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Soccer Madness in Indonesia: Can the Nation's Top League Finally Get Under Way?

The Indonesian Super League season might kick off this weekend. But then again, it might not. The reasons why go right to the heart of the country's politics.
April 3, 2015, 5:15pm

Indonesia's top professional soccer league is set to kick-off on Saturday. Then again, Indonesian soccer has had a rough year so far, and no one would be surprised if it doesn't. And even if league play does begin this weekend, nobody is quite sure how many teams will be eligible to play.

This might seem like a lot of confusion for the top league in a country of 250 million people, but for Indonesian soccer fans, it is only the latest chapter in an often-farcical chronicle of mismanagement and corruption.

Read more: English Football's Plot Against Small Clubs

Originally, the Indonesian Super League (ISL) was scheduled to begin play in late February. But in January, the league disqualified and relegated two teams for not meeting financial requirements—specifically, for failing to pay taxes and player salaries. Then, a month later, with the ISL days away from kicking off, the Indonesian Minister of Sport controversially delayed the entire league when all but three teams failed to submit the necessary financial paperwork and for, once again, not paying its players and coaches.

As of March 25th, only three teams had submitted the necessary paperwork and made the necessary payments to be deemed eligible. Since then (thanks to an extended deadline), 13 more have dragged themselves far enough over the bureaucratic finish line to be at least temporarily accepted into the ISL. Currently, while two clubs still remain in administrative limbo, league officials have stated that their ineligibility is only a "recommendation" and that the league "will not be tampered with." A supporters' group from one of the ineligible clubs has stated that if the club is barred, it will "mobilize solidarity" but will "not be held responsible for any unrest (or) riots."

To understand why all this surprises exactly no one in Indonesia—a country that is described as "football-mad" in all foreigns article on the subject. but which, in my experience, likes soccer as much as any other country—we have to jump back to at least 2007 and meet a man named Nurdin Halid, then-chairman of the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI).

2007 was a roller coaster year for Mr. Halid. In April, he was elected to his second, four-year term as PSSI chairman, and in August he was jailed for corruption surrounding the distribution of cooking oil. Halid's cooking oil conviction was only the latest addition to a rap sheet that already included charges and arrests for embezzlement, smuggling, and various other customs violations relating to cloves, sugar, and rice.

Despite how hard it might be to run a nation's soccer program from a jail cell, Halid remained at the helm. But by 2010, the ship was starting to sink. Government support for a 2022 World Cup bid disappeared and a group calling themselves the Indonesian National Football Reform Movement, led by a self-made millionaire named Arifin Panigoro, established itself in direct competition to the official ruling body. Worst of all. at least for Halid, Panigoro and his followers set about founding their own independent league.

By the time the renegade league kicked-off in March 2011, Halid was already out, expelled in a no-confidence vote a few weeks before. The following month, with Indonesian soccer in turmoil, FIFA President Sepp Blatter and his Zurich posse ordered a "normalization committee" that would pave the way for elections, and which barred Halid (who was still supported by many in the PSSI), his vice president, and the rebellious Panigoro from running in the elections.

Don't worry, no one else knows what's going on with any of these teams either.

Brief narrative pause to note that Halid's VP was a man named Nirwan Bakrie, the brother of Abruzial Bakrie, the long-time financial patron of Indonesian football. Bakrie (who himself has a checkered past that includes connections to the Sidoardjo mudflow environmental disaster) also happens to be the current chairman of the Golkar Party, the political heir to the 30-year regime of President Suharto. Suharto was forced from office in 1998 and died in 2008 but his politics remain widely popular and the party was central to each ruling coalition until last year's Presidential election, which saw political outsider and reformer Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) come to power. Still, families and men like the Bakries and Halid, who grew enormously powerful and wealthy under the former dictator, remain in prominent positions.

FIFA's normalization committee was successful, and by July 2011, despite a determined effort by Halid to ignore FIFA and participate in the election, a new chairman had been voted in. Momentarily, things seemed to be going well, but when the new leadership attempted clean house and bring in a new league administrator, the fissures again began to show.

Days before the mid-October kick-off, 14 of the 24 teams in the league, alongside several leading PSSI members, decided they preferred the old league administrator and proposed a delay. This meant that Indonesia would miss a deadline set by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and all Indonesian teams would be barred from the AFC's competitions, like the Asian Champions League. The PSSI called the rebels' bluff and, just before the deadline, a 10-team Indonesian Premier League sanctioned by the PSSI kicked-off.

In response, a group called the Committee to Save Indonesian Football started a renegade league consisting of the 14 teams that had boycotted the PSSI. This league kept the old title of Indonesian Super League and kicked off in December.

(The players in the ISL, many of the best in the country, were now ineligible for the national team in the midst of a World Cup qualifying campaign. This resulted in a 10-0 defeat to Bahrain in which eight starters were international debutants. Bahrain, a country whose population is .5 percent of Indonesia's, at the time needed a nine goal margin of victory to hope to progress. Suspicions were raised although many were focused on the referees who sent off Indonesia's keeper in the first three minutes and awarded Bahrain four penalties, two of which were saved.)

With rival leagues running, and FIFA threatening fresh sanctions, the AFC hosted peace talks in June 2012 between the warring parties. The meetings, held in Kuala Lumpur, were successful and a temporary memorandum of understanding was signed. It would take another 10 months of hopping from one controversy and crisis to the next for a permanent agreement to be reached.

In March 2013, an Extraordinary Congress of the PSSI met and finally cemented a deal. The rebels would be reabsorbed into the PSSI, the current season would be continued with two sanctioned leagues and the top teams from each would combine into the newly authorized Indonesian Super League.

After a relatively successful merger and season in 2014, the old ghosts have reemerged. While FIFA has again threatened sanctions, this time to prevent government meddling in the PSSI, the government authority that oversees professional sports in Indonesia seems to have good reason to intrude, especially when it comes to teams paying taxes and honoring contracts. In late-2012, a Paraguayan player, owed months of back pay, died after not being able to afford medical treatment, and less than a year later, a Cameroonian suffered the same fate.

In a March 31 op-ed, the Indonesian Minister of Sport, Imam Nahrawi, who delayed the season in February, showed a heartening degree of leadership. After stating that he's prepared to personally accept criticism in the short term for what's been derided as a "political decision", Nahrawi said, "Better a little messy and a bit bloody now, so the same thing won't happen (again) next season."

In Indonesia, corruption and political maneuvering are played out on a number of fields. Minister of Sport Nahrawi went on to say that that there are a number of "political strongholds used to protect" the PSSI and much work still to be done. The chaos in the soccer world is an ongoing reminder that those "political strongholds," remnants of the Suharto regime, still affect the everyday lives of citizens. President Joko Widodo's six-month old administration, of which Nahrawi is a member, has promised reforms and a battle against the old ways. Many are hoping the fight to clean up Indonesian soccer will give them their first victory, but it's clear the old guard isn't going without a fight.