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The Bloody Terraces of West Papuan Football

Where child prostitutes sniff glue and they all hate the government.

“Alright lads?” I peer up into the pissing rain at the stream of boys surfing over the stadium's perimeter fence on snapped advertising hoardings. They'd broken them in half outside the ground earlier, and now the gang of kids are working together to propel their pals over the railings and on, into the stands beyond. “So, er, where do I pay to get in, then?” I feel like a bookish dad, innocently turning up at a teenage house party to collect his daughter, and walking in to find a gang bang in full-swing behind the potting sheds.


Welcome to the wonderful world of West Papuan Super League football.

West Papua, the western half of reclusive island New Guinea, is as close as you're going to get to an unknown frontier without leaving planet Earth. You probably know it for its history of cannibalism, the birds of paradise, the tribes in their penis gourds and its grisly reputation for man-eating crocodiles. You are probably also already confusing it with its neighbour, Papua New Guinea.

Officially, West Papua has been part of Indonesia since 1969’s public relations disaster, the “Act of Free Choice”. Sure, it might sound pretty right-on, but in truth it was barely even a pseudo-democratic exercise. Just over one thousand Papuan "representatives" were selected by the Suharto government and then threatened into voting in favour of their province joining the newly established Indonesian Republic. Since then, a series of central government policies has successfully subordinated an entire generation of indigenous Papuans, who had, until that point, been part of the most diverse tribal civilisation on the planet.

But in the glitzy world of the Indonesian Super League, West Papuan success represents a thorn in the government's side. As I write, two Papuan teams – Persipura and Persiwa – currently stand at second and third in the league. Hemmed in by a cluster of Javanese teams with superior stadiums and uniformed fans that wouldn’t look out of place in any European league, the triumph of these two clubs has become synonymous with the struggle. A chance to show Papua’s physical prowess on the pitch as their resource-rich land is sold off beneath their feet.


Based in the highland town of Wamena, Persiwa’s devastating home record and rags-to-riches rise up the ranks of the Super League is the stuff of sporting legend. And yet their home games are never televised. I bagged a ticket for the equivalent of about 70 pence and made my way to the cheap seats to find out more.

Two minutes before kick-off and one very ill-conceived attempt at a sing-a-long of the Indonesian national anthem later, I realise just why this match probably won't be appearing on the state-sponsored sports channels. The boos and jeers from the partisan crowd of several thousand Papuans shakes the rafters of the clunky concrete stadium, drowning out the tune and pouring scorn on today’s opponents, Persija, who have flown in from the Jakartan capital.

I’ll be honest: I was shitting myself. Sat on a concrete slab in a stadium apparently modelled on a concentration camp, I quickly realise I'm the only foreigner in the crowd, and also the only one not joining in with the popular pre-match game of “let’s all throw bricks at the armed police”. I stare at my feet. Flip-flops were a mistake.

“Oi, you! You fucking foreign idiot!”

'Jesus,' I think, 'he’s talking to me.' I turn to face a man as broad as a portcullis, his eyes are wide, his hair is wild. “No non-Papuans should be in here, get out of our country!”

Before I know it, he's charging at me. I realise I'm probably going to die and the game hasn't even kicked off yet. Luckily, as he advances, I realise that this man is absolutely hammered. Having got to within six feet of me, he slips off the concrete step I'm stood on and pole-axes the wrong person, a Papuan man of approximately the same dimensions as a maisonette, who cuffs him in the back of the head and dispenses him into the perimeter fence to rapturous applause. My saviour high-fives me afterwards, and I relax a little bit.


Things had gotten rough for the Papuans as soon as they lost the vote in 1969. First came "Operation Penis Gourd”, an extraordinarily misguided attempt to force highland Papuans to wear normal clothes and attend regular Indonesian schools. Then two Papuan men, Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage, were sentenced to 15 and ten year sentences respectively for illegally raising the Morning Star flag, an emblem of the Papuan independence movement, in Jayapura in 2004.

Throughout all this, money has been flowing out of Papua's state coffers into the arms of the central Government in Java, and there's been the continuation of the hugely unpopular "Transmigrasi" strategy – a policy designed to relieve pressure on overpopulated and impoverished parts of Indonesia by shipping residents en masse to Papua. Something that locals were only ever going to see as a thinly veiled attempt at invasion.

