Indonesia may be a vast country of over 200 million people. It may have over seven million players to choose from. And it may have some of the most fanatical football fans in the world. But it remains a sporting backwater - a place where the national team hasn't played in a World Cup since the 1930s and hasn't progressed beyond the first round of the Asian Cup since... well, ever.
Surely this isn't down to a lack of enthusiasm among the country's footballers and fans. As mentioned, there is a potential talent pool here to rival all but the biggest nations on earth, and - along with badminton - football enjoys a special place in the hearts of the people. Nor is it down to a lack of potential infrastructure: the country boasts some fine stadiums and good communications, as well as a fanbase waiting for a national team - and, before that, a national league - worthy of their support.
But all signs are that the current footballing authorities in Indonesia aren't up to the task. Nepotism, incompetence, anti-competitiveness - the problems surrounding the game in Indonesia are compelling. And FIFA, the guardians of the global game? They seem happy enough with it - so much so that they've thrown their weight behind attempts to punish the architects of a breakaway professional league that's threatening to - hold onto your hats - fix the appalling state of the Indonesian game.
Lock & Key
Nurdin Halid, PSSI chairman
Indonesian football is governed by the Persatuan Sepakbola Seluruh Indonesia (or Football Association of Indonesia, PSSI), a deeply conservative body which has had the same secretary-general since 1983 and the same president, Nurdin Halid, since 2003. To have long-serving leaders is not unusual in football - but it is when one of them has spent much of his time behind bars.
Halid was arrested in 2004, accused of sugar smuggling; shortly afterwards he was again detained, this time on suspicion on corruption relating to cooking oil distribution. By 2005 he'd managed to secure his release, but in 2007 he was again behind bars for these original charges. In the midst of all this he also managed to allegedly violate customs rules with the importation of rice from Vietnam in 2005, serving more time for that. Oh, and he was also running Indonesian football - his jail terms were no hindrance to his re-election, which took place in 2007.
It later transpired that Halid was a member of the Golkar political party faction - no mere piece of trivia, given that FIFA tend to frown upon the interference of politics in football, and also due to the fact that the PSSI's flagship competition, the Liga Indonesia, is heavily based on public funds. Indeed, the top clubs in Indonesia are run largely based on stipends from Indonesia's Local Government Budget (APBD): money is disbursed to the provinces, who in turn fund their teams.
Pay The Price
One could argue that such a system means that local authorities - and maybe thus local people - will strongly identify with their team, meaning that it can grow stronger and wealthier. But in fact many Indonesians argue strongly that such a system has failed - and that Nurdin Halid is very much responsible.
Until 2008 the top flight was an unwieldy, multi-group beast where relegation was virtually unknown due to constant expansion. Admittedly things improved with the new Super League structure in 2008-09, but that merely moved the team stagnation problem down a level, while the new, slimline top flight has failed to produce a significant increase in quality.
That's very much clear at the continental level. The 2008-09 winners, Persipuya Jayapura, were Indonesia's sole representatives at the Asian Champions League of 2010, and here they utterly bombed, conceding 29 goals in six matches, including a humiliating 9 at the hands of Chinese side Changchun Yatai (whom, funnily enough, Jayapura then beat in the return leg.) In the AFC Cup - the continent's silver competition - Sriwjaya at least got out of the group stage, but were then humiliated 4-1 by Thai Port. Persiwa Wamena's contribution doesn't even bear mentioning.
Small wonder, then, that with such a failing system there was a groundswell of desire for change. In the wake of Indonesia's failing to win a single game in Asian Cup 2011 qualifying, it was generally agreed that something had to be done. In early 2010, the country's fans still glowing from the visit of the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour, Indonesian Youth and Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng announced a National Football Congress (KSN) to discuss the future of the game.
