Southeast Asia Indonesia

May Day Special – Remembering the Laskar Bukit Tursina

Krishna Sadhana

Football Tribe SEA Editor


May 1st is observed annually as May Day. Also known as the International Workers’ Day and Labour Day, it is a day that commemorates the working class of the world, with workers and laborers alike uniting together to voice their rights towards both the government and their employers. When talking about the working class and football together in a single context, one might imagine almost immediately the concept of “works team.” Works team are sport teams that are founded, financed, and operated by manufacturers and other businesses, often utilizing the working force as their members.

Within Asia alone, the concept of works team is quite familiar within the continent’s footballing history, with some of Asia’s biggest teams being able to trace their roots to smaller works teams that eventually grew into Asian giants over time. J.League giants Yokohama F. Marinos, Jubilo Iwata, Cerezo Osaka, Urawa Red Diamonds, and Nagoya Grampus were former works teams, representing Nissan, Yamaha, Yanmar, Mitsubishi, and Toyota respectively, while Honda FC of the fourth tier Japan Football League have resisted professionalism to retain their identity as being the works team of Honda Motor Company. South Korea have a plethora of works teams playing in the league’s semi-professional leagues, such as Daejeon Korail, Gyeongju Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (Gyeongju KNHP), and the now-defunct Ulsan Hyundai Mipo Dockyard Dolphin. Last but not least, Indian works team have played in the I-League, the top flight of Indian football, until the start of the 2013-14 system, when the I-League adopts a more professional licensing system. These include the likes of Air India FC, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation FC (ONGC FC), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited SC (HAL SC), and Jagatjit Cotton and Textile FC (JCT FC).

In Southeast Asia, the works team concept is also quite common, especially in Indonesia. Until 1994, there were two Indonesian football leagues – the amateur Perserikatan that features teams backed by local governments, and the semi-professional Galatama, which includes an assortment of semi-professional teams, works teams included. Notable Indonesian works teams include Warna Agung (representing the Warna Agung paint company), Krama Yudha Tiga Berlian (representing the Krama Yudha Tiga Berlian Motor Company, a distributor of Mitsubishi in Indonesia), Pardedetex Medan (representing the Pardedetex textile company), Petrokimia Putra (representing the Petrokimia fertilizer company), Semen Padang (representing the Semen Padang cement company), and last but not least, Pupuk Kaltim (representing the Pupuk Kaltim fertilizer company).

Founded in 1988, Pupuk Kaltim were a force during the twilight years of the Galatama, finishing as the competition’s runners-up in the 1991/92 and 1992/93 seasons. The Laskar Bukit Tursina kept playing their best brand of football once the Perserikatan and Galatama were merged together into the new Indonesian top flight, the Liga Indonesia. In the first season of the newly unified league, Pupuk Kaltim went all the way to the semifinals, where they were defeated by fellow Galatama alumni Petrokimia Putra. Pupuk Kaltim soon established themselves as East Kalimantan’s top representative in the Indonesian top flight, being undeterred by the Asian economic crisis of the late 90s that saw many of their former Galatama opponents withdrawing from the league and being disbanded altogether. Pupuk Kaltim’s greatest moment came in the 1999/2000 season, where they finished runners-up to the league after losing 3-2 at the hands of PSM Makassar. This earned Pupuk Kaltim an appearance in the 2000/01 AFC Asian Cup Winners’ Cup, being the first (and so far only) team from Kalimantan to have made a bow in continental competitions. Pupuk Kaltim did not last long in the competition though, being eliminated 5-1 on aggregate by Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana (now Police Tero).

One of the secrets behind Pupuk Kaltim’s success in the late 90s and early 2000s was the Diklat Mandau. PT Pupuk Kaltim as the team’s benefactor decided to establish a football academy in Bontang, East Kalimantan, where the team was based. Called the Diklat Mandau, a number of the academy’s alumni subsequently made a name for themselves whilst playing for Pupuk Kaltim, before going on to bigger career opportunities and even representing the Indonesia national team. These alumni include Bima Sakti, Fakhri Husaini, Marthen Tao, Ponaryo Astaman, Aris Budi Prasetyo, and even present-day players such as Persib Bandung’s Beni Oktavianto and Persija Jakarta’s Sandi Darma Sute.

