Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hands across the sea

Regardless of the playing staff's struggles on the field, you have to give Arsenal credit for its confidence as an organization. The Gunners have announced their intention to tour Indonesia in July, returning to the archipelago for the first time in 31 years after visiting China and Malaysia to kick off recent seasons. Arsenal's visit would add to Indonesia's growing stature as a destination for European clubs. Queen's Park Rangers, Inter Milan and Valencia played friendlies in Indonesia last year, and the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter and Boca Juniors have either expressed interest in or started youth academies in the country.

But does Arsenal really know what it's getting into in Indonesia? The tour is obviously a money grab and marketing ploy -- only the most credulous of Gooners would swallow the official club line about "giving our loyal fans the chance to see their heroes in action" -- and no doubt Arsenal hopes to tap into the country's deep love of football. Don't whip out the checkbook and block off July 14 on your calendar yet, though. For one thing, proposed friendlies have a tendency to vanish almost as frequently as they arise. Consider this succession of cancellations just in the last six months.
  • Espanyol B (Sept. 5)
  • North Korea (Sept. 8)
  • Thailand (Oct. 16)
  • Sudan (Nov. 14)
  • The Philippines (Sept. 15)
  • Everton and Galatasaray (Java Cup, July 26-29)
  • United Arab Emirates (Feb. 1)
  • Jordan (Jan. 31)

There was also a planned match against Dutch giant PSV that fell through, and ManYoo scratching Jakarta off its itinerary back in 2009 is perhaps the most infamous case of plans for a sexy friendly going horribly awry. The national team reportedly has lined up a friendly in Jakarta with the Netherlands on June 7 -- as always, caveat emptor.

Then there's the not-insignificant problem of a looming FIFA suspension (stop me if you've heard this one). While the world governing body gave Indonesia an extra three months to get its house in order back in December, certain members of the FIFA and Asian Football Confederation power base sound close to running out of patience with the country's long-running struggles. If the March deadline goes by with the impasse still unsettled, drastic action could soon follow. True, FIFA and the AFC haven't exactly been in a rush to bring the saga to a close -- and the Yudhoyono administration has all but confirmed it's more interested in playing politics than affecting meaningful change -- but at some point this has to stop being an Indonesian problem and begin reflecting poorly on those tasked with overseeing national associations.

So why would Arsenal -- a large, fairly successful club run by people who presumably have Internet connections -- willingly walk into this hot mess? The short, and most likely correct, answer is money.
The direct financial benefits are not easy to see. Although millions of Indonesians, from remote villages to city centres, wear replica football shirts, the vast majority of them are pirated versions. Likewise, the TV money paid out by Indonesian broadcasters is small change in comparison to what Sky and other Western broadcasters are willing to pay. 
But, given the size of the country, the rapid pace of economic growth and the popularity of English football, these clubs are laying the ground to make serious money from the new middle class in future.
Then there are the lucrative sponsorship deals with Indonesian companies, who hope to piggyback on the connection to top English football clubs to boost their sales. Garuda Indonesia, the national airline, has teamed up with Liverpool, while Multistrada, a tyre maker, recently agreed to sponsor Manchester United. Leading lenders Bank Danamon and Bank Negara Indonesia offer Manchester United and Chelsea-branded credit cards.
Still, playing in Indonesia with the situation on the ground so uncertain seems to offer far more risk than reward. Premier League matches are broadcast over the air, so it's not as though Indonesians are unaware of Arsenal. If the Gunners really want to establish a beachhead in a country packed to the gills with ManYoo and Liverpool fans, the best thing they could do is win. Chelsea has yet to set foot in Indonesia, yet its gear is abundant among those willing to wear jerseys in public.

These affairs tend to follow a familiar pattern. Sponsors and the visiting club make a big noise for the initial announcement and generate a healthy bit of buzz, but reality sets in soon afterward. Worries over negotiations and contracts can easily short-circuit the big day, and those friendlies that actually take place tend to be damage-limitation exercises for the home side -- not exactly the kind of shop window local players would expect. Such friendlies also are one-off affairs that tend not to leave any kind of legacy other than the check the visiting club takes with it and the occasional academy (which, incidentally, also sends checks back to the visiting club) that only children of the well-to-do can afford.

Meanwhile, Indonesian football remains besieged by those who value money, politics and their own overinflated egos over the good of the country and the fans. Indonesia's youngsters remain sidelined because the money men would rather fork over millions for the honor of getting ripped to shreds by Uruguay than help tap into their own country's talent or spend a fraction of Arsenal's appearance fee to secure the guy who helped Japan reach the pinnacle of Asia. Indonesia's national team remains deprived of its best talent and forced to prepare for Asian Cup qualifying in a pool featuring Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China with matches against local clubs, all thanks to the utter failure to address the country's underlying problems by the people who claim they want to "change the game" for the better.

Foreign suitors will continue to come and go, pocketing millions in sponsors' money while whispering sweet nothings about wanting to help Indonesia achieve its potential. They're well within their rights to do so, of course, even if talk of "advancing the brand" through such exercises is, at best, a bloodlessly corporate approach in a sport that relies so heavily on the passion of fans, particularly local ones. It's hard for a club going on one of these jaunts to shake the image of an entity that has milked its local fanbase for all it's worth and now must find new sources of revenue abroad. Arsenal has its mind made up, though, and it should receive far more goodwill than most foreign firms are receiving in Indonesia. That said, the club and its fans would do well to bear in mind the lessons of those who tried -- and failed -- to come before it.

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