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The Strange World of Indonesian Sports

By: Bodrek Arsana

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

Indonesia is well known for many things, but not necessarily for its sports. With the exception of a few surfers, tennis players, badminton buffs and table tennis pros, Indonesia has yet to catch the athletic world’s eye. But that might be about to change. For Indonesia boasts some strange sports found nowhere else that provide as many thrills and challenges as their more renowned cousins.
These sports have neither formal organizations nor national or international championships. They are played in villages and urban neighborhoods as entertainment, as psychic tests, or as part of traditional rituals. They use simple equipment, have no corporate sponsors, and offer little in the way of prizes to the winners. But they still draw cheering crowds and eager participants.

Flaming Soccer
In the village of Loloan Barat in Jembrana, West Bali, there’s a sport that might make even David Beckham flinch: flaming soccer.
Flaming soccer is a specialty of the students at the local Islamic school, the Pondok Pesantren Darussalam. It’s not much different from regular soccer, with one exception: the ball. In place of a regulation ball, they use a sphere made of coconut husks that has been soaked in kerosene then set on fire. And in place of soccer shoes, the players do battle in their bare feet.

At the pesantren, flaming soccer games are staged every Friday. But according to Baharuddin, one of the senior students at the school, not everyone is allowed to play. Only those students who have mastered a certain amount of mystical knowledge are permitted to participate. “Once my feet got burned from trying to play. I had just gotten to the school and I didn’t know that flaming soccer wasn’t your ordinary sport, that you had to study mysticism first,” Baharuddin remembers.

During flaming soccer matches, teachers at the school do double duty, serving as referees—and as mystical managers. Ustad Umar, one of the teachers, explains that when the students play they are not in a state of normal consciousness. Each team is spiritually controlled by a teacher, who wields his supernatural knowledge to try for victory.

Baharuddin—known to his friends as “David” after the Manchester United luminary—is one of the pesantren’s star players. He explains that since he was a young boy he wanted to be a soccer player. “David Beckham is my idol and each time he plays I make sure never to miss it on television. In my room at the pesantren I have posters of him and Manchester United hung on my walls,” he says. Baharuddin admits that before getting involved in flaming soccer, life at the pesantren was a bit dull. “Every day all we do is read the Qur’an and listen to the teachers explain it,” he says. But after his first year of study, when he learned the necessary mystical knowledge and he was allowed to participate in flaming soccer, life started looking up. “Now I’m confused because my father wants me to continue my studies at a pesantren in East Java. But they don’t have flaming soccer there,” he says.

Baharuddin’s goal is still to become a professional soccer player. “Hopefully later I’ll be able to find a place on Indonesia’s national team. And if they ever have a World Cup for flaming soccer, I’m sure Indonesia will win it. I could be the best flaming soccer player in the world—even better than David Beckham!”

“I’m the boxing World Champion. I could KO Mike Tyson, Felix Trinidad, Lennox Lewis or any other boxer in the world,” boasts Sukirno. Looking at him, you might think he’s lost his mind. He’s forty years old, short and skinny—so skinny his neighbors in Tegal, Central Java call him “Kancil,” meaning “mouse deer.” But if you get to know him, you realize he might just be right. For what Kancil is talking about is not your average boxing ring but a raft set floating on the water.

Kancil began to make a name for himself in the seaside region of Tegal after winning the water boxing title three times in a row. The competition is held each September or October at the end of the fishing season. As a thank you to the forces controlling the ocean, the fishermen of the region hold a series of ceremonies, including a sacrifice of buffalo and fish. The rituals are followed by artistic performances and other entertainment—including water boxing.

These boxing matches are held at a small river that cuts through two fishing villages and runs down to meet the ocean. The two-by-two meter ring is made from bamboo poles tied together and mounted on empty oil drums. To make sure that the ring doesn’t get dragged away by the current, its four corners are roped to small piers on the river’s banks.

The match is supervised by a referee, who watches from the shoreline. It is over when one of the contestants falls out of the ring into the water—usually to the appreciative shouts of the crowd. “One of the most important rules is that you’re not allowed to be mad if you lose. The important thing is to stay happy. This is an exercise in sportsmanship,” explains Kancil.

Women as well as men participate in water boxing. In fact, Kancil explains, women often take on men in the ring—and win. “The key is not in the strength or posture of your body but in how you keep your balance. You might have a big body, but that doesn’t mean you’ll win. Lots of times men lose to women because they can’t keep their bodies balanced,” Kancil says.

Not only does water boxing provide a break for hard-working fisherpeople, it also lets them show off the skills they need to make a living. “In order to fish well you have to be able to cope with ferocious waves. The key is to keep your balance on the boat. For me, boxing on the water is a kind of practice in balance. And obviously, all the other fishermen respect me when I win,” Kancil says.

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