This City is Ours – Bobotoh

Hot on the heels of an intense match between Persija Jakarta and Persib Bandung, Fikri Jermadi takes a closer look at a film chronicling fans of the latter.

First off, a brief primer. Persib Bandung is one of, if not the biggest football team in Indonesia. This may not mean as much to many outside of the country, but to the fans within, this is nothing to sniff at. In fact, while there are many other clubs available across the length and breadth of this archipelago nation, few could rival it in terms of the size and strength of its support. Persija Jakarta and Persipura Jayapura, perhaps, and not necessarily in that order or for the same reasons.

The other thing to note about Indonesian football is that the quality may not be the greatest, even within a regional context. In terms of quality, perhaps we’re looking more towards the Thais and their partnership with more established leagues like the J-League of Japan leading the way, with Malaysian clubs following slightly behind in terms of professionalism. Of course, that is not without its exceptions, but by and large, football fans do not consider Indonesian football as the model to pursue.

That’s not the case when it comes to fandom, though, for here we are talking about a different story. The documentary, ‘Bobotoh’, follows the progress in a week leading up to a heated match against their arch nemesis, Persija Jakarta. We take a trip behind the scenes to see how fans prepare for such an occasion. You would think that, prior to watching the film itself, such forms of fandom are fairly simple and straightforward. Buy your match ticket, turn up on the day, sing your heart out in support of the boys, and go home safe and sound.

Of course, nothing is ever as straightforward as that. We see the preparations that go into the crafting of fan choreography. This is organised by the fans themselves, called the koreo team. Each segment of the stadium, for instance, features a leader in charge, who’s job it is to lead the way when it comes to chants and fan movement. At times, their behaviour may be akin to that of a ground controller at an airport, directing traffic with the flags in their hands. “If I stand alone, I won’t be heard,” said Mulyana, one of the leaders mentioned above, “but I represent the Bobotoh.”

He also mentions how any discussion about Bandung is a discussion about Persib, and how the reverse is also true. I’d say that there’s absolutely more to the layers of that rhetoric, but in the context of identity formation as situated within the Indonesian footballing landscape, it can’t be denied how geography would shape your sporting allegiance. The intensity of the fandom almost automatically means that those born in the West Java capital are already predetermined to put on the blue of Persib. The same would apply for those hailing from Jayapura; matches against the capital kings of Jakarta, Persija, are akin to the El Clasico face-offs between Real Madrid and Barcelona, with many of the same socio-political reasons and tensions.

That is perhaps not so surprising. What is far more enlightening is how the Bobotoh and other fan groups are also structured almost as a formal organisation in its own right. Once again, this defies the common stereotype of football fans being the inmates that run the asylum. ‘Bobotoh’ helps to shed light on how the structure includes roles such as chairman, the board, a secretary, and the creative team. Through the Viking Persib Fan Club, we see examples of how such fan clubs not only contribute to the atmosphere and support of any given team, but also the amount of effort and money that goes into this.

This leads us to the creative team, the umbrella term which incorporates the koreo team I mentioned earlier. Here, a more focused attempt is made at coordinating vast swaths of people into a united one. These choreographed attempts always looks amazing on screen, but for the most part, I must admit that less thought had been given to the actual administrative and logistical side of things. ‘Bobotoh’ showcased how members would go around the stadium, determining which seats should be given which part of which design they want to portray. More often than not, there is a message collage, and great thought were put into the pastiche, to ensure that it is seen and heard, loud and clear.

All road leads back to how the identity of fandom and citizenship is put into perspective. That is, as mentioned before, no quarter is given when it comes to determining who you are and the factors that shape them. “Being Bobotoh and Sundanese is my identity,” said Mulyana. This is the underlying tension that explains the intensity of matches with other rivals, particularly those against Persija Jakarta. These matches rival many others around the world in terms of the atmosphere and aggression, which has unfortunately spilled over into the loss of lives at times.

This review, however, follows such a match recently in Jakarta, where Persib snatched a last-minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw against the reigning champions. Both teams have started the season slowly, occupying the nether regions of the table for now, so the disappointment that hung in the air could have been sparked by a single incident of unwarranted violence. However, Jakmania, the supporters of Persija, have been reported as being a lot more protective of the travelling Bobotoh, which suggest that a turning of the page in this chapter of Indonesia’s football history could be done. I hope for that to be the case, for this is a compelling story in its own right, and ‘Bobotoh’ have helped to illuminate me on this journey.

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