An Indonesian football saga

Here's an interesting look at turbulent times in Indonesia courtesy of Pangeran Siahaan.

There is an on-going battle in Indonesian football. A breakaway competition called the Liga Primer Indonesia (LPI) kicked off recently and created fury among officials of the Indonesian FA (PSSI). Three clubs have defected from the Indonesian Super League (ISL) to join the newly born league and several other ISL clubs are weighing up their options.

It’s such an understatement to say football is Indonesia’s favourite pastime. Football has become a religion in this archipelago.  Gelora Bung Karno National Stadium was packed with more than 88,000 people to see the final of the AFF Cup last month, with many thousands of supporters who didn’t get tickets watching the game on a big screen outside the stadium.

Indonesia is a long-suffering football country, having not won anything since 1991 when the Red and Whites snatched football gold medals in the SEA (South East Asian) Games. After that glorious day, it’s been all downhill. We are the biggest country in the region, yet we are a pariah on the pitch.

The backbone of any national team is a strong domestic competition, something that our FA fails to understand. Since its inception in 1994, the Indonesian Super League has failed to fulfill its duty to be a catharsis for the national team. It’s not rocket science to understand why we never have outstanding strikers, playmakers and centre-halves, because their positions mostly belong to foreigners at club level. Regulation restricts clubs to a maximum of five foreign players, not a huge number for global football, but it’s still too many for us.

In addition, most Indonesian clubs cannot make money on their own. They don’t have any idea how to generate income and rely solely on the regional budget of their own local government. It’s hard to believe considering how football is such a massive commodity in the modern world, but in Indonesia, it’s the naked truth.

Despite their professional status, most clubs are owned by their respective province governments. The local governments allocate part of the annual regional budget to run the clubs. There’s no player contract length longer than a year in Indonesian football because everything has to be synchronized with the annual regional budget. Basically, most clubs do not have to do anything to earn income because it is all taken care of for them.

Since the regional budget comes from public tax, most of the clubs make their living from public money that could be used for more important matters than running a “professional” football club. There is an allocation for other public interest in sports such as stadium maintenance and youth development, but the percentage is relatively small. A medium sized club like Persijap Jepara will receive $ 500,000 each year from the annual budget. At bigger clubs, the number inflates. Jakarta-based Persija received $ 4 million last year from the local government.

This situation is far from ideal because without the need of generating money, the clubs are not urged to perform well in the league. No matter where you finish - top, seventh, or sixteenth - you don’t have to worry about your future because the regional budget is there for you to waste. Achievement will attract money, but if you already have an eternal supply of income, what is the point of performing well in the league? Hence, the Indonesian Super League is not a competitive league at all, which affects the national team. On the day he took the managerial position, Indonesian head coach, Austrian Alfred Riedl stated his concern about the quality of the national players. Poor tactical understanding, hapless disciplinary records, and – to make things even worse - only one player out of the 23 man national squad passed the VO2Max (a measure of fitness) standard. Riedl blamed it on the league.

This is where the Liga Primer Indonesia (LPI) comes in. The individuals behind the LPI understand that in order to form a professional league, any cash injection from the regional budget has to be stopped. So they came up with the idea of forming a new league where the funding comes from a consortium of local businessmen who have an interest in football, adopting the idea the from American MLS with its franchise concept. Instead of selling the franchise to club owners – which is not an easy thing to do financially - the LPI consortium give each club a same share of money to start their own clubs, much like a credit loan from a bank.

The league is still short of a few teams to make an ideal 20-club competition, but the Indonesian FA has responded harshly to the LPI.  Last week, the FA issued an official statement stating that all players who ply their trade in the LPI are automatically ineligible for the national team. This issue has become a national concern because it means the Indonesian people will never see Irfan Bachdim donning the Red and White jersey again. Bachdim, an AFF Cup hero who started his junior career with Ajax Amsterdam and played in the Eredivise with FC Utrecht, made a difficult decision to stay with Persema Malang after the club chose to join the LPI.

The Indonesian FA have tried their best to stop the LPI, scaring off match officials by saying that joining the LPI would see their FIFA status erased (a move anticipated by the LPI by using foreign referees) and sanctioning letters to the National Police Department, asking the constabulary to raid LPI matches and consider them as illegal activities. Despite the attempts from the FA, the nation saw the first LPI match between Persema Malang and Solo FC kick off last Saturday in a packed Manahan Stadium.

In the eyes of the FA, the LPI is just a recreational Sunday League without any authorization from them as the official football governing body in Indonesia.  Being unauthorized will leave the LPI alienated in global football, so league exectives want to take this matter to FIFA to appeal for recognition from the highest governing body. One wonders what FIFA will say to the LPI officials considering they went soft on current Indonesian FA chief, Nurdin Halid, who maintained his position despite two prison sentences for corruption.  Time will tell.

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