Sunday, June 24, 2012

Another false dawn?

Sitting around tables. Engaging in dialogue. Signing memorandums of understanding. Holding news conferences to announce the aforementioned dialogue and releasing statements saying the details will be hammered out later. If Indonesia's business class has mastered anything, it's the art of Doing Something without actually doing anything.

The latest twist in the long-running saga of the fight to control Indonesian football is an apparent peace deal between the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) and the Indonesian Football Savior Committee (KPSI). The deal -- overseen by world governing body FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation -- aims to end more than two years of internal power struggles, and the announcement of the MoU brought much back-slapping and high-minded talk of working in the best interest of the sport. The highlights are that it 1) requires the reinstatement of the four former PSSI executive committee members who resigned to form the KPSI; 2) brings the Indonesian Super League under the PSSI's jurisdiction but allows it to finish its season operating autonomously; 3) dissolves the KPSI as a governing body; 4) establishes a joint committee (half PSSI, half KPSI) to create a new top-tier league "as soon as possible" and review the PSSI statutes; and 5) requires a new PSSI congress before the end of the year.

Granted, even getting the two groups to sit down together is a minor victory given the chilly reception attempts at reconciliation talks received. As anyone paying the slightest bit of attention can tell, though, the issues plaguing Indonesia's favorite sport run far deeper and are more complex than can be rectified by a few gabfests and a new committee. There are underlying, fundamental questions that must be answered before any meaningful reform can emerge. (Sound familiar?)

Who's the top dog?
As noted above, the joint committee's primary brief is to come up with a plan for one (and only one) top-flight league. Even with the Super League and Premier League under the PSSI umbrella, there are still at least 30 clubs that believe they deserve a place in the top flight. The IPL clubs will argue that they deserve priority because they chose to play in the officially sanctioned league, not some outlaw competition. Why punish law-abiding PSSI members when it's those no-good rebels who are propping up the ISL and causing all the chaos? They could also point to the PSSI statutes, which call for clubs leaving an official competition to be fined and relegated upon their return.

While the IPL clubs have the PSSI seal of approval, the ISL clubs appear to hold every other chip worth having -- the most popular clubs, the best players, the biggest draw for sponsors, etc. Would the PSSI really drop its biggest names into the second tier in order to hold fast to its own rules? Don't bet on it. Whatever strings need to be pulled or loopholes need to be created to get the likes of Persija Jakarta, Persib Bandung, Arema Indonesia, Persipura Jayapura and Sriwijaya FC into the new top flight, rest assured it will happen. The fate of Bakrie-owned Pelita Jaya is much less certain -- it's hard to imagine the PSSI looking kindly on welcoming a Bakrie property into the new league.

What happens if there's a deadlock? That's a possibility with eight seats on the joint committee. Note that the chairman of the committee -- Todung Mulya Lubis, a lawyer and PSSI ethics committee member -- was appointed by the PSSI. The KPSI's lead representative gets the title of deputy chairman, with each side nominating three other committee members. At first glance, it appears that the MoU puts the tie-breaking vote in the PSSI's hands. That's no guarantee of the joint committee operating as a rubber stamp for the PSSI, of course, but given the unwillingness to compromise from both sides a series of 4-4 splits is not out of the question. Plus, the PSSI is already showing signs of trying to rig the process in its favor, saying the MoU doesn't necessarily require it to reinstate the four KPSI rebels to the executive committee. Don't expect this to be quick, clean or friendly.

Devil's in the details
Fans may not give two hoots about minutia such as subsidies, holding companies and league organizers, but they are of vital interest to clubs in a country where operating margins are razor-thin despite a widespread love of football. A look at the most common sources of income for clubs offers an indication of what a hand-to-mouth existence they lead.

Clubs tend to pull in most of their revenue through gate receipts, merchandise sales, appearing on TV, sponsorships and handouts. TV revenue is the most reliable -- only a handful of games are screened live each matchday, but a top-flight club can reasonably expect to be on TV at least a few times each season. Every other revenue stream comes with inherent limitations. As almost no clubs own their own stadium, renting a ground and all the attendant costs eat into gate receipts -- that is, assuming a stadium is available and isn't already booked by a political party or church group. Even if clubs were able to produce their own official merchandise and sell it in a club shop, the proliferation of independent entrepreneurs/knock-off artists (delete as necessary) renders almost any effort put toward that end wasted. Other than tobacco companies, major sponsors are reluctant to support clubs as they have no guarantee their rupiah will go to the players and staff instead of ending up in an administrator's pocket. Regulations banning local and regional governments from funding clubs all but shut off the flow of taxpayer funds, leaving clubs dependent on their wits and the subsidies provided by league organizers.

