Tsunami Survivors: New Life For A Decimated Football Club

Arsa is 28 years old, and passionate about football. He's like a million guys his age, right across the world. But Arsa's lively enthusiasm for his own football club conceals a tragedy: three years ago nearly all his team-mates in the little province of Aceh Besar, in Banda Aceh, were killed in the great Asian tsunami.

Not surprisingly, Arsa vividly recalls the day the big wave came for his seaside town - and his band of footballing brothers. "I strolled home early that morning, but the rest of my friends were on the beach sleeping. We were all woken up by the earthquake. The ground was trembling. Because I was 500 metres from the sea I survived. I ran into the hills, to the higher ground."

He stares pensively out to sea, which is now a flat mirror of turquoise. "The waves... they swept everything away, including my friends. Everyone ran in any direction they could but if you were that close to the ocean, you had no chance."

The aftermath was gruesome. "The beach was strewn with wreckage. Telephone poles, motorcycles, concrete blocks from houses, entire cars. The whole shoreline was in chaos. It was horrible." Arsa does not mention the bodies but the sea was also bobbing with corpses, some of them Arsa's friends and team-mates.

Arsa's team lost 30 members on that awful December morning. The carnage had taken all but two players. It seemed to be the end of Club Carlos: previously a flourishing side in the second division of the Indonesian League.

At the time, of course, the loss of a football team was as nothing to the enormity affecting the entire Pacific Rim. The great Asian tsunami killed a mind-boggling number of Indonesians: 132,000 were officially declared dead, and 37,000 were - and are - described as 'missing'.

Elsewhere in Asia other coastal communities were also suffering: in Thailand, the Maldives, India, Sri Lanka. Experts think today that maybe a quarter of a million people died in total.

But it wasn't just the immediate human loss that made the tsunami so devastating. Economies were wrecked: fishermen lost boats, houses were levelled, thousands were injured and made dependant, disease and illness swept through previously thriving towns. Paddy-fields were poisoned. Railway lines were crushed. Orphans wandered the desolate streets.

In the midst of such appalling suffering, to talk or even think about football might seem like a bad joke. Yet the game has arguably been crucial to the recovery of this flattened Acehnese community.

Arsa's friend Adex Yunardi is the only other player from Club Carlos who survived the tsunami. The 23-year-old takes up the story: "After the tsunami I went to Bandung in West Java, to look for a job. But it was impossible. There were so many people made homeless by the disaster. They were all doing the same. Then I heard that FIFA were rebuilding the football field where Club Carlos used to play. Not only that, they were going to make it better - turn it into a real proper ground."

Adex went home, and was happy to discover that the rumours were true. As part of the international aid project, following the tsunami, FIFA was trying to rebuild the little Acehnese club: as a source and symbol of hope. But this reconstruction work was not easy.

"The football field was a mess of heavy wreckage. This all had to be moved. It took so long." Eventually, the battered football field was relaid. FIFA spent a grand total of $3.5 million on new seats, new goals, a proper brick wall, and lots of fresh green grass.

"It's not a super stadium," says Adex, "But it is better than anything that was here before. Now we get people coming from all over to play on our pitch. Even if they have no boots - they play barefoot!"

These days the stadium is always full of players - and matches are scheduled against other teams from the area, even professional teams in the Indonesian league. The club has also managed to coax back its former president, Zamzami, who had left in despair as a consequence of the tsunami.

"Football is my flesh and blood," says the 40-year-old Zamzami. "I was so excited when I returned and saw people playing football on the field where Club Carlos used to train. So I decided to put some of my own money into reconstructing the team and the club." The presence, once again, of a professional coach like Zamzami has helped give confidence back to the stricken Club Carlos.

It is a heartening tale, yet it is perhaps not the most remarkable soccer-related story to come out of tsunami-struck Banda Aceh.

A few weeks after the wave hit, Portugal's FIFA World Cup-winning Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari saw a searing news report by Sky TV journalist Ian Dovaston. The news story focussed on a seven-year-old Acehnese boy called Martunis - who had endured 19 days alone, after he was swept a mile from his home by the floodwaters.

For nearly three weeks the lad survived by eating berries and dried noodles, and drinking from rain puddles. Throughout his horrific ordeal he wore a No7 Portuguese football jersey. When Martunis was rescued he was covered in mosquito bites and badly emaciated. And that wasn't the end of his anguish. When the TV crew took him home, Martunis discovered that he had lost his mother and brothers to the waves.

Touched by this poignant tragedy, and the reference to Portuguese football, Scolari had little Martunis and his bereaved father Sarbini flown over to Europe, to watch some World Cup fixtures. As Sarbini put it at the time: "This was amazing for me. Before the tsunami just going to Jakarta was luxurious for us. The only place I had travelled to before was Medan, in North Sumatra. Then suddenly we got the chance to go to Europe."

Travel wasn't the only benefit that football afforded this grieving family. Money was sent by the Portuguese football federation to rebuild Sarbini's house: €70,000 has now put the family back on its feet.

Through the Scolari connection, Martunis himself has met the biggest names in professional football. With a sparkle in his eyes the boy recalls the day he sat next to Rui Costa. And the visit he received from Cristiano Ronaldo, the famous Portugal and Manchester United striker who stopped off in Banda Aceh on his way to join United's Far East tour six months after the tsunami struck. This was especially rewarding for Martunis, as, like so many in Asia, he is a huge Man U fan: "I really like the Red Devils, so it was great to meet Ronaldo."

It was an emotional experience for the footballer, too. "We talked in gestures and with the help of a translator," says Ronaldo. "But he is so shy he hardly said a word. I showed him my mobile phone. he had never seen one before and he immediately asked for my number. Then we had a go on my Playstation. And when I opened my computer and showed him pictures of me and also some video games his eyes were glittering with excitement because he had never seen so many novelties before. He is a very brave, very special boy who has been through and experience that many adults would not be able to cope with."

Despite all this positivity, times are still hard in Banda Aceh. Billions of dollars in aid has been injected into the local economy, yet some people still subsist in temporary housing. The tsunami was so disastrous it may take a generation for the region to fully recover. And people will never, ever forget.

But the wounds are slowly but surely healing. And as the laughing footballers of Club Carlos kick a ball across their new pitch, with the sun setting over the green palm trees beyond, it is possible to believe that the beautiful game has played a small but important part in that convalescence.