If you think about it, football is pretty peculiar.
Getting thousands of people together, rallying for a cause, uniting behind a badge, to cheer on 22 men chasing after and kicking a ball. But in so many ways, that’s where the novelty of football lies in, isn’t it? Of course, there’s a special ooze of satisfaction that you’re able to acquire at the sight of Leo Messi dazzling past defenders or Andrea Pirlo converting a panenka spot-kick.
But a large chunk of this global obsession for football is premised upon a collective experience that transcends borders, cultures and even traditions. In a world that’s increasingly borderless, football is one of the few things that allows people to pick sides. It allows people to be in one corner, compare, contrast and even revel alongside a heightened sense of belonging.
In a sense, it’s precisely the element that has helped Malaysian football revive itself over the last 7-8 years or so. All the trust that vanquished in the aftermatch of the major match-fixing scandal in the mid 90s wasn’t exactly repaired or revived by outstanding quality of football. A fresh wave of nationalism, fueled by the rise of social networking sites, did the trick.
2009-2011 was a glorious period for Malaysia. An impeccable AFF Suzuki Cup triumph in 2010, sandwiched in between two SEA Games victories in 2009 and 2011. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that interest in local football experienced positive growth in that period, with Indonesia being at the forefront of it all.
The history is unquestionable. The hostile relationship has been that wayfor ages. From territorial disputes to arguments over cultural ownership to something as basic as footballing rivalry – we’ve seen it all. In so many ways, the similarities between both nations are the very things that drive them apart. It’s a classic love-hate relationship.
2010 really kicked things off. Malaysia lost 5-1 to Indonesia in the first leg, before bouncing back in tremendous fashion to ultimately meet their arch rivals in the final. The first leg blew the things apart. Led by Safee Sali, the Tigers romped to a scintillating 3-0 win in front of a jam-packed crowd at the Bukit Jalil Stadium. The second leg was equally explosive in terms of atmosphere, though Malaysia did clinch victory on aggregate, despite losing 2-1 on the night. It was a game changer, according to our resident writer, Gowri Krishnan, who was in Indonesia back in 2010.
“I was in Yogjakarta at that point, for a student exchange program. And after that night, everyone in Indonesia was talking about it. There was a unique shock value to the tie. We had lost the first game by a big score line, and it wasn’t just a regular comeback. We bounced back and thrashed them too,” she said.
One year later, the rivalry grew exponentially bigger. This time around, Malaysia’s U23 team marched into the final of the 2011 SEA Games, where Indonesia were awaiting them. The Young Tigers had to be transported to the iconic Gelora Bung Karno Stadium alongside military escort vehicles – the level of tension was that severe. 100,000 people packed into the stadium and the Negaraku was predictably drowned out by an incredibly boisterous atmosphere.
But it was also the night that transformed Ong Kim Swee into a Malaysian cult hero. Minutes before his players took to the field, he delivered a compelling speech in the dressing room. “They don’t respect you, they don’t respect our flag, they don’t respect our King and they don’t respect your parents. If you allow this to happen, then you are cowards. You must teach them what being Malaysian is all about,” he said. The Young Tigers went out, kept their composure, and won the battle in dramatic fashion.
The timing was impeccable. At a time where Southeast Asia, with a collective population of almost 593 million people, was experiencing the iconic social media boom, Malaysia’s rivalry with Indonesia was completely digitalized. Twitter and Facebook became the number one platform for banter exchange, though the veil of anonymity eventually transformed banter into explosive verbal abuses. At that point, it was alarming. But in retrospect, it completely changed the face of Malaysian football.
“Social media really brought the rivalry to centre stage. Fans now had direct platforms to engage with each other and that’s exactly what they did. Even people who were not into local football got involved in heated banters. For weeks, Twitter and Facebook was just filled with Indonesians and Malaysians getting into petty arguments,” Khairul Nizam, who is a social media consultant, said.
“Internet users were moving from forums to social networking sites at that point and the game happened in the middle of it. People started venting on Facebook pages and its comment sections. Lengthy essays were written there. Short abuses were hurled. It was quite a sight. But if anything, it got more people in Malaysia to take closer look at local football and identify things about it that were good,” he added.
Ask local fans about Malaysia’s SEA Games squad from 2009 and they’ll struggle to pick out a name. But in 2010, fans had Safee Sali. In 2011, fans had Nazmi Faiz. The by-product of Malaysia’s digital rivalry with Indonesia was a refreshing form of nationalism that had younger generations idolizing local footballers. “In the aftermath of our Suzuki Cup win, I spent some time visiting several academies and observing several youth training sessions. And when I asked these small kids about their footballing dreams, they said: ‘I want to be the next Safiq Rahim! I want to be the next Safee Sali! I want to be the next Mat Yo!’. You know how difficult it is to get the modern generation to idolize local footballers,” Datuk K. Rajagobal said, when we interviewed him recently.
In the years after that, stadium attendances for Malaysia Super League matches improved and fans no longer depended on limited coverage of local football on local dailies. The internet became their primary source of team news, match updates and even transfer rumours. Politicians started taking a closer look at local football – which is always a decent metric, given how they’re always on the lookout for avenues to boost political mileage. The increased attention also meant there was a lot more at stake for teams. Wages began sky-rocketing past unseen levels.
Over the years, this new generation of Malaysian fans have also incorporated social activism into their agenda. Some campaign for footballing reforms, some encourage the act of staying back after football games to clean the stadium, some organize charity events on behalf of fan clubs. The amazing thing about it? Every single aspect of this momentum was garnered, gathered and constructed via social media, over the last five to seven years. As the enigmatic Khal (@PadangBolaSepak) summed it up during a conversation recently: “I wouldn’t be here, tweeting about Malaysian football and progressive values, if it wasn’t for K. Rajagobal and our 2010 Suzuki Cup win over Indonesia.”
Social media is the best thing to have happened to Malaysian football in the last decade. And social media will be controlling the narrative of this rivalry when the Young Tigers face the Young Garudas at the Shah Alam Stadium tomorrow. But given that the digital revolution of our football culture is due in no small to the archetypal rivalry we share with Indonesia – maybe we should try to cherish, appreciate and respect it, with zero-tolerance for violence.