With over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is an archipelago with a history of football activity and appreciation. However, the reverse is not entirely true; in spite of its huge population of over 250 million, Indonesia has not made a footballing splash outside South East Asia.
Having said that, there are a number of reasons why this nation has a storied history with the world’s premier international tournament, despite never having qualified for it.
They took part in the in 1938 World Cup finals in France under the name of Nederlandsche Indiesche, or Dutch East Indies. Back then, Dutch control was key in the introduction and development of the game locally.
The first national football federation, Nederlandsche Indische Voetbal Bond (NIVB, or Dutch Indian Football Association), was formed in 1919. Indische refers primarily to locally-born Dutch, and it suggested the privileged slant of association football in that time.
This bias was the catalyst for others to step up. The local Chinese community set up their own association in 1927, evolving into the Hwa Nan Voetbal Bond (HNVB, or Hwa Nan Football Association) three years later. More significantly, Persatuan Sepakraga Seloeroeh Indonesia (PSSI, or Football Association of Indonesia) was also born in 1930.
Its formation can be linked to the Sumpah Pemuda, a declaration of empowerment made by young Indonesian nationalists in 1928. This pledge fanned nationalistic flames, and a level playing field was idealised through the staunch promotion of more local interests. The PSSI is seen as a key factor in this, catering to those from more native backgrounds.
Though all three associations were equally influential, the one recognised by FIFA was NIVB. It was under their watch that the Dutch East Indies played their first match international match against Japan, running out 7-1 victors in 1934. This wasn’t a complete representation of their best players though, as players from other associations, such as PSSI, were not selected.
This conflict, as well as the dissatisfaction of its own members, led to the dissolution of the NIVB in 1935. They were succeeded by the Nederlandsch-Indische Voetbal Unie (NIVU, or Dutch Indian Football Union), again recognised by FIFA as its member. Though disgruntled, the rival federations agreed a truce in 1937, allowing for the selection of all players eligible for the nation.
However, NIVU didn’t follow this script, for they still privileged their own players. This was the final nail in the coffin for PSSI, who were already disappointed by the decision to use the Dutch flag, and their brief entente cordiale ended a year after the World Cup.
In qualification for the 1938 World Cup, they were again paired against Japan, but the Sino-Japanese war led to their forfeit, allowing the Dutch East Indies to qualify automatically.
The Dutch national federation, Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond (KNVB), strongly supported their efforts, and the Dutch East Indies national team set sail for the Netherlands to prepare for the tournament.
FIFA, however, was not keen on the Asians qualifying without playing a match, and arranged another qualifying match against the United States of America in Rotterdam.
The Americans didn’t show up, which meant the world governing body had no choice but to allow history to be made: as Clemente Angelo Lisi noted in his book A History of the World Cup, “the Dutch East Indies earned the dubious distinction of having qualified for the finals without ever playing a qualification game.”
Based in the Hague, players such as Tan Mo Heng, Henk Zomers, Sutan Anwar and team captain Achmad Nawir were put through their paces by the Dutchman Johannes Mastenbroek, also a chairman of NIVU. They eked out a 2-2 draw against HBS Craeyenhout on 25 May 1938. Less than a week later, they went one step further, beating Haarlem 5-3.
The time came for the real thing, and the Dutch teams set off for France. The Dutch East Indies was to play their World Cup match at Reims, located in the Champagne-Ardenne region.
Reims was a motor sport mecca, with a legendary road course; not entirely unlike the Asians, the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio made both his first and last Formula One starts in Reims. Unlike the Argentine champion, though, 5 June 1938 was both the first and the last World Cup match for the Dutch East Indies.
Their opponent was Hungary. This was the Magyars before they became magical, but they were still a formidable side, reaching the final in 1938. The World Cup was a knockout tournament back then, meaning that sudden death rules apply: lose, and you’re on the boat home soon after.
Ten thousand locals packed the Velodrome Municipal, bearing witness to the first Asian team playing at the World Cup. They might have thought it was the Netherlands themselves, given how they wore the famous Dutch orange colour. Even the national anthem was the same, as Achmad led his team in singing the Wilhelmus.
The match was also notable for both captains, Achmad and Gyorgi Sarosi, being doctors. As if to prove that fact, Achmad also wore his glasses on the pitch. Along with his slicked back hair, it completed a formal and academic image.
It would be another 60 years before FIFA gave permission to another player, the glaucoma-afflicted Edgar Davids (representing the Netherlands, no less), to wear spectacles of any kind on the field.
