Saturday, October 15, 2011

That hopey-changey thing

Being a sports journalist overseas requires an expansion of one's horizons. Sports like rugby and cricket take on as much importance (if not more) as baseball and hockey, and that thing Americans call soccer is now football. I try to slip college football and basketball into the section when I can, but the biggest news recently has been conference realignment, and even Americans find that stuff esoteric.

Soccer, of course, drives the bus here. I was into the sport long before moving overseas -- sometime just before the 1994 World Cup, if memory serves -- but it's still quite a shift to live in a country where soccer is by far the No. 1 sport. While I was back in the States, being a soccer fan -- particularly a fan of American soccer -- felt like something of an underground movement. Only the biggest occasions were broadcast over the air, and you had to spring for satellite TV plus the sports package to get anything resembling a steady diet of soccer outside of the Mexican league on Univision, Galavision and Telefutura. Soccer fans could still feel like part of their own subculture, and if you were among those supporting Major League Soccer since its inception, it felt like following REM while they were still playing bars in Georgia.

There's no such feeling here. Soccer is big business, and the country's power-brokers all want a piece of the action. Constant squabbling and power plays by officials have left the sport in a hot mess, which I will detail after the jump. In short, it's best to beware those who ride in promising change, spewing high-minded ideals while offering little in the way of substance. They could be just a different shade of ugly as those you currently revile.

The new season of the Indonesian Premier League -- formerly the Indonesian Super League -- kicked off on Saturday with Persib Bandung hosting Semen Padang (pronounced SAY-men, the first word being Indonesian for "cement") at Si Jalak Harupat Stadium. The match ended 1-1, with Mustopha Aji scoring a fine goal from distance for the visitor and Miljan Radovic equalizing for Persib by converting a penalty kick he won with a blatant dive.

If the Indonesian Football Association (known locally as the PSSI) had its druthers, the match would be the whole of the discussion. Of course, this being Indonesia, what happens on the field is the least important of the details. The run-up to the match has been so disorganized, dysfunctional and just plain bugnutty that I need to include a metric buttload of links so you, dear reader, don't accuse me of making up the whole thing.

To set the scene, we need to go back to July. Months of wrangling over who should -- and could -- run the PSSI let to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation all but turfing out the former leadership, including graft convict and chairman Nurdin Halid and vice chairman Nirwan Bakrie. The PSSI was long a stronghold of the eye-wateringly pro-business Golkar Party, which is led by the Bakrie family. (The Bakries, incidentally, recently purchased a 70 percent stake in the Brisbane Roar of Australia's A-League.) Soccer and politics being inextricably linked, Golkar, the Bakries and their friends had their fingers in just about every pie even tangentially linked to the sport.

Not surprisingly, this didn't sit well with everyone. Those actually interested in soccer raged against the national team's continued mediocrity, the laughably poor planning by the PSSI and the leagues, the thinly veiled cronyism and the lack of any coherent plan to improve the standard of play, the clubs, the refereeing or the sport's infrastructure in the country. It came as no shock, though, that soccer itself was merely a peripheral issue. The whole matter. like so many others, revolved around money and control -- those who have the power will do everything they can to keep it, and those who don't will use any means to obtain it.

Enter Djohar Arifin Husin. The first thing to be said about the new PSSI chairman is that nobody wanted him to be PSSI chairman -- at first. The preferred candidates of those whose protests ultimately saw the Nurdin/Bakrie/Golkar alliance toppled were former Army chief George Toisutta and oil tycoon Arifin Panigoro. Those two were ineligible to run, though, as Toisutta didn't have the required tenure in soccer and Arifin was the founder and financial backer of the rebel Liga Primer Indonesia, an unsanctioned league the AFC and FIFA wanted eliminated before the PSSI was allowed back in their good graces. Djohar, whose ties to Arifin go well beyond their shared name, emerged as a compromise candidate. The PSSI had new leadership pledging reform, the LPI went out with a whimper after one season despite promising to "change the game" and Indonesian soccer appeared to be on a new course toward respectability.

The honeymoon lasted all of a month. It all started innocently enough, with the PSSI disbanding the Super League to start a new professional league from scratch. There would be stricter standards for clubs' finances and infrastructure, officials said, and a spending cap of Rp 15 billion ($1.7 million). The latter idea, a new one to Indonesian soccer, was a welcome one after years of clubs going cap in hand to sponsors, fans and even the government to plead for extra funds to finish out the season.

The wave of reform soon crashed against the rocky shores of inertia, though. The grand plan of a 32-team, two-conference set-up was soon abandoned, with PSSI officials claiming they could not change the league's structure because it was enshrined in the association's statues. (Had they not read them before embarking on this crusade of reform?) No problem, though. Just use last year's 18-team format and Indonesia will easily beat the AFC's October 14 deadline to restart the league, right?

Wrong. Just two days after saying the league would stay at 18 clubs, PSSI officials claimed they found a loophole in the statutes (or maybe they just chose to ignore them altogether) and decided to have a 24-team, single-table league this season. In addition to 14 clubs from last season's Super League and the four promoted Premier Division sides, officials added Bontang FC (which lost a relegation playoff), Persibo Bojonegoro, Persema Malang and PSM Makassar (which withdrew from last season's ISL to join the LPI, which by PSSI rules should have resulted in a one-year ban from all competitions) as well as PSMS Medan and Persebaya Surabaya (which were promoted after "requests from sponsors"). It was no surprise the three LPI rebels were welcomed back into the fold -- after all, the very people who lured them away in the first place now ran the PSSI.

