-Indonesian idol.” True. But even so, Chinese-Indonesians have always been an integral part of Indonesian football history.