The under-22 men’s football tournament of the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) showcases the region’s top young talents such as Evan Dimas of Indonesia, Shahril Ishak of Singapore, and Chanathip Songkrasin of Thailand. It ought to have been their talents on the pitch highlighted on the front and back pages of newspapers in the region. Instead, fan violence and unsporting conduct off it has marred this year’s tournament in Kuala Lumpur.
Two Myanmar football fans were beaten up after their group game against Malaysia on 21st August 2017. In the heated match between rivals Malaysia vs Singapore, some Malaysian fans, known as the Ultras, were accused of taunting their Singaporean opponents as “dogs” in their football chants. Indonesia’s victory over Cambodia was spoiled by fans tossing bottles onto the pitch following a melee involving both sets of players at full time.
Yet these incidents have occurred in previous iterations of the SEA Games and tournaments in the region. In 2014, Malaysian supporters attacked Vietnamese fans after losing the home leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup Semi-Final in Kuala Lumpur. Home fans rioted at the 2013 SEA Games in Yangon after Myanmar lost their final group game against Indonesia and were eliminated from the competition. This spate of off-pitch fracas raises a bigger question: does Southeast Asia have a problem of football fan violence, or even football hooliganism?
The importance of addressing spectator violence cannot be further emphasized, even if football hooliganism is one small aspect. Hooliganism is premeditated and structured, with “socially organized or institutionalized” behavior and “engaging in competitive violence, principally with other hooligan groups.” More importantly, there is a distinction to be made between violence amongst hooligan groups (and in some cases, with the police) from the “spontaneous, relatively isolated incidents of spectator violence”.
With these occurrences being one-off incidents, rather than an organized brouhaha between rivaling groups, one might think that hooligan violence does not necessarily exist in this region, even if such fan groups may operate in Southeast Asia. Yet the emotions unleashed in a football match remain a tinderbox that could still be lit to explode. Such assaults have been isolated incidents for most tournaments, with the SEA Games in Singapore in 2015 proceeding without any such altercations. However, even if Southeast Asia may not have a problem of supporter violence, these attacks undermine the safety of supporters, and are by no means isolated incidents for them.
The safety of supporters is fundamental to the fan experience, because off-pitch violence deters them from catching these games live in the first place. Having followed the Indonesian national team’s exploits on television since primary school, my only experiences of watching the Timnas live have been in Bangkok for the AFF Suzuki Cup Final last year and in Singapore at the Tiger Cup Final in 2004 and SEA Games in 2015. Indonesia has hosted the Finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Tiger Cup, and the SEA Games before. It remains the dream of many Indonesians, including mine, to see the team finally emerge as regional champions. However, fears for personal safety in the stadium in my own city have dissuaded me from soaking in the atmosphere at the Gelora Bung Karno to cheer the team on all these years.
Beyond looking out for the fans of the game, Southeast Asia needs to protect the safety of its supporters and eliminate football violence to have its capability to host such tournaments taken seriously. With Jakarta slated to host the Asian Games next year, and with Southeast Asia’s joint bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2034, safety will continue to deter fans from catching the sporting action live, and make a mockery of attempts to host future events. While the World Cup has been hosted in places less safe than Southeast Asia, those countries have had a reputation in the football arena in qualifying for the tournament and even winning the trophy. In contrast, Southeast Asia’s only record at the World Cup Finals was in 1938, when Indonesia, formerly known as the Dutch East Indies, qualified for the tournament in France. Surely, acknowledging the need to look out for their football fans’ safety is a start.
Born in Jakarta and educated in Singapore, Ingmar now works as a college applications consultant in Nanjing, China. He wonders if he will live to see the day Indonesia’s football team lift the AFF Suzuki Cup (formerly known as the Tiger Cup), having endured heartbreaks of seeing them lose in the final.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.