Football: Papua's 'Black Pearls', the athletic gems of Indonesia

Kiki Siregar
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In Papua, one of Indonesia's poorest provinces, genetics and geography have combined to produce a string of successful football players and teams

Boaz Solossa, Indonesia's football captain, is known for his quick turn of pace and sharp instincts -- as well as his eye for goal.

But he's not alone: Solossa is just one of many outstanding players born and bred in the far-flung, rebellious province of Papua, which has become known as a breeding ground for athletic talent.

In the eastern province, one of Indonesia's poorest, genetics and geography have combined to produce a string of successful players and teams.

Solossa's club Persipura Jayapura, known as the "Black Pearls" because of Papuans' dark skin, have won the national title five times, making them Indonesia's most successful team.

It is a proud achievement for Papua, known for its low-level insurgency and antipathy towards Indonesia's Javanese rulers since it was annexed in the 1960s.

Papuans come from Pacific-origin Melanesian stock and the province, bordering Papua New Guinea, has a warlike, tribal past including cannibalism.

Modern Papuans are known for their athleticism and particularly their football, which they play from a young age and often at high altitude in the mountainous region.

Elvis Howay, a coach in Solossa's hometown of Sorong, says it's the early exposure to football which sets Papuans apart.

"Whether it's a small field or a field with a three-metre goalpost, the children of Papua are used to playing soccer everywhere," he tells AFP.

"That's why they are mostly better than the children in (the Indonesian capital) Jakarta."

- 'It's genetic' -

Solossa, 31, the youngest of five children, has progressed to become one of Indonesia's most celebrated players, scoring nearly 200 goals for club and country.

This year, he became the first Indonesian to be ranked among Asia's top 50 players by FourFourTwo magazine.

"I think it's genetic. Our father was also a football player though not professional. We are all professional footballers, but my younger brother Boaz is the best," says his brother, Joice Solossa.

Football commentator Akmali Marhali, who works with the Save Our Soccer think tank, says Papuan players have a well-earned reputation for fitness and agility.

"Their physique supports them to become athletes. Their geographical conditions as well," he says.

Although Indonesia has had little success in international football beyond Southeast Asia, the prowess of Papua's players has echoes in other hotspots of soccer talent.

Their experience has similarities with South America, where impoverished but athletically gifted children spend hours every day with a ball at their feet, resulting in the world-beating teams of Brazil and Argentina.

"Most of the players have been playing soccer since an early age, and God has given the children of Papua a certain privilege," says Bento Madabun, media officer of Persipura Jayapura.

"They are born with great talent which is strengthened by the situation in their region and their hard life."

In 1938, Indonesia became the first Asian country to qualify for the World Cup, but from this promising position it now languishes at 165th out of 209 teams in the FIFA rankings.

- Premier League stars -

Despite this decline in international fortunes, football, which was introduced by Dutch colonialists, plays an important cultural role in the widely spread archipelago of 250 million people.

Even when the national football league was disbanded in 2015, following a row between administrators, thousands flocked to informal village games featuring players from well-known clubs.

This year, when the new Liga 1 replaced the disbanded former top-flight league, the clubs had sufficient resources to lure former English Premier League players Michael Essien, Carlton Cole and Peter Odemwingie.

They took their place alongside a number of Papuan players, including Titus Bonai, Vendry Mofu and Yanto Basna who have become stars at club and international level.

Other successful Papuan athletes include weightlifter Raema Lisa Rumbewas, a three-time Olympic medallist, swimmer Margaretha Herawati and rower Erni Sokoy.

But experts say the full potential of Papuan football is far from being realised, mainly because of a lack of investment in developing and supporting players.

Many players have problems with discipline and nutrition, while others lack the confidence to move to a club outside the province, fearing they will be homesick.

"The problem is our effort to develop athletes is weak and Java-focused," said Marhali.

"Papua hardly gets attention, even though there are many talented athletes there."

In Sorong, one of the largest cities in West Papua, footballers are calling for better stadiums and more support for local teams and tournaments.

Joice Solossa said a young generation of talented players in the city was being ignored.

"When we talk about nurturing talent... it's not backed up by the government," he said.

"The young generation can be developed. But there is no one who cares about this."