Home to the most biodiverse sea life in the world, home of the second-largest tropical rainforest after the Amazon, home to hundreds of different tribes, but above all, home of the largest amount of talented football players in the archipelago of Indonesia. How is it possible that an economically disadvantaged island, can produce so many top talents in football? To understand this, we have to dive into the culturally rich aspects of the Papua region.
The Beauty of Papua
Papua is mostly known for its untouched wilderness. The regency we are talking about are Papua and West Papua and are not to be confused with Papua New Guinea. The island is thinly populated and not many tourists dare to make the trip to the most eastern part of Indonesia. The combination of a thin population, geographical location, and lack of tourists created the perfect breeding ground for all forms of nature to flourish. From the sea life in Raja Ampat to the rainforests covering the inlands. The beauty of nature in Papua is unparalleled to any other island in Indonesia.
Besides the richness in nature and culture. The island is gifted with natural resources like timber, coffee, minerals, and gold. Making the island very much of interest for the Indonesian government. But although they show great interest in the exploitation of these natural resources, they lack interest in investing in improving the living conditions for the Papuans.
The island and its inhabitants are barely comparable to the rest of the country. Although West Papua is officially part of Indonesia, locals in Papua are more similar to the Australian aboriginals than their western-Indonesian counterparts. The huge differences in looks, lifestyle, languages, economic factors, and religion play a big role in the division between Papua and the rest of Indonesia.
West Papua and the Indonesian government have a difficult relationship, to say the least. After the withdrawal of the Dutch administration in 1962 and the installment of the Indonesian administration in 1963, the Western part of New Guinea joined with Indonesia, but not because they wanted too.
The Papuans were given an “election” to choose whether they wanted to continue as an independent country or to join with Indonesia. In violation of the Agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, the voted was a show of hands in the presence of the Indonesian military, and only involved 1025 hand-picked people who were forced at gunpoint to vote for integration, much less than 1% of those who should have been eligible to vote.
After the Papuans saw their chance on sovereignty vanish, the separatist Free Papua Movement took measures into their own hands. The movement of armed units, protestors, and political activists have been fighting a guerilla war for independence ever since. Each 1st of December is annually celebrated as Independence Day by people many people in Papua by raising the “Morning Star Flag”, a symbol for Papua’s independence, which can be charged by Indonesian law for treason.
Football Culture in Papua
The Papua & West Papua regencies provide multiple football clubs which are active in mostly the Liga 2 & 3 in Indonesian football. In the heyday of Papuan football as much as 4 teams competed in the Liga 1 at the same time but they were not able to maintain this strong representation in the highest tier of Indonesian football. Nowadays the regency is represented in the Liga 1 by Persipura Jayapura. An ambitious and well-performing football club from the capital Jayapura often nicknamed “The Black Pearls, a reference to the dark color of the skin of the Papuans and their impressive sportive physique.
Football clubs in the Papua & West Papua regency
Persipura Jayapura – Liga 1
PSBS Biak – Liga 2
Persinab Nabire – Liga 2
Persewar Waropen – Liga 2
Persidafon Dafonsoro – Liga 3
Persifa Fak-Fak – Liga 3
Perseman Maokwari – Liga 3
Persemi Mimika – Liga 3
Persigubin Pegunungan Bintang – Liga 3
Persitoli Tolikara – Liga 3
Persiwa Wamena – Liga 3
Yahukimo F.C – Liga 3
The basis for their impressive strength, speed and ball control are laid early on in life. The young kids in Papua are brought up in extreme living conditions and are used to hour-long tracking trough the hills and jungles on a daily basis. The rough terrain and remote living locations contribute to their fit physical and mental strength that projects on to the pitch later on in life.
Elvis Howay(football coach in Sorong):
“It’s the early exposure to football which sets Papuan players apart from the rest”
The people’s tribal and warfare history was one of the reasons that caused mutual divisions between Papuans, but the introduction of football has acted as a form of “social glue” to bring people together from different tribes and backgrounds. The historical and geographical factors of Papua have caused an economic lag compared to the rest of Indonesia. Many complaints from the side of Papua have been heard that there is a lack of government investments in infrastructure, schooling and other basic services. Impoverished children use football as a means to escape the everyday struggle and take joy in playing anywhere they can settle to play football. Whether it’s a roughed-up field at a high altitude or an awkward back-alley pitch, football is everywhere in Papua.
The Black Pearls (Mutiara Hitam)
As named earlier on, football club Persipura Jayapura is the local pride that represents Papua in the highest tier of Indonesian football. The club has five national championship titles under its belt and several other achievements in various leagues, making it one of Indonesia’s most successful clubs in recent years.
One of their locally born heroes, who managed to become 3 times top scorer and player of the year in the Liga 1 is Boaz Solossa. He has managed to rack up 181 goals in 306 matches for the Black pearls and is a renowned international for Indonesia. As someone who is proud of his heritage, he is sometimes viewed negatively as he doesn’t sing along when the Indonesian national anthem is being played pre-game. I don’t think we have to explain again why. But besides this minor form of critique, his footballing capacities have always stood beyond dispute.
Solossa is one of many Papuan athletes to have blessed the national team of Indonesia with their skills and performances. From late Hengki Rumere to the young Okto Maniani, Papua has become the national team’s main contributor of top athletes. Besides actively representing Papua in football, the island contributes athletes in many other fields of sports.
The Future of Football in Papua
Despite the lack of investment in infrastructure and training facilities for Papuan talents, their future definitely looks bright. Football provides an accessible way to teach others about the West Papuan identity and to highlight the ongoing situation. It is a way to show the world you exist. And boy do they know how to show themselves on the pitch. They want to put across a positive image that contrasts with the Indonesian government’s version that displays them as “violent”. They choose to display themselves not as victims, but as people with ability and strength.
In order to further elevate football in Papua many initiatives have been put up to contribute to professionalizing football in Papua, but also act as a schooling system for local kids. Two beautiful examples of organizations that use football as a means to build positive character traits and protect children from harmful environments are Papua United and Uni Papua FC. These two foundations aim to develop discipline, commitment, a healthy lifestyle among kids as well as respecting races, tribes and gender differences.
Besides local initiatives who provide training materials and facilities the regional government has invested in building a brand new football temple in the capital of Jayapura. The colossal Utama Papua Bangkit stadium has opened her doors in 2019 and was set to be the center stage of the XX sports week, a prestigious sports event in Indonesia. The 40,000 capacity stadium with it’s triangular designs in typical Papuan fashion, has been nominated for Most Beautiful stadium of the year award by stadiumdb.com.
The government and people of Papua are very proud on the international recognition of the newly risen Papua Bangkit stadium, and they hope this is another important step in the development of football culture in Papua. The regency has brought forward so many talented athletes. If the future brings more equal chances to the region to develop and nurture their talents, you can imagine that their “Pearls” might shine even brighter!