Regardless of the late hour, millions of Indonesian men, women and children are glued to their screens. Most televised matches kick off around 1:45AM in Jakarta or 2:45AM in Bali, complete with an English commentary. Even though the Indonesian national team has never come close to qualifying for any important football event apart from the Asian Games, the entire nation is obsessed, hooked on adrenalin and drunk with vicarious glory from a spectacle beamed halfway across the world.
Growing up in the western part of Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, I used to play football as a child. Not very well, but I played – as did everyone else. After moving to New York, I lost touch with the world’s most popular sporting activity – I gave up following particular teams, and even forgot most of the rules. But Indonesia, where I now work, made sure of reminding me.
At first, I affected to refuse to follow the games, attempting to discuss local and world affairs instead, but that didn’t make me feel very popular. I was out of line and out of place: boring, thoroughly ‘out of it’. I thus decided to adopt a ‘my team’ strategy and settled upon the seemingly most benign and insignificant, the Czech Republic, certain losers in the company of such giants as Holland, France, Germany and Great Britain.
In Group D, the Czechs defeated Latvia and followed it up with a roaring victory over Holland! Did I feel proud? You bet I did! I had no idea why: I haven’t lived there for twenty years. I hold US citizenship, and visit my country of birth once a year, at most. Not being fully Czech by blood, my childhood there was close to miserable. But suddenly, the Czech Republic was ‘my team’, and next ‘The team’ of the tournament, winning one game after another!
In Bali, at almost 4AM, I too was glued to the television. My pulse was racing and my consumption of coffee and cigarettes had rocketed. Before the game, I had been corresponding with the New York Independent Film Festival and the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain about my documentary film exposing the crimes during Suharto’s term as Indonesia’s President. I was waiting for the answer from my literary agent in New York about my latest book. But all that suddenly seemed trivial: the Czechs were beating the Germans!
Then it was all over – the Germans had lost 2:1. They were ‘out’, humiliated, beaten, defeated. The cameras showed several German fans – some crying, some with enormous pain engraved on their faces. Their dreams were shattered. I suddenly felt sorry for them: I really did! Of course, ‘my team’ had won so I could afford a dose of goodwill.
While the Czechs and Germans were locked in their epic battle, Holland beat Latvia and narrowly qualified for the quarterfinals. Many Indonesians regained the hopes dashed by ‘my team’s’ win over ‘their team’ earlier in the competition: in the morning light, life on the Indonesian archipelago seemed much better, fuller and meaningful.
But all that pales into insignificance while eleven Dutch boys, most of whom are known by name by Indonesians, are still competing in Euro-2004. As long as they remain on the path to glory, the familiar cigarette advertisements will flash across the screens, and the deafening roar of football fans will overwhelm the doubts and fears of people living on these distant shores.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: writer, journalist and filmmaker. Presently living and working in Southeast Asia. Can be reached at: [email protected]