On the 10th of April, Persija Jakarta and Johor Darul Ta’zim FC played against each other at the Stadion Utama Gelora Bung Karno in Jakarta in the group stage of the AFC Cup. Besides promising an exciting clash on the field, the fixture represented more than just the meeting of two big Football clubs.
JDT FC is the current dominant force within Malaysian Football. The club from the Southern State of Johor (just across the Singaporean border) has just won four consecutive Malaysian Super League titles and is a previous AFC Cup victor; the only Malaysian Football club to boast these achievements. The passionate Johorean people use the club as a vehicle through which to celebrate their regional pride and the Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium is packed out whenever JDT FC plays at home. The club’s recent success is in many ways thanks to an internal restructuring that has included a managerial focus on diversifying revenue sources. JDT FC has become less dependent on top-down funding and control that other Malaysian clubs remain subject to. The result of that JDT FC can make operational decisions a lot more efficiently than its competitors, ultimately resulting in superior Football and abundant silverware.
On the other hand, Persija Jakarta, although being a successful Indonesian club, cannot boast the same domestic hegemony that JDT FC can. Persija’s biggest asset is undoubtedly its fanbase. Jakarta, the world’s second largest metropolis, is served by a surprisingly small amount of Football clubs. As such, the club pulls in 50k+ fans every home game. The Jakmania fans of Persija Jakarta are known for their extremely vocal and proactive support. This huge following supplies the club with the financial resources needed to perform well, but the club fails to secure league titles year-in-year-in in the same way that JDT FC do in Malaysia. Persija went into the game knowing that they were the underdogs.
On the surface, just another meeting between big clubs from neighbouring countries in international competition. But the context is more complicated.
Indonesia is a young country. The different islands and their respective populations that make up Indonesia have shared little political unity until now, and the populations of Papua, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Borneo (among others) often struggle to identify as being part of a unified Indonesia thanks to that very lack of shared history. However, Indonesian nationalism has always been led by Java and the Javanese. Jakarta is the seat of power in the country and as such remains the city whose citizens most readily identify themselves as “Indonesian”. When you watch clubs from the other Indonesian islands compete, their fans are likely to represent and identify with their respective subnational culture. But in the case of Persija Jakarta, you could argue that the Jakmania fans fly the national flag more than any other Indonesian fan group do. Even more so now that Persija is the only Indonesian Football club remaining in Asian international Football competition, at time of writing.
But this match was against Malaysian competition, and it is for Malaysians that Indonesian Football fans reserve their aggression. At the height of Indonesian Nationalism in the ’50s, President Sukarno claimed that the Malaysia-governed territories of Sabah and Sarawak were rightfully parts of Indonesia. Post independence from the Netherlands, Malaysia quickly became the country against which Indonesian Nationalist sentiment was directed. Subsequent Malaysian economic development and the perceived cultural appropriation by Malaysians of many icons and traditions that Indonesians believe to be theirs fuels the contempt and rivalry that Indonesians feel toward their cultural cousins to the North West. In modern times, Indonesian Football fans are desperate to see Indonesia triumph over Malaysia in the realm of Football. Therefore, when the largest club of Jakarta (the home of Indonesian Nationalism) and the club that has come to dominate Malaysian Football (JDT FC) play competitively against each other, Football enthusiasts across the two countries will tune in to watch.
The match acts as suitable proxy for the modern rivalry that exists between the countries.
Persija’s astonishing victory over JDT FC was unprecedented. A 4-0 win (all goals scored by Marko Simic) is not something that proud Johoreans can simply disregard as being a result of dodgy decisions by the ref. The narrative that Indonesians will tell themselves will be one of retribution over the cultural-copycat Malaysians who long ‘ad it coming to ’em. The strongest and most successful Football club in the entire archipelago was torn apart in the Indonesian capital. Malaysian oil money and the strong Ringgit counted for nothing on the Football pitch that night, and all it took was 90 minutes with Persija Jakarta to prove it. A victory for Indonesian Nationalism.