While North America is caught up in the excitement of the new seasons of NFL football, the NBA, and NHL hockey, the hottest ticket in town here in Ubud, Bali is for the first-place Bali United soccer team in the Indonesian League.
So instead of following the Sunday bumblings of the perennial disappointment that is the Cleveland Browns (my hometown team), I decided to take in the local sepak bola (football) match against Barito Putera – a team from the island of Borneo.
As a sports fan and a long-term traveler seeking to immerse myself in the culture of the places we visit, I find attending sporting events to be one of the simplest and most authentic ways to experience the people and customs of any given locale.
In fact, I’ve gone to baseball games in Mexico and soccer matches in Mexico, Belize, Croatia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
I’ve even joined in ‘pick-up’ games in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Greece. If you want to be an appreciated outsider, try participating when the neighborhood guys need an extra player!
Authentic experience – not of the Eat Pray Love variety
Unfortunately, attending professional sporting events in developing foreign countries isn’t as easy as back home. Everything from finding schedule information online (usually in the local language) to buying a ticket to locating the stadium and arranging transport can be daunting. Yesterday’s Bali United experience was typical.
First, I was able to confirm the scheduled game and time online – and map the stadium, about 10 miles away. But most other information was not in English.
Around noon, I headed to the taxi stand outside the nearby supermarket in central Ubud expecting someone there might have game day knowledge and speak enough English to communicate clearly.
Sure enough, one taxi driver in the loitering group, with excellent English skills, said tickets could be purchased right there at the grocery store. He even led me inside – only to discover the tickets were sold out. A nearby restaurant, famous for “crispy duck”, was also out of tickets. Weekend game, first-place team, big crowd expected.
My taxi-driver guide then kindly offered to phone a friend who showed up minutes later on a motor scooter. The scooter driver, Wayun, said he could get me a ticket and even take me to and from the game for a total of 250,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah / about $18). Deal.
But Wayun wanted 100,000 IDR now to get my ticket, then he’d come pick me up at 6pm to go to the game. I handed over the $7 deposit hoping he’d return.
Unexpectedly, about an hour later he showed up at our rental property with my official ticket/wristband. He returned again around 6pm, with a young British couple in tow – other tourist customers of Wayun who were going to the game.
Wayun handed me a helmet and I rode behind him – with the Brits, Simon & Jess, following behind on their own scooter. As the sun set, we navigated the 20-minute ride to the stadium, making lots of turns on narrow, scooter-choked streets.
At the stadium
Once at the venue, I paid the 10,000 IDR (70 cents) parking fee for both bikes and we all stopped at a parking-lot food vending area and had chicken satay (skewers) with sticky rice for 20,000 IDR ($1.40) as we sat on tiny plastic stools.
The stadium itself was decent; probably 25-30 years old with newer field lighting powered by huge generators. There was a big ‘team shop’ selling Bali United merchandise and a cafe – which was the only place to get beer at the facility. The only true ‘seats’ in the 24,000 capacity place were in the center ‘club’ sections. All the $3.50 seating was on poured concrete ‘steps’.
Overall, it reminded me of an aging small college type facility.
It looked like a crowd of about 20,000. The one area reserved for visiting fans was nearly empty. No fans traveling from Borneo.
One end of the stadium was reserved and packed with thousands of chanting, cheering, singing, flag-waving Bali United fans. The constant commotion gave the whole event a ‘big-league’ vibe. We found some seats near the opposite goal line, getting there 10 minutes before kick-off. Everyone stood for the whole game – except halftime.
The game itself; entertaining; probably similar to college-level soccer. It was a little surprising to learn Bali United has three Dutch players, one from Brazil, and one from Iraq. These internationals did ‘carry the game’ at points. Apparently, Bali United is willing to pay higher salaries for the ‘mercenaries’ – and it’s working. The team is far ahead in the standings.
The final 3-2 Bali United victory included one penalty kick for each side. It was fun. No jumbo-tron, no cheerleaders, no mascot, no half-time entertainment, no piped in pop music, no drunks. No behavioral or security issues. It felt nostalgic, almost innocent.
My only real complaint was the amount of cigarette smoking and vaping in the stands. A few times I was gasping. The crowd was probably 75% males under 35, a typical soccer fan base. Including the Brits, I saw only 6 other obvious ‘tourists’.
After the game, very few people departed until the official ‘team anthem’ was sung and the Bali United players took a ‘victory stroll’ around the pitch-waving to fans – some had their children on the field. At one point, thousands of cell phones with the ‘flashlights’ turned on were held up during a well-known cheer.
We decided to wait for the crowd to thin out a bit before exiting. As we waited, a number of fans asked to take photos with our group, seemingly thrilled to have westerners among them. Being on scooters meant we were able to avoid the moderate post-game traffic snarl. We completed the drive back to central Ubud without any delays.
In all, it was another enjoyable and authentic travel experience. It went as smoothly as one could hope. Everyone I encountered was kind and friendly and helpful. And the total cost was around $20 USD including a couple beers at home before my pick up.
Wayun has already asked if I want to go to the next home game this Thursday night. Same $20 deal. I told him maybe. But honestly, one Bali United victory is probably all I need to retain a lasting memory more authentic to the real Ubud than the movie Eat Pray Love. My wife says maybe one day she’ll get around to reading the book.
As always, happy trails & more beer. Life is now.
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