JAKARTA – Pelota, one of the most popular sports in the Basque country, is relatively unknown in Indonesia now but its popularity was at its peak in the Asian country four decades ago.
A Spanish entrepreneurial initiative in the ’70s and the ’80s had brought into Indonesia the spectacular Cesta Punta or Jai Alai, a sport that involved hitting balls against a walled space – known as fronton – with a hand-held device like a racquet.
In 1971, young men from Basque, pulled by their love of the game, had traveled three days to an unknown country of the east.
Juan Olaechea, a pelotari who later settled down in Jakarta, told EFE that it was a culture shock when they had arrived.
He added that Indonesians were absolutely different from the Spaniards and their calmness of demeanor surprised them.
At the time, Indonesia was ruled by dictator Suharto, who was president from 1967 until he was ousted in 1998.
In Euskera, Jai alai or Cesta punta would attract hundreds of followers to the northern recreational zone of the Ancol beach, the only one at that time to offer such activities to the Jakarta residents, who played the game with huge passion.
People betted over 2 million pesetas (around $13,641) on an average daily, said the 64-year-old Olaechea, who now works in the Spanish Embassy in Indonesia.
The pelotaris were extremely popular in the country and enjoyed a regular salary that went up from $550 to a thousand dollars for the top players.
The players could double their earnings by adding the prize money from the matches.
Olaechea said they were also considered as elite sports personalities and people would fall over each other to invite them home or to get them to attend parties.
During those years, local youngsters, including Erwin Noord, who was mentored by Olaechea, started out admiring and following the game and ended up competing professionally.
Noord told EFE that he took up the game because he liked it, but soon found out that it was a difficult and complicated game to master.
Noord also remembered the camaraderie that formed between the Indonesians and some thirty Basques, who would compete at a fronton during a golden time for the game that was also played in the United States and other Asian countries.
According to Olaechea, the first fronton that opened in Asia was in Shanghai.
It was, however, shut down by the Communist Party of China and later re-opened in Manila and Cebu in Philippines, Macao and Jakarta.
However, in Indonesia, the popularity of the game dipped in 1981 when Suharto decided to ban wagers across the country under the pretext of religious ethics.
Noord, who had began competing professionally in 1980, added that the shut down took place due to political factors and nothing could be done to prevent it.
Without wagers, businessmen could not sustain the sport and it was forgotten in the country, while the Jakarta fronton was turned into the largest nightclub of Southeast Asia.