By Duncan Graham
The Brits would have loved it. Deep in the heart of East Java the Union Jack was carried with pride, waved with vigor and cheered by thousands.
But the only blondes bobbing in the swirling ocean of soccer fanatics were two benign Belgians, disguising any assumption that they might be Dutch or American. Their trick was to pull on Harry Potter cloaks of invisibility, in this case T-shirts screaming love for Arema soccer club.
Paul Beetens and Annie Aertsen need not have bothered. Had the boisterous crowd known the couple was from the tiny royalty that has become the darling of European soccer, they would have been mobbed as heroes at Arema’s ginormous birthday bash in Malang.
The day-long show celebrated 29 years of less than spectacular successes on the field — Arema was last trounced by Persipura Jayapura — but almost three decades of heartfelt hope and soul-wrenching prayer. With wet cheeks it recalls 2010, the year of majesty when it reigned over the Indonesian Super League.
To revive the fatigued ambition the fans painted the town blue. Although Aug. 11 is the official 1987 birthday, the police persuaded organizers to shift to the nearest Sunday to minimize disruption. The tactic was a success. Total chaos was reduced by 5 percent — gridlock by marginally less.
The Belgian tourists thought the event a hoot. And a roar, amplified by 100,000 Hondas, plus a backing choir of Suzukis and Yamahas.
“It’s a celebration of solidarity,” they shouted. “Everyone seems happy. We’re lucky to be here at this time. We came for a trip to Bromo — and this is a bonus.”
Malang’s followers did not get labeled Aremaniacs by holding soirees with the gentry so security was intimidatory. “Was” because threat fatigue soon set in — as it does wherever trouble is imagined. Suspicion is a high-maintenance emotion with a short shelf life.
A squad from the police’s Mobile Brigade (Brimob) in age-of-terror black vaulted from a Barracuda Armed Personnel Carrier (APC) that looked like a giant toad. They checked packs of tear-gas cartridges, slung Pindad SS1 assault rifles across their chests and swaggered into the front line.
The everyday cops, eclipsed by this awesome show of military might, showed their authority by pulling out traffic offenders and disarming riders carrying flagpoles.
“To stop them being used as weapons,” said a policewoman, who then used a confiscated stick to whack the bottom of a fan giving cheek.
Arema’s birthday party is one great do-it-yourself shebang, at odds with the official choreographed Aug. 17 Proclamation Day events where goose-stepping discipline rules. The handmade banners often use English to add status, though the grammar and spelling tended to dampen that desire.
Though the mob was largely male the event was egalitarian. Women may have been outnumbered, but they compensated with enthusiasm by pillion dancing and urging the drummers to bang harder.
Teenage Fitri’s message across her bosom was encouraging: “Football For Unity, Indonesia is not Iran or Saudi Arabia, so a woman’s place is almost everywhere”.
The Union flags were there to inspire. The UK teams are models for Arema fans who wish their lads could be as skilled and focused as Manchester United. In Malang it is the English leagues that excite. The fans trickled through the gauntlet of gendarmes, and then opened throttles for circuits around the flower beds before the town hall. The courtyard was fronted by two blue fiberglass lions, so kitsch they would not make it into a Disney cartoon movie.
Suddenly the police radios sputtered and the uniforms dashed away. Clearly a fight had erupted, or — shock, horror or maybe a suspicious package. Fortunately it was the lunch bell and the packages contained the local alleged delicacy nasi rawon (black beef soup).
This delighted the giggles seeking selfies with men in black. The bullet-proof Barracuda began to melt. So the doors were opened, letting the local guys goggle the weapons wonderland. The greatest danger was not from a deranged knifeman but an invisible toxin. The fans should have prayed for real winds of change. Concentrated carbon monoxide kills. In lesser doses it sickens.
The saddle dancers lost their balance, the banner boys began to flag, the kids in lion masks stopped growling and started coughing. Arema’s birthday is a fun show that should be on the tourist calendar, a marvelous expression of organic togetherness.
But on a windless day in Malang it is a health hazard.
Duncan Graham is a journalist who resides in Malang, East Java, Indonesia.
Arema for life: Fans of Malang’s Arema soccer club, also known as Aremania, stage a convoy during the club’s anniversary celebrations in its hometown in East Java.(JP/Erlinawati Graham)(JP/Erlinawati Graham)