Ryan Kilbane explores Asia’s most partisan and extreme fan scene.

Widely considered one of the last true subcultures, Ultras occupy an integral role in football around the world. The word has its origins in Italy but is now the accepted term for the most passionate and dedicated cohort of fans at each club. The word ‘ultra’ itself translates to ‘beyond’ or ‘extreme’.

But to use this broad description is to miss the point. Unlike many other global subcultures that came and went before it, what defines an ultra can differ depending on the region. The beauty is in the detail. 

The roots of this intense fandom can be traced back to Brazil and their supporter groups – or ‘Torcidas’. During the 1950 World Cup held in the country, European players and fans were in awe of the songs and colour on display from the host nation. They saw the future and slowly began to adopt it. 

Since then we have witnessed different offshoots; British casual culture, Italian ultras and Eastern European hooligans to name a few, and how they show their support can vary. Some groups will create displays and tifos, others will do it through their chants and some ultra groups simply want to fight with their rivals. Like water occupying an empty vessel, the ultras’ passion is shaped by its surroundings. 

New hotbeds are now popping up in regions that are not traditional football powerhouses. The lack of history means a hybrid culture is formed with an amalgamation of styles from across the globe. 

Indonesia is home to one of the world’s most intense and violent ultra scenes of recent times. While the men’s national team are languishing at the lower reaches of the FIFA rankings, the fans of the domestic game are a more serious outfit. 

A country with a population of over 267 million people spread across a series of over 17 thousand islands and home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it has seen its football culture grow steadily since the 1990s.

Following the end of President Suharto’s reign in 1998, Indonesia relaxed its censorship laws and opened its borders to outside media. 

Although the seeds had been sown in the early 90s with Italy’s Serie A being shown on Indonesian TV, the movement accelerated post-Suharto. Dr Andy Fuller speaks about this in The Palgrave International Handbook of Football and Politics: “The increasingly ease of access to the Internet in the 2000s and the popularity of YouTube gave football fans opportunities to learn the rituals, styles and performances of ultras from Italy and elsewhere”

The fiercest rivalry in Indonesian football is between “Jakmania” the ultras of Persija Jakarta who are the country’s most successful club from the capital Jakarta and the “Vikings”, the ultra group from Persib in Bandung West Java. Whenever a movement expands it can often dilute and become a plastic imitation of the original. This is not a criticism that can be levelled at these fans. 

Violence has ripped through Indonesian football and since 1994, 74 people have died from football-related incidents, with this matchup being the bloodiest. Seven fans were killed in seven years in a period from 2012 to 2019. Speaking to James Montague in the book 1312,  a Persija fan explained the dangers of being a supporter: “If you fall you’re dead, they don’t stop until you are dead” while Irlan Alarancia a commander in ‘Jakmania’ told ABC news: “It is Persija until death, there’s no such thing as an ex-supporter.”

The most high profile of these was the death of Persija fan Haringga “Ari” Sirla in September 2018. Jakmania fans had been banned from attending the game but the 23-year-old travelled alone. When the Persib fans identified him he was badly beaten and stabbed to death outside the ground. Mobile phone footage of the incident emerged online afterwards and the graphic nature of it gave those involved in Indonesian football a reality check that this could not continue.

Football followers have little faith in the Football Association (PSSI) to solve this problem. This is due to the apathy shown by them until this point along with their inability to deal with suspected rampant match-fixing in Indonesian football.

This diverse landscape is not just a playground for violent hooligans but is also home to some of the world’s most interesting ultras who show their support in the stands with incredible displays and tifos.

The most infamous architects of these performances are the Brigata Curva Sud of PSS Sleman based in the region of Yogyakarta. Having been recently promoted to ‘Liga 1’ they are proof that you don’t need success to build a dedicated fan base. In fact, they show how building a following can bring rewards. 

BCS began to sell their own branded merchandise and with the profits were able to generate enough money to become the club’s main sponsor which aided their return to the top flight in 2018. “Regarding our organisation, we have one manifesto, which is ‘No leader, just together,’” a BSC member told COPA90 in 2017.

The roughly 8000 strong group pride themselves on their tifos, pyro and choreographed chanting for 90 minutes, they possess a female section with over 1000 members and are strictly anti-violence. 

“We have a different culture. We don’t agree with violence among supporters. We had an agreement to move away from Slemania (another PSS supporter group),” a member ‘Reza’ explained when speaking to fromboothferrytogermany.com

The passion of Indonesian ultras shows no sign of waning but changes are emerging around them. Namely money. The 2019 ‘Liga 1’ champions Bali United FC led by billionaire chairman Pieter Tanuri are paving the way for a new chapter in Indonesian football. The club was only formed in 2015 after a merger and already broke the stranglehold on the title by the more established clubs. As we have seen in other countries, added commercial interests can ‘clean up’ the game and in Indonesia’s case it is needed, but doing so may bring down one of the last remaining bastions of anti-modern football with it.

Images: felixroots