Southeast Asia Indonesia

Happy 33rd Birthday, Arema FC!

August 11th, 1987. Acub Zaenal was seeking to found a football club in the football-crazy city of Malang in Indonesia’s East Java Province. The former governor of Irian Jaya (now Papua) was dreaming of seeing a Malang-based representative in the Galatama, Indonesia’s first semi-professional football league. At that time, the city was represented by Persema Malang in the Perserikatan, an amateur football league for government-backed teams. After meeting with a number of key figures in both the Malang city government and Malang football, Acub’s dream came into reality – Arema FC was born.

Acub was no stranger in establishing football clubs before, having worked together with Dirk Sutrisno in establishing another Galatama side, Perkesa 78. Dirk happened to have established Armada ’86, another Galatama side and it was this team that became the backbone for the newly established Arema FC. Financial troubles plagued the young club, but Acub stepped in and improved the club’s fortunes. Armada ’86 became Aremada ’86, before transforming into Arema ’86, before finally becoming Arema FC in August 11th, 1987. The proud lion was chosen as the club’s symbol because Arema was born underneath the Leo sign, thus creating the Singo Edan (Mad Lions) moniker.

The great Sinyo Aliandoe was appointed as Arema’s first ever head coach, with a number of ex-Perserikatan players joining in Acub’s pet project. The Malang Air Force also stepped in to help Arema by providing the players with accommodation and a training pitch near the city’s Abdulrachman Saleh Airport (then a military airbase). Acub watched on as his club grew and grew, providing all the financial support that he could to the club while at the same time involving his son Lucky Acub Zaenal in the club’s day-to-day business. Even though they never were in any danger of inhabiting the Galatama’s lower reaches, Arema weren’t challenging anyone in the league’s upper half, establishing themselves as a solid mid-table team.

In 1992, Arema won their first major honor – that year’s Galatama title. The team was helmed by former Indonesia national team head coach M. Basri, while the Singo Edan‘s key players back then include Aji Santoso, Mecky Tata, and Singgih Pitono. Both Acub and his son Lucky watched on as the city of Malang erupted into celebrations as Arema brought home their maiden Galatama title.

Both the Galatama and Perserikatan were merged together into the Liga Indonesia in the 1994-95 season, which meant that Arema could finally square up against their Perserikatan counterparts Persema for the first time competitively. Throughout the Liga Indonesia era, Arema have proven themselves to be one of the league’s top teams, even though financial problems kept on plaguing the club every season. These problems reached it’s zenith in the 2003 Liga Indonesia season, which led to Arema being sold to PT. Bentoel International, a local cigarettes company. Arema were relegated that year, but bounced back with the Divisi Satu title in 2004, returning to the top flight that is the Divisi Utama.

2005 kick-started a golden period in Arema history, as the team won the inaugural edition of Piala Indonesia. Arema back then were led by head coach Benny Dollo and contained players such as Alexander Pulalo, Firman Utina, Emaleu Serge, Franco Hita, FX Erol Iba, Arif Suyono, and I Putu Gede. A hat-trick from Utina saw off Persija Jakarta in the 2005 Piala Indonesia final, ensuring Arema their second major honor in history. Benny Dollo repeated the feat in 2006, leading Arema to back-to-back Piala Indonesia titles.

2008-09 saw the inaugural season of the Liga Super Indonesia being launched, with the league being shaped into Indonesia’s brand new top flight. Arema went through a slight blip during this period, finishing 10th, however they bounced back in style in the 2009-10 season. Led by Dutchman Robert Rene Alberts and with players such as Singaporean duo Noh Alam Shah and Muhammad Ridhuan, Ahmad Bustomi, Dendi Santoso, Kurnia Meiga, Sunarto, Slovakian Roman Chmelo, Zulkifli Syukur, and Cameroonian veteran Pierre Njanka, Arema romped their way to the 2009-10 Liga Super Indonesia title, seeing off the challenge of Persipura Jayapura along the way. Despite failing to defend their title in the following year, Arema remained competitive in the league and in the process becoming the last Indonesian team to appear in the AFC Champions League group stage so far.

