After many years of pessimism about the performance of Indonesian soccer, the Indonesian people are now gaining momentum for euphoric win.
Despite the recent loss to Malaysia in the first leg of the final match of the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, the victories that preceded it, including over Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia itself in early December, rejuvenated Indonesians’ confidence in their national team.
More importantly, the victories galvanized nationalistic fervor that eventually must contribute to the strengthening of national unity.
The kind words that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressed to the defeated team, and his personal presence at past games, were encouraging to the Indonesian team.
The President understands well the potential of the sport for nurturing and enhancing national unison.
After years of doubt in the Indonesian soccer world, now the people have every reason to be optimistic.
Not only that, but they have also become so emotionally connected to their national team.
One cannot undermine the power of sports in cementing national unity. One of the best examples proving that sport can play a pivotal role in the nation-building process is the Rugby World Cup 1995.
As depicted in the movie Invictus, president Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, and François Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team, played by Matt Damon, worked hand-in-hand to use Rugby as the foundation to unite South Africa following the termination of apartheid.
At that very moment, mutual trust between white and colored South Africans was still low and mutual fear remained high.
The need for something to glue all the elements of society together was dire. Mandela had to find a solution, otherwise the new South Africa would falter. And he found it in sports.
As a sports fan himself, Mandela believed in the power of sports in charting the future of his country. As quoted in John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation, which was the basis for the movie Invictus, Mandela said sports had the power to change the world, to inspire, and to unite people.
The most memorable moment was when Mandela walked onto the field in front of about 6,500
spectators, 95 percent of whom were white-skinned, following the victory of South Africa over New Zealand, the toughest Rugby team of the time.
At that moment, throughout the country, colored and white South Africans celebrated the victory with tears of joy and a spirit of unity, yelling “Nelson!” on and on, in veneration of his brilliant and heartfealt way of uniting colored and white South Africans.
The games between Indonesia and Malaysia are important not only for the Indonesian people but also for the friendly relations between the two countries.
This is a time when the spirit of unity should be elevated and the sense of we-ness as a nation should be developed.
The games also give both sides an opportunity to contribute to the enhancement of friendly relations between Indonesia and Malaysia. The players and supporters from both countries can play a role in that regard.
There is no reason at all for hooliganism. Only with the spirit of friendship and professionalism should the games continue to be played and enjoyed.
In addition, sports can serve as an instrument of foreign policy. Sports diplomacy is a critical element of a country’s soft power.
The exchange of ping pong players between the US and China, for example, appeared to be a critical element in Nixon’s rapprochement policy toward China.
A study by Victor D. Cha shows that the 2002 World Cup injected a new vigor in Japan-South Korea relations. On June 30, 2002, president Kim Dae-jung attended the World Cup finals in Yokohama, and afterward he had a two-day summit with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Indonesia will have a number of opportunities to use sports as part of its diplomacy in future. In 2011 Indonesia will host the 26th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
This will coincide with Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2011. As Indonesia emphasizes the people-centered approach to this role, sports could be an important element in that regard.
Indonesia’s confidence in the use of sports as soft power in its relations with other countries will increase along with greater and more tangible results of better sports management.
Many stakeholders can take part in the venture to improve the country’s sports capacity and capability.
It will of course take a nation to do so.
As for the Indonesian team who will face the last game with Malaysia in the final round of the AFF Suzuki Cup, play it beautifully.
Play it with courage and dignity because you are, in William Ernest Henry’s words, “the masters of
your fate, and the captains of your souls”. It is important to be undefeated, but it is more important to do the best.
The writer is assistant special staff to the President for international relations. The opinions expressed are personal.
Opini The Jakarta Pos 30 Desember 2010