You can see a pattern developing here -- financial concerns and political loyalty matter more than on-field results, regardless of who's watching the hen house. If the PSSI and league administrators actually gave a damn about soccer and raising the standard of play in Indonesia, they wouldn't have foisted a 46-match league season that could last up to 13 months on the players. Even the PSSI's own assessment didn't mean anything in the face of cold, hard cash:
Last month, the PSSI ran the rule over 68 clubs to determine their eligibility for the top flight. It announced that six clubs — Persik Kediri, Persibo, PSIS Semarang, Persikota Tangerang, Persis Solo and Persebaya — scored the highest in the assessment.

However, only Persibo and Persebaya were added to the ISL.

Persik official Barnadi said the club never received a reason why it was excluded.

“The PSSI has the right to determine the number of clubs in the top league, but why add only former IPL clubs?” he said.
Another emerging pattern is the PSSI having the id of a hyperactive 5-year-old. No decision is incapable of being retracted, and no contract is unbreakable. The number of clubs in the league? Negotiable. That budget cap to help ensure financial stability? Scrapped. A Rp 3 billion bank guarantee to help make sure players and staff get paid? Eliminated. That 10-year contract the PSSI signed with ANTV (owned by -- guess who? -- the Bakries) in 2006 to broadcast the Super League? Mere details. Former national team coach Alfred Riedl's contract? What contract? Where?

Even the start of the league proved to be fluid. Initially it was October 9, but eventually it was pushed back to the 14th and again to the 15th -- a day after the AFC's deadline to restart the league or be banned from Asian competition for two years. Only special dispensation from the AFC, with the PSSI citing a conflict with an October 11 World Cup qualifier against Qatar it had known about for months, averted more embarrassment. Regardless of when the league starts, it will be idle for most of November during the Southeast Asian Games, whose soccer competition will take place entirely in Jakarta following a scheduling foul-up by the PSSI and Games organizers. Despite knowing that Sriwijaya Stadium in Palembang would host the Games' opening ceremony on November 11, organizers only figured out last week that they would be unable to use the stadium. Instead, they'll use the 80,000-seat Gelora Bung Karno (which will be a ghost town for matches not involving Indonesia) and Lebak Bulus Stadium (which is undergoing hurried renovations and will be demolished after the Games to make way for a railway station).

As you might imagine, the clubs are less than impressed with the new leadership's Keystone Kops routine. Saturday's match was the only confirmed fixture, and the draft of the rest of the schedule is a disorganized mess that has some teams playing on opposite sides of the archipelago in the space of a day or two. The process of signing and verifying players, which normally takes at least a month, has yet to begin (so what about all those guys I saw playing today?), and clubs still don't know details such as how long to set their contracts, how many foreigners they can sign and whether they also have to plan for a cup competition.

It's enough to make some clubs think of insurrection -- or even to act on those thoughts. League administrator Liga Prima (just in case you hadn't got the hint yet) finally sat down with the clubs on Thursday, 48 hours before the season opener. The meeting had been rescheduled twice in the past week alone. Once everyone was finally around a table, 14 clubs demanded last season's league administrator (Liga Indonesia) take charge. Why blow things up now?
During the meeting, the clubs demanded the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) call in Joko Driyono, the chief executive of former league administrator Liga Indonesia (PTLI), to present a report on the last season. While giving his report, Joko reminded the clubs that PTLI had pledged to give the clubs a Rp 2 billion ($226,000) annual subsidy and a 99 percent stake in its company.

“PT Liga Prima only offered Rp 1 billion and a 30 percent share for the clubs. You don’t have to be a genius to see which one is better,” PSMS Medan official Benny Tomasoa said.

Pelita Jaya technical director Rahim Soekasah said the PSSI should continue the previous policy to avoid any problems.

“I told [PSSI competition committee chief] Sihar Sitorus that he shouldn’t make things complicated. PTLI is ready to organize the league and the company has Rp 280 billion from sponsors. With such an offer, most clubs opted for the PTLI while a few clubs said it was a revolution so we had to start from scratch,” he said.
More money, more control. These same 14 clubs -- who claim to have support from five of the 11 members of the PSSI's executive committee -- want the league to officially start on December 1, likely incurring the AFC's wrath and seeing Indonesia banned from the Champions League and AFC Cup until 2015. Indonesia, remember, is the only Southeast Asian nation that receives a place directly in the Champions League group phase. The champions of Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam have to go through the playoffs, and the leagues in the other seven Asean nations don't even meet the standards needed to take part in the competition.

If the 14 clubs don't get their way, they are threatening to leave and form their own league. You can guess how kindly the AFC and FIFA will look on that. The other 10 clubs -- mostly the promoted sides and those formed by mergers between ISL and LPI clubs -- want to stick with Liga Prima. The two biggest exceptions are Persija Jakarta and Arema Indonesia. Shockingly enough, those two clubs -- among the most established and best-supported in the country -- recently had their ownership groups kicked to the curb and saw people friendly to the new PSSI leadership take over in their place. Coincidence?

So how does one interpret this? Is this all a bumbling but well-intentioned attempt to reform Indonesian soccer, or is it all a Machiavellian plot by people from the now-defunct LPI to impose themselves and their vision on the country's highest-profile (and most lucrative) sport? If you've read this far, I think you know where I stand. The fact that there has been no action taken to start or even organize the second division or the amateur leagues should be a dead giveaway as to the New Order's priorities. Money, power and fame are all that matter -- players, fans and the sport itself are just along for the ride.


  1. one thing for sure, my hometown club pissed off with this new PSSI leadership and they felt cheated (well, I dont mind really to compete in divisi utama, we totally deserves it). but, God knows when divisi utama will start or if ever started!

    Btw, very good article mate, two thumbs up!


  2. Superb article mate!!psSHIT should read this....