A creditable draw against Shandong Luneng, heroic displays in defeats against Cerezo Osaka and Jeonnam Dragons, a victory against Bangkok University (now True Bangkok United), as well as wins against Selangor FA and Kitchee SC were some of Arema’s more notable results in the continental stage. The Singo Edan have made 5 appearances in AFC club competitions, which cover the former Asian Club Championship, the AFC Champions League, and the AFC Cup. Their quarter-final appearance in the 2012 AFC Cup remain Arema’s best showing in the Asian stage.

Coincidentally, Arema’s continental heroics in 2012 coincided with an important event that changed Arema as we know it. The Indonesian top flight was split into two in the 2010-11 season, with the breakaway Liga Premier Indonesia emerging out from the PSSI-sanctioned Liga Super Indonesia. The Liga Premier Indonesia was a short-lived affair, but it’s ramifications were long-lasting. Disagreements within the PSSI led to the formation of the Liga Prima Indonesia, which was the PSSI-sanctioned league back in 2011. The 2011-12 season saw Arema splitting into two – Arema IPL, backed by M. Nur and Lucky, participated in both the Liga Prima Indonesia and the AFC Cup. The other Arema, backed by Rendra Kresna, participated in the Liga Super Indonesia and were almost relegated that season.

The Indonesian top flight were reunified in 2013, however Arema remained split in half until this day. Rendra’s Arema received significant investment and underwent a brilliant, yet trophy-less Galactico era from 2014-2016. Players such as Cristian Gonzales, Thierry Gathuessi, Greg Nwokolo, Victor Igbonefo, and Alberto “Beto” Goncalves joined Rendra’s Arema, which became known as Arema Cronus. M. Nur’s Arema IPL, on the other hand were exiled from Indonesian football, adopting the name Arema Indonesia beforehand.

Both Aremas claim to be the rightful Singo Edan, which consequentially split the fanbase in half as well. Rival fans still poke fun at this situation until this day, with questions such as “Which Arema?” popping up in social media every time someone opened a discussion about the Singo Edan. Arema’s dualism became so severe that it was one of the factors contributing to Indonesian football being suspended by FIFA in 2015 – with the Ministry of Youth and Sports suspending that year’s Liga Super Indonesia due to legality issues surrounding both Arema Cronus and their rivals Persebaya Surabaya, who were also split into Persebaya 1927 (who were exiled from Indonesian football alongside Arema Indonesia) and Persebaya Divisi Utama (DU), the PSSI-sanctioned Bajul Ijo.

As part of the Football Federation of Indonesia (PSSI)’s efforts in overturning FIFA’s suspension at that time, legality issues surrounding both Arema Cronus and Persebaya were sorted out. Persebaya’s was at least resolved – Persebaya 1927 received full rights of the Persebaya brand and were readmitted into the PSSI, thus once again becoming Persebaya Surabaya. Persebaya DU, on the other hand, were merged into the Indonesian Police’s football section, becoming the Jakarta-based Bhayangkara FC. However, Arema’s dualism remained strong until this day, with Arema Indonesia being readmitted into the PSSI as a brand new club and Arema Cronus being renamed into Arema FC due to fan pressure.

Arema FC are now playing in the Liga 1, the current top flight of Indonesian football, while Arema Indonesia are in the third tier Liga 3, playing in the league’s East Java region. Both Aremas are still claiming to be the rightful Arema that was founded on August 11th 1987 until this day.

Regardless of the issues surrounding Arema, in the 33 years since their foundation, the Singo Edan have proven themselves as one of Indonesia’s most iconic sides. Their dark blue home jerseys, the fearsome lion in their badge, and their passionate Aremania supporters group became the hallmark of the Malang-based club, with rivalries against Persebaya and Persema as well as their competitive friendship with Persija becoming highlights of each passing season. Arema has become the identity of the city of Malang, something that is inseparable from East Java’s second largest city.

Whenever one visits the city of Malang, they are soon greeted with murals of Arema’s iconic lion splashed across a number of walls, songs about Arema being played from radios, Arema-related paraphernalia decorating Malang’s public transport,  and the name “Arema” being used in a multitude of business within the city, from street vendors to restaurants to garages. The city of Malang will feel different without the spirit of Arema living within its people and vice-versa, Arema won’t exist without the people of Malang.

Salam satu jiwa, Arema! Tamales nuhat, Ongis Nade! Here’s for a colorful 33 years and hoping for more successes for the Singo Edan in the future.