Friday, December 16, 2016
Against The Odds - Indonesian Football 2016
As 2016 draws to a close it has clearly been an interesting year for followers of Indonesian football. A year that began with a campur of ad hoc competitions and a FIFA ban ends on time with the national team surprising everyone by reaching the Final of the AFF Suzuki Cup.
We do like a moan once in a while but for once this is going to be an unashamed look back at just what has been achieved this year. This is not to belittle the ongoing problems that surround the game, one of which will be highlighted in this post, but I have touched often enough on them including this post. With the national team 90 minutes away from lifting their first ever international trophy let us for a few paragraphs at least, look back on a year that has exceeded everyone's expectations.
Following FIFA's suspension of Indonesian football early 2015 the game was put on hold as people figured what to do next. Persib and Persipura were told they had to withdraw from the AFC Cup and the national team's ambitions in the joint Asian Cup/World Cup were squashed when they were kicked out.
Eventually football got its act together and a bunch of competitions were organised towards the end of 2015 which, somewhat surprisingly when you consider the circumstances, were not just well attended but well promoted and well advertised as well as receiving good TV coverage.
The year began with the General Sudirman Cup 2015 reaching its final stages. Mitra Kukar defeated Semen Padang in the final at Bung Karno Stadium 2-1 thanks to Yogi Rahadian's late winner. The crowd for two non Java sides was an impressive 55,000!
After the military backed competition it was the turn of the police to get involved when the Bhayangkara Cup kicked off in March centred on Bali and Soreang. The final was played in April at Bung Karno in front of 60,000 with Arema defeating Persib 2-0.
There were a number of lessons we could take from these competitions, including the President's Cup 2015. First, Indonesian football was capable of organising a competition, building a timetable and sticking to the timetable. Second, Persib could play in Jakarta with their fans in attendance. And the increasing role of uniforms saw the police take over Surabaya United to become Bhayangkara and the military take over Persiram to become PS TNI. Both teams played in the next competition though not without some controversy.
Another feature of these competitions was how players would club hop. It was not unusual to see players line up for different clubs for each competition as they were in effect free agents. It is also interesting that despite the lack of an official league there was no real clamour among players, both local and foreign, to head overseas.
Buoyed by the success of the competition authorities came up with the idea of a national competition featuring 18 teams. Called the Indonesia Soccer Championship they came up with a fixture list, a website and even an app as well as a number of sponsors. Big deal you may cry but if you had spent the last 10 years trying to cover local football you too would be turning imaginary cartwheels at this sudden embrace of the internet.
I guess in a bid to avoid upsetting FIFA/AFC sensitivities the organisers went to great lengths to explain the ISC would not be a league. There was to be no relegation and should FIFA decide to lift their ban on the PSSI the winners would not be eligible for the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup. Interesting when Kuwait were suspended they just carried on regarless with their Kuwait Premier League. As an aside, hands if you left Indonesia when the FIFA suspension was imposed to move to Kuwait in the hope of regular football only to see them follow suit!
The ISC kicked off at the end of April. With the FIFA ban still in place there was little room for manoever in the schedule and very little was done to accommodate the national team; there wasn't one! This decision is one of the reasons why Alfred Riedl was limited to a maximum of two players from each team when it came to call ups for the AFF Suzuki Cup.
With nearly every game shown live on TV and many available by streaming this unofficial competition was receiving unrivalled coverage. On the pitch it may have been business as usual as coaches and managers queued up to berate match officials but off it the season had a schedule and stuck to it in the most part.
While the ISC was going on people were busy sorting out the other leagues that make up the football pyramid. The Indonesia Soccer Championship B, the second division if you like, kicked off with more than 50 teams split into eight regionally based groups. Yes, there were teething problems and perhaps communications between some clubs were not as smooth as they could have been, think about the Laga v Persik game, but again a schedule was devised and in the main stuck to. Again a pretty remarkable achievement when you consider the scope of the league, the different time zones, the travel time some clubs endured and so on.
The final between PSS and PSCS has been put back a few days as organisers have to put in extra security for the game as the rival sets of supporters don't have the best of relationships.
If you think the ISC B was a nightmare to organise spare a thought for the desk jockeys who had to keep an eye on Liga Nusantara, the third tier of the pyramid. Honestly, I don't think there is a central resource for this, so mammoth an undertaking it is. Essentially this competition is even more regional than the ISC B and features towns and villages many would struggle to place on a map. Outside of local papers information was hard to find and it was a great relief when we reached the final eight. The final was played at Manahan Stadium in Solo and saw Perseden from Bali defeat PSN Ngada who come from somewhere out east.
Then there is the Soeratin Cup. This is for Under 17s and with the final held in Solo Persab Brebes defeated Askot Balikpapan in the final. The quivilent of the FA Youth Cup in England this competition receives a similar level of coverage as the Liga Nusantara.
There was also the ISC Under 21 league! PS TNI won this defeating Bali United 6-1 in the final.
This weekend sees the ISC itself come to an end with Persipura and Arema going toe to toe for the title. The Black Pearls host PSM at Mandala Stadium on Sunday and they know a victory will secure the title for them to cap off a remarkable final run in which has seen them win eight out of their last 10 games. Arema are two points behind in second place and have been less consistent in recent weeks, winning just five of their last 10 games. While Persipura have had to do without Boas Solossa who has been on international duty Arema will be missing defender Beny Wahyudi and keeper Meiga Kurnia as they host Persib.
FIFA suspension, No naturalised players. Two players maximum from each team. Irfan Bachdim injured before the event begins. Persipura's Pahabol refused permission to join the squad. Young defenders from PS TNI and Barito Putera. I still can't get my nut around the fact Indonesia even got out of their group in the AFF Suzuki Cup let alone reach the semi finals, defeat second favourites Vietnam and go to Bangkok with a 2-1 lead after coming from behind against Thailand at Pakansari. Set against the backdrop of Indonesian football, consider where we stood at the start of the year it has been a fairy tale and Alfred Riedl deserves the freedom of the nation after what he has helped these players achieve no matter the result on Saturday at Rajamangala Stadium.
All this and a PSSI election that sees a new head!
There is no one out there who will say Indonesian football is perfect. There are too many deaths, too many controversies and too much violence be it supporters or players. The long drawn out saga of Persebaya needs to be resolved. But after 2016 perhaps there are the shoots of a recovery. After defeating the Thais Riedl said Indonesia were two years from catching up with the best team in South East Asia. A tad optimistic perhaps but I think from what we have seen this year everyone has the right, for the first time in a long time, to feel optimistic about the local game.
See also - The Road To The Raj. Get up close and personal to the colour and the passion of Indonesian fans at the AFF Suzuki Cup.