The team that brought the world’s largest continent into the fold was not one of today’s traditional powers, such as Japan or Iran. Instead, it was the Dutch East Indies – a dependent territory of the Netherlands which would later gain independence as Indonesia.
The Dutch East Indies’ path to the World Cup was incredibly straightforward. After Japan withdrew from the Asian play-off, FIFA sought to arrange an alternative qualifier between the Dutch East Indies and the United States. But when the Americans failed to show up, the Asians’ passage to the finals was sealed, without playing a single game.
Q: Who were the first team from #Asia to appear at a #WorldCup?🤔— OPEN UP! 🏡 (@chillinaris) January 30, 2018
A: The Dutch East Indies, known now as #Indonesia (@pssi__fai), reached the 1938 finals in #France #TBT
📽️ 👉https://t.co/t7TdExPO6N pic.twitter.com/G21CCiuENu (via @FIFAWorldCup)
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However, if their qualification was simple, the history of the Dutch East Indies national team was anything but. It began with the formation of the NIVB (Nederlandsche Indische Football Association) in 1919, and it was under this federation that the country joined FIFA five years later.
To many native Indonesians, the idea of playing under the NIVB was an insult. ‘Indische’ refers mainly to those of Dutch heritage, and this did not sit well with other ethnic groups in Indonesia. A number of opposing football associations sprang up, the most significant of which was the PSSI, or Football Association of Indonesia, in 1930.
Only NIVB was recognised by FIFA, but the divisions within the country were clear. When the Dutch East Indies played their first match in 1934, only players registered with the NIVB were considered.
The NIVB gave way to the NIVU in 1935, and an uneasy truce was agreed, allowing players of all backgrounds to be selected for the national team. The NIVU continued to favour those with Dutch heritage, but when it came to picking a squad for the World Cup, they did have to make some compromises.
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“We need to remember that this was during an era of Dutch occupation, and the Dutch would rather have selected only their own players for the team,” says Yohannes Pattiwael, whose father Isaak played in the 1938 World Cup.
“But it turned out that there were so many good native Indonesian footballers, that some of them were selected ahead of those Dutch players in Indonesia.”
Not everyone was willing to forgive and forget the years of elitism that the NIVB had held over the PSSI. Even the lure of a trip to the World Cup could not convince some players to part with their principles, as Indonesian journalist Sumohadi Marsis explains.
“Among the native Indonesian players at that time, there was remarkable enthusiasm to use football as a means to encourage the movement for freedom from the Dutch,” said Marsis, speaking in 2014. “They wanted to be independent, so they used football as part of that drive for independence.
“Therefore, when the Dutch East Indies Federation invited players from PSSI clubs to take part in their selection matches for the 1938 World Cup, some of them refused to participate.”
Great question. I think I'd have to say the Dutch East Indies in 1938, the only nation to play only one game at a World Cup— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) January 24, 2018
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For many of the Dutch East Indies players, the trip to Europe was the first time they had ever been overseas. The boat journey took several weeks, during which time the players were training and, according to Marsis, “prepar[ing] themselves for the matches that they were going to play when they got to France.”
“Matches” might not have been the right word. The 1938 World Cup was the last to use a straight-to-knockout format, meaning that there were no second chances for teams who lost their opening match.
The Dutch East Indies would have been massive outsiders against any opposition, but their task was made doubly difficult when they were drawn against Hungary. The Magyars boasted a formidable squad, including 1939 top scorer in Europe Gyula Zsengellér and the mercurial György Sárosi.
Dutch East Indies captain Achmad Nawir donned his glasses for the match in Reims, but you didn’t need specs to see this result coming. Hungary won 6-0, and the underdogs’ campaign was over before it had even begun.
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The journey didn’t end there though. A number of exhibition matches had been arranged against Dutch clubs, so the Dutch East Indies travelled to the Hague to continue their summer of football. They performed slightly better here, losing narrowly to Sparta Rotterdam before a win against Dordrecht and a defeat to Den Haag.
Most of the players only had eyes for only one game though. On 26 June 1938, the first and last ever match between the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands took place, with 50,000 spectators in attendance. After years of subordination, the Asians were finally meeting their colonial masters on a level playing field.
In the underdog movie version of this match, the Dutch East Indies win, a PSSI player scores the winning goal, and it is proven that football has power beyond borders and bureaucracy. In reality, the Netherlands won 9-2, but the emblematic value of this game was not lost on the media.
Action from the match between Hungary and the Dutch East Indies in Reims at the 1938 World Cup Finals pic.twitter.com/zWxKDXjFlJ— The League Magazine (@Theleaguemag) September 28, 2017
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“We can assume with confidence that the symbolism has played a major role in the mind of the idea of unity of our Empire,” read a report in the newspaper Het Vaderland. The Dutch East Indies’ European tour had ended with a second heavy defeat, but there was no sense of humiliation, only pride.
The truce between the NIVU and the PSSI ended a year after the World Cup, and the Dutch East Indies squad reverted to Dutch exclusivity. But the diverse team which travelled to France in 1938 made waves which fanned the nationalistic flames already ablaze in the south Asian nation.
Indonesia declared independence in 1945, but has never returned to the global footballing stage as a sovereign state. They remain the only team to play just one match at the World Cup finals.