By March a group of influential figures - former players, current sportsmen, business leaders, media members - had gathered to discuss their own thoughts prior to the KSN, which seemed set to be a ground-shaking event. Indeed, at the end of the month the KSN produced a series of sweeping suggestions for change. The seven-point document became known as the Malang Recommendation:
- The PSSI is to reform and restructure itself on the basis of proposals, suggestions and criticisms and expectations of society, and take concrete steps according to such rules in order to achieve the expected accomplishments of the Indonesian people.
- It is necessary to provide infrastructure development and improvement of sports facilities, especially those of football.
- The PSSI needs to improve communication, coordination, and synchronization with all stakeholders, especially the Central Sports Committee (KONI) and the Government.
- To conduct development of youth football through a special coaching approach based on science and technology, involving a team of doctors, psychologists, scouts, and sports experts; and the need to quickly set a national standard curriculum for organizing football schools.
- The method of coaching young student athletes should also pay attention to formal education.
- The government is to provide a budget to support and sustain the achievement of targets and objectives towards achievement.
- To formulate and implement development programs that focus on the establishment of performance of the national team to become champions of SEA Games of 2011.
The fans had seen it all before: false promises and false hope. But then something very strange happened. Three major clubs waved goodbye to the PSSI and left the league.
The national team's failure, then, was seen simply as a continuation of the country's governing body to fix the sport, and the big clubs were all too aware of this. Thus, unhappy with the state of their domestic league, three of them decided to go and try something different.
That something different was the Indonesia Premier League - a new competition set up with remarkable swiftness by businessmen and sporting figures from across the country, many of whom had taken part in the KSN. With breakneck pace the new project took shape: even before the AFF Cup started there were plans in the works; as it drew to an end fully 19 clubs were signed up, 16 new to the league and the three aforementioned major sides jumping ship from the PSSI competition.
The aim of the league is to improve the standard of football both on the pitch and off: on the pitch by developing better young players and signing a better standard of foreign import, and also by striving for financial independence. Those clubs who left the PSSI, then, will have to make their own way without further government subsidy.
The new league has all the trappings of a major top flight: a fixed schedule list, fully pro squads, a TV deal, and no small measure of TV coverage. The one thing it lacks is FA approval - and that brings with it the wrath of FIFA.
No Small Matter
FIFA expect their member bodies to regulate all football within their borders, and the PSSI are no exception. Having been informed by the PSSI about the rebel league, FIFA acted quickly to write to the Indonesian authorities with a simple request: take control of the situation.
Jerome Valcke, FIFA secretary-general
The PSSI responded to this letter by publishing its contents and warning onlookers that they would carry out FIFA's instructions and issue punishments to the breakaway clubs, and perhaps even to deny registration rights to players.
Of course the PSSI will point to their FIFA membership, their president's being voted for a new term, and government support as legitimising factors. But there is no doubting the facts on the ground: the governing body has so far failed to address the concern of at least three of the top clubs - more may follow - who have moved on. Furthermore Halid does not have the support of the fans: his base comprises those clubs and officials who rely on the status quo for government funding.
FIFA, then, may have backed the wrong horse. They have their rules, and certainly a measure of control is required for a governing body to be taken seriously, but it seems that the PSSI are not following the spirit of what's required. Simply controlling football within a country isn't enough: it needs to be done with an eye on the future and on success. Instead the PSSI has lumbered along for too long making mere cosmetic changes while the real problems - of illegitimacy, of uncompetitiveness, of a reliance on government funds, of a president who clearly cannot be trusted to keep his affairs in order - continue unopposed.
Valcke may regret throwing his weight behind the PSSI. The Premier League will have its teething problems, and some of the new clubs will come and go, but at the end of it it will be a competition put together to address the concerns of the players and fans who have the potential to turn Indonesia from a footballing backwater into a major Asian force - something that would not happen under the current administration. After all, FIFA have been silent on matters such as poor pitches, late payment of salaries, refereeing inconsistencies, political interference and much more in the "real" league setup - if the new Premier League can avoid just a few of these, what moral right have the guardians of the world's game to call for those taking part to be punished? Unless one wants to accept that power is more important than principle, the Premier League must at least be given a chance to operate without the threat of punishment - for the good of the game.