Young men in guernseys and studded boots form parallel lines for a kicking warm-up. The umpires, wearing fluoro orange, test their whistles and throw-in skills in the lead up to the first bounce.
From the sidelines, friends and families of the players sit on folding chairs, smoke carrying the smell of cooking snags wafts from a big white tent, and two men ready stacks of number panels next to the scoreboard.
Being here, it’s easy to think is a typical suburban Saturday afternoon footy match. But then…
The piercing, cartoonish jingle of a passing Roti cart interrupts the moment of Australian nostalgia and brings you back to Buperta Park in Cibubur Scouts Complex, Jakarta, where local club Jakarta Bintangs are holding their annual Australia Day match against the Indonesia’s national AFL team, the Garudas.
This year’s event, which also features a warm-up match from two all-Indonesian teams that compete in the local footy league the ANZ Cup, kicks off a special year for the Bintangs: in 2015, the club, whose senior playing squad largely consists of Australian-expats, celebrates its 20th anniversary.
“The Bintangs were founded, a bit like VFL back in Melbourne, by a bunch of cricketers, the Rebels Cricket Club,” explains Bintangs club president Brenton Harris. “It’s their 25th anniversary this year too.”
Creating an enduring AFL club in another country, particularly the soccer-worshipping Indonesia, is a feat worth recognizing, and one with an engaging back story.
In 1993, Rick Trevawas convened a meeting of fellow Australian expats in a sports bar in the South Jakarta to try and set up an AFL team. No one showed but him, and the idea died.
But two years later, fresh from his success with Singaporean AFL side the Wombats, Bruce Morgan set up the Bintangs as part of his ongoing mission to introduce AFL to southeast Asia.
The Bintangs were be thrashed by 104 points– by the Wombats, ironically enough – in their inaugural match in October 1995.
But in the following years, the Bintangs developed an impressive club record that included getting even with Singapore – “we haven’t lost to them for about three years now in a full-length game!”, Harris boasts – setting up the Garudas team and winning the last two AFL Asia Cups in 2013-14.
The success of the Bintangs is a panacea for AFL fans worried that more global football codes will one day squeeze the Australian game out of existence.
Recent high-profile campaigns to convert global audiences to AFL, such as Brett Kirk’s crusade to foreign lands documented in the film Aussie Rules the World, have focused on winning over the locals of the countries involved.
But the modest success of Australian efforts to bring footy to Indonesia embodied by the Bintangs lies instead in keeping Aussie expats in touch with the game, both through playing matches and club night watching AFL games over satellite TV.
“This is the most Aussies I’ve seen in one place in this country,” observes Bintangs midfielder John-Paul Kenyan. “Football’s one of the few things that gets them together in such a big, spread out city with such crappy traffic.”
The Jakartan club is still tinged with Australian culture twenty years on, nowhere more so than in its name, the Bintangs. Bintang is the Bahasa Indonesian word for star, but also the name of Indonesia’s most popular locally-brewed beer.
“Well, we called ourselves the Bintangs because we were joking around that we were ‘superstars’,” explains Iain Sheerer, a Melbourne expat who has been half-back for the team since it began.
“But also because we had a massive drinking culture,” he blasts, showing his masterly grasp of trademark Australian pub humour.
It was after establishing themselves as an outlet for footy-loving Australians in the Indonesian capital that the Bintangs were able to start attracting local players to their team, and their code.
“Probably since about 2007 we’ve been having youth ambassadors come up from Australia as development officers, and they’ve been going out to schools and orphanages in Java and they’ve been spreading the world about AFL,” Harris tells me.
“Now we’ve got I think six local teams, you can see two of them playing right now,” – he gestures to the field where two teams of short, slender Indonesian teens are battling it out – “and we call that league the ANZ Cup.”
“The Cup’s built up since 2007, and from that local competition and from the kids whose schools we’ve gone out to coach at, we’ve managed to select an national Indonesian side of 25 players – not just from Jakarta, but also from Borneo and one from Bali too – and from there we organized the Indonesian Garudas to play in the 2014 AFL International Cup in Melbourne.”
In a case of déjà vu for the Bintangs, the Garudas were taken apart in their first two matches, unable to compete with the strength and massive frames of teams from Nauru and Fiji.
Later in the competition, the Garudas recorded their first overseas win against India. But more significant than how many games they won was that the players who had represented Indonesia at the International Cup returned with an entrenched interest in the game.
Yoshi, captain of the Garudas for IC14, has been playing for five years since he was picked from Mamasayang orphanage south of Jakarta.
He’s a superb ruck-rover with great pace, I’m told, but today he has an injured knee, and so like Gary Ablett jnr the superstar captain does the media rounds while his team plays on.
In Indonesian, he says “I like how much faster footy is and how much strength and skill you need”.
It’s the Indonesian players like Yoshi’s interest in the game’s unique physical demands – despite being smaller, skinnier and generally less physically equipped to play AFL than their Australian counterparts – that means the Indonesian players in the Bintangs squad can improve the team’s game with their natural advantages.
“Their pressure is sensational,” Harris says, “and when you’re an Aussie coming out to play footy against an Asian side you don’t expect that pressure.”
“But as soon as you get the ball, BANG, they’re straight on to you. So, yeah, that’s what we really enjoy about having local boys on our side.”
At the end of the day, AFL will never be the number one sport in Jakarta or Indonesia. There may never be an Indonesian AFL player, either.
But it doesn’t matter: it’s not about how many locals are playing footy, but that the people who play it really enjoy it and have better lives because they do.
“We’re playing a weakened Garudas side today, so we should win,” Harris says before the Bintangs prove him right. “But that’s OK: they enjoy it, we enjoy it and they get to learn about a great game from more experienced players.”