Sunday, October 15, 2017


Choirul Huda & Lamongan

So, I went to Lamongan. To meet a man. If it wasn’t for football I think it’s fair to say the East Java town of Lamongan would never have appeared on my radar. I’m no foodie but if the town is famous for anything it is food, especially Soto Lamongan. That’s about it. I stayed a year in Surabaya, about an 80 minute drive to the east, and I don’t think the town ever came up in conversation. It’s just there, one more town on the road that connects Surabaya with the west of Java. One more anonymous town on a busy highway where drivers are focused more on avoiding the bloody great lorries that race along at stupid miles per hour than the towns they pass through.

The first time I think I wrote anything more than a couple of lines about Persela was in 2008 when I described them as a bit like Middlesbrough. Not the most glamourous of football clubs, difficult to find on a map but possessing a very passionate home support. As I write this, 11 weeks into the Liga 1 2017 season, little Persela are averaging better crowds than mighty Arema. They may never win a trophy but at the same time I have never heard a bad word said about them. Foreign players have praised the club’s management and said they were always well looked after at the club. In return some stayed for two, three years or more. Unheard of loyalty in Indonesian football but testament to the town and its football club.

My plan was to stay in Lamongan for a couple of days to get a feel for the place but I couldn’t find a decent enough hotel on line with the facilities I felt I needed. Jeez, what a wuss. Back in the day I would just turn up in a town and find budget lodgings myself. Now I can’t do a thing without the internet. Plan B was to stay in nearby Surabaya and travel out by train. Surely there had to be a resaonable service connecting the two places? Surely there were people who lived in Lamongan but worked in the bigger city? Well, no actually. There wasn’t much of a service. Less than a dozen a day.

I ended up hiring a car and driver from my hotel in Surabaya and cursing my reliance on the internet. I should have just fronted up in Lamongan and made do with what I found. But I didn’t. I’m a useless snowflake who feels uncomfortable without a luxury or two to ease my burden. Bollocks isn’t it but that’s the way it is now and I am using middle age to defend myself.

The drive itself wasn’t much of a hardship. Just not fun. Whizzing along the main road out of Surabaya you escape the ugly industrial buildings and soon racing past flat rice fields. To  my left, looming large like a space ship which had taken the wrong turning, was the Gelora Bung Tomo or Bung Tomo Stadium, Persebaya’s new 55,000 seater stadium in the middle of nowhere. Not much further on, this time on the right hand side, was Joko Samudro Stadium in Gresik, under construction for local heroes Gresik United. Living in Jakarta I marvel at these new stadiums so close together going up amid so much open land.

We exit the Jalan Tol Surabaya Gresik and head straight west. The land here is not what I am used to in and around Jakarta. It looks flat and arrid, more like what I have seen to the east of Surabaya on the island of Madura. Most definetly non tropical. The road is flat and straight but not dull. Them bloody lorries make sure of that. I don’t know what if any road etiquette exists for drivers of large vehicles in the country but out here there appeared to be none. They would quite happily drive two abreast, the inside lorry putting the pedal to the metal at a staggering 30 miles per hour while another large vehicle would be overlapping the central reservation, hogging the road and pissing off all other road users as he attempted to overtake at a majestic 33 miles per hour. I was in a car. We were small so we were nothing. Yes, we had speed that counted for little as the big truckers vied for road supremacy.

The scenery might have been quite pleasant had I had the chance to enjoy it but I was too scared to draw my eyes away from the road in front. My driver didn’t seem too worried, he was probably used to having his life flash before his eyes on these roads, but it was ok. I was shitting enough bricks for the both of us, especially when one 40 foot monster came raring down the middle of the road leaning too far to his right for my liking.

The white knuckle ride ended as we entered Lamongan. We passed the football stadium, Surajaya Stadium, on the right hand side, crossed the railway tracks and entered the town proper. I had arranged to meet Persela’s legendary goalkeeper Choirul Huda by the Lamongan Sports Centre and I was early. We parked up outside the centre in a quite lane opposite a small warung. All was peaceful and quiet which I enjoyed. I sent Choirul a message and waited for his reply. The occasional motorcycle broke the silence but they were quiet and respectful, not like those big city buggers who get a hard on from remove the mufflers from the exhaust and revving the engines just to piss the neighbours off.

I checked the phone but Choirul hadn’t replied. I wasn’t too worried even though the meter was ticking over. I was being seduced by the somnolent surroundings. The sun was high, the sky was blue and there was plenty of green stuff even though I was in the heart of the city. Town. The driver got out to stretch his legs. Still no reply from Choirul. The driver returned and we nattered a little, a good chance to practise my bahasa Indonesia. ‘What about your friend?’ Oh yeah. I checked again. Nothing. In fact he hadn’t even seen my message. Bloody hell. Ok, this was getting naff. I had been sittting here for 45 minutes and still was no neared to meeting this guy. I contacted my mate Gabriel Budi, an agent who had put me in touch with Choirul. ‘Wait, I will try.’ and the phones went silent again.