In 2004, Pupuk Kaltim changed their name into PKT Bontang, a name that represents both PT Pupuk Kaltim as the team’s owners and Bontang as the city that the team was based at. During this time, the team started to decline steadily, with the rise of Persiba Balikpapan effectively taking away their title of being top dogs of both East Kalimantan and Kalimantan in general. In the buildup to the formation of the 2008/09 Indonesia Super League, the newly refurbished top flight of Indonesian football, PKT Bontang received a free pass to the new league even though they’ve finished outside the required positions for qualification into the league, after both Persmin Minahasa and Persiter Ternate failed to qualify to the ISL due to administrative and infrastructural issues. This meant that both PKT Bontang and PSIS Semarang received free passes to the ISL in Persmin and Persiter’s stead after they were deemed worthy enough for qualification in terms of off-field matters. The Laskar Bukit Tursina finished 13th in the inaugural ISL season and this would prove to be the last season that the team had with PT Pupuk Kaltim.

Before the 2009/10 ISL season started, PT Pupuk Kaltim decided to hand over the ownership of PKT Bontang to the Bontang city government, effectively ending PKT Bontang’s status as a works team as the era of professionalism made itself known in Indonesian football. As the city government seeks investors to take over the team, the newly re-branded Bontang FC suffered financial shortages, which affected their on-field performances. Although Bontang FC finished 11th in the 2009/10 ISL season, they were relegated out of the league in 2010/11, losing the relegation play-offs against Persidafon Dafonsoro. 2011/12 saw Indonesian football being split in half as the ISL existed alongside the Indonesian Premier League, which was formed due to the conflict within the Indonesian FA (PSSI). Joining the IPL, Bontang FC received a second chance of top flight football, however they did not fare well in the new league and were even implicated in a match-fixing scandal in 2013, which effectively spelled the end of the road for Bontang FC. The Laskar Bukit Tursina were banished to the lowest tier of Indonesian football by the PSSI and having being absent in the 2014 edition of the Liga Nusantara (then the lowest tier within the Indonesian football pyramid), Bontang FC effectively went into a deep slumber once FIFA suspended Indonesian football in 2015.

Thankfully, 2016 saw Bontang FC being revived by a number of people who are motivated in returning the club back into its glory days. Bontang FC went all the way to the final of the East Kalimantan section of the 2016 ISC Liga Nusantara, the unofficial lowest tier of Indonesian football, where they were defeated by Persikutim East Kutai. 2017 saw Bontang FC remaining in the lowest tier of Indonesian football, this time being rebranded into Liga 3. However, the Laskar Bukit Tursina are yet to replicate the heights of their golden era, failing to advance out of the Liga 3 East Kalimantan in both 2017 and 2018 before being absent completely in 2019 due to financial shortages. During their announcement of sitting out the 2019 Liga 3 East Kalimantan, the Bontang FC management hinted at a return in 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Bontang FC’s return to the Liga 3 remained uncertain after all three tiers of Indonesian football were suspended.

During Bontang FC’s absence, three teams have stepped into their place of being East Kalimantan’s representatives in the Indonesian top flight – Persiba Balikpapan, Mitra Kukar of Kutai Kartanegara, and Borneo FC of Samarinda. Following Persiba Balikpapan and Mitra Kukar’s relegation to the Liga 2 in 2017 and 2018 respectively, Borneo FC became the sole representative of East Kalimantan in the Liga 1. However, fans within the region and also Indonesia would look back  and remember quite fondly of Bontang FC’s exploits in the top flight, a once mighty works team that was undermined by league dualism, financial problems, and match-fixing.

Let’s hope that Bontang FC would make their return to the big time and make their region proud once again.