The story of a pioneering Dutch East Indies side
First Asian team to participate at a World Cup
Debut against Hungary on 5 June 1938
If you were asked to name the first Asian country to qualify for a FIFA World Cup™, Korea Republic might be the first team to spring to mind. That would be incorrect, however, as the 2002 semi-finalists’ maiden appearance was at the 1954 tournament in Switzerland.
Japan, perhaps? Wrong again, as although the Samurai Blue have been at every edition since 1998, they failed to qualify at all before then. Australia would be a good guess, but the Socceroos only participated for the first time in 1974, and did so as Oceania representatives.
In fact, the first ever Asian team took part at the third World Cup in 1938 in France, but have since faded into obscurity somewhat. That should come as little surprise as the country in question is Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia.
At the time, Japan were the only other Asian team to register for World Cup qualifying. The sides were due to play the decisive Group 12 qualifier for a ticket to the tournament but after Japan withdrew, Dutch East Indies were awarded the berth.
Curiously, back then there were even two football associations in Dutch East Indies: one for the Dutch and one for the local players. A selection of players from the two federations ended up making the trip to Europe but it was far from a smooth experience as a number of the native players refused to play for the colonial rulers.
After a journey of several weeks by ship, the orange-clad team faced Hungary in their first game on 5 June 1938 in Reims. Almost two decades before the emergence of the ‘Magic Magyars’, this Hungary team also proved to be too strong and recorded a 6-0 victory en route to reaching the Final, which they would ultimately lose 4-2 to defending champions Italy.
As the World Cup was played entirely in a knockout format at the time, that defeat spelled the end of the line for the Asian team after just one round. "It doesn’t matter what happened, I defended Indonesia,” Tjaak Pattiwael, who played for Dutch East Indies, on several occasions, told his son Yohannes. Pattiwael even scored against Hungary but the goal was ruled out for offside.
After gaining independence following the Second World War in 1954, Indonesia were one of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) but have yet to qualify for a World Cup themselves. In 1986 they were beaten by eventual World Cup participants Korea Republic in the second round of Asian qualifying, while they are currently without any points at the bottom of Group G in Qatar 2022 qualifying.