It came as little surprise, then, that ISL organizer Liga Indonesia (PTLI) grabbed the attention of many clubs when it offered to double the annual subsidy and more than triple the stake in the league's holding company offered by IPL administrator Liga Prima Sportindo. League size was another key difference between the two groups. PTLI started and stayed with an 18-team ISL, but Liga Prima and the IPL went from wanting two 16-team conferences to one 18-team league to a 24-team league, including clubs that missed the promotion playoffs but went up anyway because of commercial considerations. Questions about Liga Prima's credentials only intensified after reports emerged that some early-season IPL games went ahead without match commissioners.

By almost any measure, PTLI is better at organizing and running a league and is the clear preference for Indonesia's biggest clubs. Competence may not matter to the PSSI as much as political affinity, though, which could lead to another round of defections if Liga Prima is retained and PTLI starts talking terms more to the clubs' liking. Call it greed, self-preservation or something in between, but Indonesian clubs are perpetually in search of a better deal.

The Bakrie factor
Whether they're in the PSSI fold or not, the Bakrie family is a potent force in Indonesian football. Nirwan Bakrie was the PSSI vice chairman under the Nurdin Halid regime, and the PSSI was for years considered a stronghold of the Golkar Party, which is currently chaired by Aburizal Bakrie -- Nirwan's older brother and the early favorite to become Indonesia's next president in 2014. The ISL airs on ANTV, part of the Bakries' Viva Media Group. The family's football interests extend outside Indonesia, too, with Bakrie Group sporting arm Pelita Jaya Cronus taking control of clubs in Australia and Belgium in addition to running Pelita Jaya and funding the Uruguay Project.

With all that at stake, don't expect the Bakries and their supporters to sit idly by and let others set Indonesian football's new course. Remember that this is only partially about football -- as with seemingly everything in Indonesia, it's also political. The Bakries (and by extension Golkar) want the PSSI back and would be unlikely to accept being in control of the domestic league but not the governing body. Why? Leaving aside more common motives such as money and not wanting to be ruled, the PSSI is leaning disturbingly (for Golkar) toward the ruling Democratic Party. While the politics of oil tycoon Arifin Panigoro are not publicly clear, he has shown a willingness to pump significant funds into the PSSI and IPL, and current PSSI chairman Djohar Arifin Husin is considered to be close to the business mogul. Former Army chief of staff George Toisutta, a fellow "reformist" who like Arifin was barred by FIFA from running for PSSI chairman, is a rising star among the Democrats and has been mooted for Cabinet positions, and the addition of the Democrats' deputy secretary general to the national team's contingent for a tournament in Palestine raised more than a few eyebrows.

It's also worth noting the lengths to which the government has gone to support the IPL. Until recently, only the PSSI could issue permits for football matches, making it the sole arbiter of when football did and did not happen in the country. When the IPL took shape and became a burr under the PSSI's saddle, though, the government quietly changed the rules and gave the authority to issue match permits to the Democrat-controlled Youth and Sports Affairs Ministry and the independent Indonesian Professional Sports Body (BOPI). Interestingly, that little bit of legal jiu-jitsu had a boomerang effect, keeping the ISL clear of any PSSI sanctions during its time as a rebel league. Whichever group "loses" in the joint committee negotiations, the framework will still be there for them to launch their own competition and begin the controversy anew. Only the police can truly stop a rebel league from taking shape again, but as the country's law enforcement professionals have repeatedly shown, they're willing to look the other way for the right price.

The biggest elephant in the room in relations between the Bakrie and Arifin camps is the Sidoarjo mud flow. On May 29, 2006, Bakrie Group-owned Lapindo Brantas was drilling for natural gas near Sidoarjo, East Java. A well blowout caused hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of mud to gush forth, swamping more than 600 hectares of land and leaving more than 50,000 people homeless. The Bakrie Group (which tried to offload Lapindo Brantas for $2 to a shell company) continues to insist that an earthquake near Yogyakarta caused the mud volcano, despite several international experts finding that it was due to Lapindo Brantas not following proper procedures during drilling. What's the Arifin connection? His Medco Energi colossus owned a 32 percent stake in the project, but it did not help when Lapindo Brantas and the Bakries made cash calls to help with reparation and mitigation payments, which have reached hundreds of millions of dollars. Disputes over payments and responsibility linger to this day, as does the Bakries' enmity toward Arifin for leaving them high and dry. The chances of them peacefully coexisting, one group running the PSSI and the other the domestic leagues, are fairly remote.

My doppelganger and me
One of the most obvious issues is what to do with clubs bearing the same name vying for a place in the new Indonesian top flight. Both the ISL and IPL have clubs named Persija Jakarta, Arema Indonesia, PSMS Medan and Persebaya Surabaya, the fallout from ownership disputes at each club. Not surprisingly, the ownership groups friendlier toward the new PSSI leadership tended to receive recognition and admission into the IPL while those who favored the prior regime and/or league organizer tended to drift toward the ISL. Simply merging them is a non-starter as the ownership disputes would remain unsolved, and letting the ISL versions wither on the vine would be unwise as they tend to be better-run, better-funded and have better players than their IPL counterparts.

