Despite its massive population, rich heritage and unique geography, Indonesia sometimes feels like the most overlooked country in the world.
Only China, India and the US have more inhabitants yet, by comparison, their domination of the global agenda seems total.
Indonesia maybe the biggest economy in south-east Asia and, by 2030, should be the fifth largest in the world, but it is not mentioned in the same breath.
In recent years, China, India and the US have made heavy, conspicuous investment into their domestic football leagues. It seems that the greatest countries in the world need a stake in the world’s greatest game – even if it has never been their national obsession.
But football is No 1 in Indonesia and, despite significant success in badminton, always has been.
National team games have become public holidays because workers take the day off to watch or leave work early to negotiate the colossal traffic congestion. Emotions, exposure and, therefore, TV ratings are high when Indonesia play.
This is a nation with a population of 275m but a derisory FIFA ranking of 175. For context, the four countries directly below them are Sao Tome e Principe (pop: 190,000), Dominica (pop: 72,000), Kosovo (1.7m and only entered FIFA last year) and St Vincent & Grenadines (pop: 109,000).
Yet Indonesia is a powerhouse of football consumption. Their online community has been estimated at 100m, predominantly on mobile, and they have been reported to be the world’s most active country on Twitter. Indonesia supplies more Facebook followers to the Europe’s top football clubs than any country. Persib Bandung are the most followed football club in Asia on social media with 13m fans across the three major social media networks. If they were in English that figure would put them sixth in the country.
As you would expect the EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A are all shown on TV. But the Indonesian League gets the highest ratings.
It must be mentioned that, unlike the other competitions, the EPL is behind a subscription wall. But, that is not the point.
It is about what the football means to the Indonesian people.
I witnessed the season opener between Persib and Arema in April. It was possibly the most intense atmosphere I have ever witnessed at a football game. And I have seen a few.
Persib fans arrived outside the gates four hours before kick off, parked their motorbikes then chatted and chain-smoked before being let in two hours before kick off. Their songs and choreography started as soon as they sat down and barely let up until the final whistle.
And the game ended 0-0.
I am told this is normal. However there must have been an extra frisson given the official League was returning after a two-year ban by FIFA due to Government interference. Unofficial football had been played during the hiatus yet this was the ‘real thing’.
The revival has inspired clubs to spend on marquee players from overseas. The most prominent is Michael Essien at Persib. Carlton Cole (Persib), Peter Odemwingie (Madura United), Mohammad Sissoko (Mikra Kukar) and Dider Zakora (Semen Padeng) have signed up too.
It has been standard practice among the major challenger leagues of China, USA and India to take in big name players at the end of their careers. The results have been universally patchy.
Having spent two seasons in Major League Soccer, I am used to travelling long distances for domestic games. With Colorado Rapids, we crossed the US twice in five days for games at New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy. Flying commercial meant there was a leg room issue for little old me, let alone our 6ft 7ins centre back.
Indonesia, however, is different.
It is the largest and most populous country in the world consisting only of islands. Jakarta is among the most traffic-ridden cities in the world, and other Indonesian conurbations suffer the same problem. Estimating the length of any coach ride is a gamble. But, if you are an Indonesia Liga 1 team, it might take three planes and a boat just to get to your opponent’s island. Only then do you hit the road.
Yet, whatever the distance, supporters still travel.
There are a multitude of stories of fans sleeping rough after a journey via the most precarious of transportation. I was at a game which was supposedly behind-closed-doors however Persija Jakarta supporters still made the three-hour trip through snail-paced traffic to sneak in at half-time.
Full disclosure: For a few months, I am assisting with the digital and social media development of Liga1 by two of the main sponsors, GO-JEK and Traveloka. With admirable foresight, they want to revitalise the sport for the sake of the people. Yes, that will give a return on their investment but these are companies with a Millennial mindset. Doing good is an aim in itself.
I’ll be spending periods in Indonesia between now and the end of the season in November. My next trip covers the latter half of July and early August. Expect more video and more words.
This upcoming excursion will include the fixture between the two biggest clubs Persib Bandung and Persija Jakarta. I have seen football all over Europe but, on the basis of that season’s opener, it might be the fiercest atmosphere I have ever experienced.
I’ll report back soon.