We're finally underway at the stadium. This is seat-of-your-pants, blink-and-you're-dead, high-octane sport. After five minutes, the combination of paying fans and fence-jumping scallywags has reached parity, meaning we're now dangerously over capacity. A section of the fans on the perimeter of the throng compound our misery by electing to taunt the Indonesian riot police, who have been itching for an excuse to crack skulls since being welcomed to their shift with a hailstorm of rocks.

They charged, we exhale, things get dicey. A large Papuan man with a comedy moustache and neon yellow “I’ve been to Thailand” T-shirt attempts valiantly to get things back under control, depositing the worst of the drunks to the back of the stand and escorting a group of street children – who have smuggled in enough glue to worry the entire field of this year’s Grand National – back out through the hole in the fence they'd used to sneak in.


The crowd sways, Persija score, someone physically assaults the man in charge of the scoreboard for registering the goal, but then the Persiwa Captain restores the balance, stealing the ball from the Persija midfield with a tackle that can only be described as "physical". He crosses effortlessly to the head of a rising striker, who buries it in the top corner. Ecstasy. The place explodes, my feet free-wheeling in the air as the crowd surges into the pitch-side fencing.

In the wake of "Transmigrasi", the Organisasi Papua Merdeka – or OPM – had emerged: A militarised wing of the indigenous Free Papua Movement, an ill-equipped and badly misguided group of freedom fighters who the Indonesian Government would have you believe are as much of a threat as al-Qaeda. The OPM have provided the perfect justification for the government to pull a cloak over the entire province; banning foreign journalists, restricting tourist movements and sending young, ill-informed Indonesian soldiers to take command on the most excruciatingly dull military postings imaginable.

Guess what’s happened? A constant cycle of human rights abuses, the like of which the country hasn’t seen since their ill-fated attempt to keep hold of the territory of East Timor, and the lowest literary and healthcare rate in all of Indonesia. But, with West Papua loaded to the hilt with natural resources – and current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono being lauded for managing the world’s largest democratic Islamic nation state – Indonesia is going nowhere.


Back at the game, more street kids stream through the widening hole in the fence. The majority of them are homeless. In the past, they would have been absorbed within the wider tribal community, but the traditional tribal structure has been breaking up all over the district for the last 20 years. Now they just fend for themselves. A boy of about ten props himself up against the fence. Under his T-shirt is a small yellow can of Aibon brand glue, their drug of choice and the unofficial name given to this contemporary tribe. The T-shirt concentrates the fumes, he drags deep and recoils, his eyes roll skyward, his lips crack into a wide grin and he slides down the fence onto the floor.

Elsewhere, a fresh-faced boy no older than 15 starts walking the crowd. He’s wearing a moleskin trilby with a small feather appearing from the headband. He starts tapping his first finger delicately on the back of his hand, occasionally raising his eyebrows suggestively at the older men in the crowd.

“He is a pimp,” explains the man next to me. “Oh,” I reply, searching for something else to say. He looks ridiculous. More "men in tights" than Don "Magic" Juan. He moves off towards the hole in the fence, a harem of three young girls in hoodies follows. I've never felt so profoundly depressed at a football match.

The rate of HIV/AIDS in West Papua is now higher than anywhere else in Indonesia. A recent screening of homeless children in the Papua town of Aibon revealed almost half of them had the disease. It would be easy to blame it on promiscuity, but the fact is a lot of the Papuan highlanders I met really believed condom use is a government attempt to stifle Papuan population growth. As far as the children are concerned, the conspicuous lack of child protection policies suggests they are not exactly a priority anyway.


The match grinds on. Persiwa score again and the guy who had started on me earlier scales the fence and invades the pitch. An entertaining game of cat and mouse between a man who is too inebriated to run and a group of soldiers incapable of real movement, burdened as they are with riot gear and M16s, ensues, providing light entertainment for all. My friend eventually loses by technical knockout, tripping over his own feet before being bundled off the pitch and ejected.

No one is really watching the football any more. Underneath it all is just a good knees-up. Like at home, the match is a chance to let off steam and have a laugh with your mates, but crucially, the football represents a legitimate opportunity to register a brief protest against the regime. It isn’t pretty, but it is a lot of fun.

The whistle blows. Persiwa have run in two late goals against the former champions, ultimately turning them over 4-1. Everyone goes home happy.

The next morning, I watch the Indonesian Super League highlights. The match isn’t mentioned. In fact, it feels like it didn’t even happen at all. Then the league standings are shown. Persiwa have crept up yet another place.

Follow Will on Twitter: @MillardWill

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