Where are your papers?
A sure-fire way to make sure of staying in control is to allow only those receptive to your message to vote. Less than half of the PSSI's 286 members have voting privileges and, much like American politicians, Indonesian football's governing body is not above making sure people friendly to it have those rights. Such accusations have been leveled against the Nurdin and Djohar regimes. The spotlight on regional associations isn't nearly as hot as it is on the national office in Jakarta, and a handful of well-placed cronies could ensure a smooth return to the status quo whenever the MoU-mandated PSSI congress takes place. Note the language used in Section C, Part 5 of the MoU: "The verification of the composition of such congress shall be discussed and determined by the Joint PSSI Committee in order to avoid illegitimate members from participating."

We don't need no stinking contract
While it falls outside the joint committee's remit, sorting out who will have the right to broadcast the new top flight is another important matter. When the new PSSI leadership took over, it awarded broadcast rights to the IPL to media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo's MNC Group, which includes RCTI, Global TV and MNC TV. (It also has the broadcast rights to the English Premier League.) There was just one small problem -- the PSSI signed a 10-year deal with Bakrie-owned ANTV in 2006. To date, no settlement or negotiations have been announced. It came as little surprise then that ANTV won that bid for the knock-down price of Rp 100 billion ($10.6 million) per season, but how high and how far will Viva Media be willing to go in a more unfriendly climate? With MNC signing a four-year deal to show the IPL at Rp 100 billion per season and ANTV renewing its ISL contract last October for another six seasons at Rp 130 billion each, neither group will be eager to get kicked to the sidelines and miss out on the country's only top-flight league.

No respect at all
In case the preceding rambling did not make it clear, this joint committee alone will not cure what ails Indonesian football. The culture of insular, short-sighted impunity will persist regardless of whose vision dictates the birth of the new league structure. Until that changes and the actions of those who claim they want to see Indonesian football succeed match their words, the root causes of the current chaos will continue festering below the surface.

Examples of the widespread disrespect in the sport abound. Despite a growing economy and Indonesia's fervent love of football, players and staff still go months without being paid. Does that stop clubs from offering big pay packets, only to fall short on their obligations? Of course not. Contracts clearly mean little to the PSSI, too -- just look at its blithe dismissal of the broadcast deal with ANTV or its bizarre justification for sacking Alfred Riedl and Wolfgang Pikal, claiming it "could not find" their contracts. It also apparently has little respect for the AFC or FIFA. Just look at its attempt to weasel out of reinstating the four KPSI members to its executive committee and its willingness to ignore FIFA's rules and include players from the unsanctioned ISL in the national team. No doubt the attempts to "make them understand" went over famously with the FIFA and AFC brass.

Accepting blame appears to be a bridge too far for people in positions of authority. Those in power will gladly brush aside the rules if they think it will score them brownie points with the fans, but don't look to them when things go wrong on the field, even if it's something they directly control. After all, they're just a guy with a desk. (But when things are going well, everyone wants to draft off the new hotness.) Fans dying in stadiums? Let the police handle it. Qualifying for a major tournament coming up? Who needs international friendlies? Playing the Army All-Stars or college kids will do. Meanwhile, youth football is all but ignored -- with the PSSI crying poor as it slashed its national academy system plans in half -- and people are more willing to pay $2 million or more to bring in big names like Inter Milan and, er, the LA Galaxy but won't spend even half that to secure the services of a guy who's as good as there is in growing grassroots football.

And what hath this I-got-mine, don't-blame-me culture wrought? Indonesia's first loss to Laos at any level. Its first loss to Brunei at any level since 1980. Losses to archrival Malaysia in the AFF Cup and Southeast Asian Games finals, the latter on home turf. Seeing Malaysia and Vietnam race past Indonesia to join Thailand and Singapore in Southeast Asia's elite with the Philippines closing fast in the rear-view mirror. Indonesia losing its automatic berth into the Asian Champions League group stage. A legal framework that still allows clubs to flounce off and form their own league whenever the governing body upsets them or someone waves a better deal under their noses.

Will the joint committee address any of these issues? It's doubtful. Its remit is fairly limited -- "to evaluate the IPL and ISL in order to create one and only one top-tier Indonesian football league as soon as possible." There's also a nebulous reference to reviewing the "PSSI statutes and association matters." It appears all the bad business practices and creaking infrastructure will remain untouched. About the only development that would definitely head off further threats of rebel leagues is if the Democratic Party collapses under the weight of its own greed and incompetence and Golkar dominates the 2014 election, winning the presidency and a majority in the House of Representatives. With a Youth and Sports Ministry supportive of its plans, it would likely only be a matter of time until Golkar reclaimed the PSSI as well. Think that's unlikely? Given how many people admit to pining for the authoritarian stability of former President Suharto -- another Golkar man -- it's a safer bet than anything meaningful coming of this latest false dawn.

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