Finally, after slightly over an hour of unproductive nothingness I got a message from Choirul. ‘Sorry, I was asleep.’ I could believe that. I was half way there myself. I asked him whether we could meet at the sports centre or the stadium. His answer? Ok. I switched to the old fashioned way. SMS. ‘Meet dimana?’ Fifteen minutes later he said we could meet at the mess, the club house which was shared by many of the local players. Great. We found the house on Google Maps and were there in five minutes. I walked in through the open doorway. ‘Choirul dimana?’ ‘Uh?’ The one person I found saw the big white guy and disappeared into a room. I honestly had no idea if he was running away from me or had gone to find someone to translate. It was the latter as he reemerged with one of the coaching staff. I sent Choirul another SMS.

‘Choirul dimana?’ They looked at me with suscpicion. What the hell was this white guy doing here they were probably thinking. ‘Kamu ada meeting?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Kita ada latihan jam 3, mungkin dia langsung ke stadion.’ ‘Ok, bisa ikut?’. He smiled. ‘Kamu tau Mas Choirul’ he asked. Tau tapi belum bertemu.’ ‘Kamu pelatih?’ I smiled at that. You seen my beer gut? ‘Saya penulis,’ I said reaching into my bag for a copy of my first book which it just so happened I was carrying with me. He seemed unimpressed and passed it round his pals who had gathered in the front room of the mess. They seemed to share his apathy and it was returned to me with not even a page turned. My phone beeped. ‘Nanti di stadion saya berlatih jam 3.’ It was Choirul.

So, two hours after I was due to meet Choirul I finally got to see him as he jogged down the tunnel to join his team mates in their training session ahead of their home game with Persija 24 hours later. He turned to look at the main stand, saw this big white guy, assumed it was me and waved. I waved back and let him get on with it. I wasn’t angry that I had been waiting so long to meet him. In fact if I’m honest I half expected it. Choirul Huda, born in Lamongan, raised in Lamongan, educated in Lamongan, day job in Lamongan, plays for local side Persela Lamongan. His town, his rules and I liked that. I wasn’t expecting a brash Billy Big Balls who had been changed by the fame and fortune of professional football.

John Terry played for Chelsea for 19 years. Steven Gerrard played for Liverpool for 17 years. Tony Adams played for Arsenal for 19 years. Francesco Totti played for AS Roma for 25 years. One club men. Legends. Icons. Choirul Huda in my book deserves to be mentioned in such august company. He has played for Persela for 17 years and, if he has his way, has a few more years in the tank. But while Terry, Gerrard and Adams were lauded and feted by the media and their club and, truth be told, embraced the celebrity culture football brought them Choirul is a more humble man with a full time job outside of football. He doesn’t seek the limelight and truth be told would not have cared one jot had I written about Lamongan and not mentioned him. Quiet, understated, quietly spoken, humble. He may not have the qualities needed to be a hero in other countries who prefer their superstars to be bad ass boys, Choirul is a legend in Lamongan and is a legend in Indonesian football. He deserves a few lines to be written about him to celebrate his career but then he deserves to be allowed to slip quietly back into the anonymity afforded by his quiet home town.

I’m not really one for watching professional footballers train. It looks just like people doing a job and I like footballers to have an element of mystique about them. Still, I was here for Choirul and it was interesting to see how he did his job in his work place. The 37 year old goalkeeper, he was to turn 38 just a few weeks later, was in his element. Not one for bawling, he led by example, coming for every cross, every shot while offering words of encouragement to his younger teammates. The consummate professional footballer, one most coaches would be grateful to have in the dressing room.

At the end of the session he posed for some photographs from fans who had been sat by me watching before making his way t o me. He was drenched in sweat and his training shirt was covered in dirt. We shook hands and smiled at each other. ‘Sorry,’ he said in halting English, ‘I was sleeping’. Forget about it I told him. I asked if he wanted to get showered and freshened up before we chatted but he said, no, let’s do it so we headed for the Persela dug out, I took out my note book, refreshed myself and pressed the record button on my phone. After driving for 90 minutes, waiting two hours, watching him train for a further 90 minutes our chat lasted all of five minutes. Again I expected that. Any information I wanted, I knew I would have to really dig for. But the truth is I didn’t really want to dig. This is a guy who loves football, loves Lamongan and is happy in his world. I decided I wanted to focus on Choirul and his love affair with Lamongan. I’m sure he has juicy tales to tell from years in the dressing room but that’s not what I want. I want his town, his rules.

NOTE - this piece is to form a part of the Lamongan chapter in my second book.

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