Not that it helped much with the scoreline. The Dutch East Indies conceded as early as the 13th minute to Vilmos Kohut of Olympique de Marseille. The second goal came two minutes after the first, with Kohut’s strike partner Geza Toldi doubling the score.
The Asians struggled to even get a hold of the ball, and the gulf in class was further exemplified slightly after the 30-minute mark with Gyula Zsengeller and Sarosi himself scoring the goals. Both completed their braces by the end of the match, and the second half was little more than passing practice for the Hungarians.
There was no shame losing to the Hungarian side. The star of the side, Zsengeller, would within a year’s time be crowned the top scorer of European club football, while Sarosi was regarded by some as one of that era’s finest players.
Furthermore, half of the Hungarian team had played at the previous World Cup in Italy, while their opponents were largely inexperienced amateurs who had not even set foot outside of their homeland.
The politics of football administration back home can’t have helped, but one other factor identified was equally important. “The team has lost, but not because of lack of football skills, or lack of enthusiasm or poor technique,” C.J. Groothoff generously wrote for the newspaper Het Vaderland, “the fact that the Indian players for this international football, and especially for the firm Hungarians, are too small and too light. The average weight of the Indian players is between 55 and 60 kg, while the Hungarians’ is about 80 kg.”
Their World Cup for both Dutch teams may be over (the Netherlands themselves lost to Czechoslovakia on the same day), but their summer of football continued. Returning to the Low Country, the Dutch East Indies faced off against Sparta Rotterdam ten days after their Hungarian humbling.
This time it was closer, losing by the odd goal in a seven-goal thriller. In a six-day period towards the end of June, they played three more matches, starting with a 4-2 victory over Dordrechtsche Football Club, and suffered a 2-0 reverse against a Den Haag selection near the end of June.
The royal jewel in the crown, though, was the penultimate match that took place on 26 June 1938 against the Netherlands. Officially, it was an event held as a part of Olympic Day, a multi-sport fund-raising event for the Dutch Olympic Committee.
It nevertheless provided the level playing field against their colonial masters the Asians had sought for years. A report in Het Vaderland wrote of the occasion: “We can assume with confidence that the symbolism has played a major role in the mind of the idea of unity of our Empire.”
In front of over 50,000 spectators at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, the Dutch East Indies again wore orange. Their hosts wore white, but colours made no difference as the Dutch tore apart their colonial subjects.
Henk van Spaandonck opened the scoring in the 12th minute, before outside left Jan Linssen, in his one and only match for the Netherlands, doubled the score two minutes later. Piet Dumortier, the VV DOS midfielder, then turned it into a one-man show, scoring an eight-minute hat-trick in the first half, and grabbing a fourth right at the end of the match.
The visitors, however, did not sit back, and managed to score two of their own through MJ Hans Taihuttu, the VV Jong Ambon Batavia forward. His club teammate, Isaak Pattiwael, scored another right just before half-time.
The second half, however, showed the true gulf in class between the two teams, as Van Spaandonck grabbed a goal almost immediately after the restart. Arie de Vroet, who would be a part of the legendary coaching team of the Dutch national side at the 1978 World Cup, netted his side’s seventh goal. Guus Drager of DWS, playing in his club’s home stadium, scored the penultimate goal. It finished 9-2 to the Netherlands.
It would be another 75 years before both teams would meet again.
Since that summer, the fate of both countries became markedly different. Seven years later, Indonesia proclaimed its own independence in 1945, though this was only grudgingly accepted by the Netherlands in 1949.
On a footballing level, the Dutch appeared in three finals of the eight World Cups it has qualified for since 1938, while Indonesia have failed to even qualify for one.
Nevertheless, the legacy between the two teams is a lasting one. Current Indonesian star Irfan Bachdim learned his trade playing for the Ajax Amsterdam youth teams, while Dutch players such as John Heitinga and Michael Mols, amongst many others, also have strong links to the archipelago.
None, however, have contributed as significantly as the national team captain during the World Cup in 2010. Born in the Netherlands to Indonesian parents, he strongly identifies with Indonesian culture and its traditions. He went on to have a stellar club career with the likes of Feyenoord, Rangers, Arsenal and Barcelona.
He was selected for the Dutch national team for six major tournaments, and on the occasion of his 106th cap for the Netherlands, Giovanni van Bronckhorst became the only Asian to captain a team in the World Cup final.