Thursday, April 21, 2016


A Glimmer Of Hope For Indonesian Football

Slowly but surely Indonesian football is getting things together. Finally the president has over ruled those interfering busy bodies BOPI and the transition team and decreed the Indonesia Soccer Championship can go ahead and if all goes to plan Persipura will host Persija in the opening game at the end of April.

The fact the government is giving signals it is prepared to recognise football again will surely be a good sign as the PSSI prepares to meet FIFA next month. But there is still a long way to go. The Indonesia Super League was organised by an outfit called Liga Indonesia. The ISC will be organised by GTS...same coffee, different tin. In effect nothing of substance has really changed if reform was really the goal.

The whole dispute began, officially at least, with BOPI refusing to allow Arema and Persebaya to compete in the ISL last season saying there were concerns over the ownership of the two football clubs dating back to the breakaway league of 2011 when we had two clubs sharing the name but with different owners.

Arema are still Arema. Persebaya have gone through a series of tortuous name changes over the last 12 months following a court ruling that said they could not use that name. Persebaya is one of the biggest names in Indonesian football but local fans saw that particular incarnation as Persikubar, a team parachuted into their city and given their name in a bid to attract their support. The plan failed of course and Persebaya became Persebaya United. In the middle of one tournament they changed names again to Bonek FC in another futile bid to appeal to the fans.

That of course failed and they became Surabaya United perhaps not fully realising the full meaning of United. Now of course, after a large share holding was bought by PS Polri, they will be known as Surabaya United Bhayangkara. Or SU Bhayangkara. And play in Sidoarjo. Maybe.

The official problems then have not been dealt with but perhaps another problem has gone away.

Politics aside, difficult in Indonesian football, Persebaya's metamorphosis into SU Bhayangkara is just the latest in a series of consolidations among clubs that have happened in recent years as local taxpayer stopped funding clubs and new laws prevented tobacco giants sponsoring the game and they had to find means of supporting themselves.

This season's ISC features a number of new clubs of old clubs in new guises. Bali United and Pusamania Borneo are two that spring to mind and it is ironic they both come from the same source, Persisam. But they are also at the figurehead of a new breed of club looking to be run along professional lines. While traditional names like Persik, Persija, Persis and PSIS struggle hand to mouth Bali United and Pusamania have sought to put in place sustainable business models and have actively sought sponsors to ease the cash flow burdens.

They have also, as befits fresh young clubs, embraced technology and social media to keep their name out there. Far from the traditional Persi/Perse with their batik wearing, kretek smoking government officials making decisions they are unsuited and untrained for, the new breed of owners have developed clubs as brands and as representing their communities and the fans have responded, turning out in large numbers for friendlies and the like.

Further conciliation ahead of the ISC has seen PS TNI take over Persiram and the end of the name Pelita in local football as the club that has long struggled for support finally gave up its name and its licence was bought by the previous owners of Persepam MU. They were relegated and the Pelita 'brand' continues in the top flight as Madura United.

Weak or poorly managed clubs are going to the wall or struggling while the likes of Persib, Arema, Persipura and Sriwijaya are at the vanguard of the new era; financially savvy off the pitch and well run on it.

And sponsors are flocking to the game in numbers we have never seen before. When I started watching Indonesian football we had a cup competition sponsored by a tobacco firm and a league sponsored by a tobacco firm. That can't happen any more. Instead last season's aborted campaign saw a Qatar bank give its name to the ISL and the string of tournaments that had little meaning beyond the shores of Indonesia had little difficulty attracting sponsors who, finally, saw the potential of the most popular game in the land. The ISC for example,is sponsored by an Indonesia coffee maker whose products and advertising I have seen in recent trips to Kuwait and Jordan.

Clubs, belatedly, have seen the potential in merchandise with most now at least cashing in on replica shirts and some like Persib and Bali United boasting thriving retail outlets. And they are securing sponsors in ways that haven't happened before. Before a club would consider itself lucky if they could get a state owned enterprise involved. Now they are getting more ambitious in the market place and while they haven't quite reached out to the multi nationals in the same way clubs have in Thailand for example who needs to when you have a domestic market of 200 million.

Yes, there are reasons to be positive about Indonesian football. But we need to be cautious. Some of the changes I have highlighted have been commercial and fan led and that has to be good. But politics is never far away and don't forget the same people are still involved though perhaps not as strongly as even a few years back. At the end of April the PSSI will hold its next meeting and that will be critical. The head of the body is apparently on the run after being linked with a corruption scandal and his passport has been revoked. Till now the mumblings from the PSSI have been nothing has changed and he is still in charge.

That needs to change. May sees a FIFA meet in Mexico and while we may joke about how the PSSI chief may be burnishing his credentials for a top job within the body if the PSSI may be taking a more lenient view of Indonesia following government sanction of the new competition that tolerance may evaporate if the Indonesian contingent arrive at the congress claiming that yes, he is still in charge and we see no reason to change.

If the PSSI can come out of their congress in Balikpapan with a new chief agreeable to all parties then they can go to Mexico confident FIFA can see change has been effected and they can be allowed back into the world game, with a view to competing in the ASEAN Football Federation Championship later this year. Stick with the guy on the lam and we could see a generation of players frozen out of international football for months to come.

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