Thanks to FIFA and National Politics, Indonesian Soccer is a Giant Mess

Politics, bad business, and FIFA meddling continue to keep the world's fourth largest country from attaining a decent soccer infrastructure.

by Rowan Kane
Mar 10 2016, 4:16pm


Far away from FIFA's glass-encased and Bond-villainesque Zurich offices, but somewhere among the shopping malls, mind-numbing traffic and tropical heat of Jakarta, you can find evidence of the international soccer organization's inept governance.

Specifically, you can find it in the form of Indonesia's FA, called the PSSI, which governs—or used to govern—soccer in the country.

I say "used to" because the PSSI is currently frozen by the Indonesian government. The country's professional league is likewise on an indefinite suspension, and the country and its clubs are banned from international play by FIFA. This crisis, which has been ongoing for nearly a year, is the result of corruption and mismanagement within the country's soccer establishment and government and a laissez-faire attitude from FIFA, which mostly just stood by as the country's most popular sport devolved into chaos.

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Indonesian soccer is a remarkable microcosm of the challenges that face the world's fourth-most populous country. While the country as a whole is confronting slow economic growth, a lack of infrastructure, and environmental abuses, Indonesian soccer faces a lack of investment in youth and facilities, unstable clubs and leagues, and a seemingly endless series of scandals.

These scandals include the fact that from early 2007, the Chairman of the PSSI led the organization from a jail cell where he was imprisoned for unrelated corruption; the two foreign players, one African and one South American, who died when they got sick and couldn't afford for their hospital bills because their wages remained unpaid; and several instances of fan violence, most recently the deaths of two fans killed in a rest-stop brawl this past December.

The cause of all these ugly symptoms is the disease of corruption. And looming over it all is political rivalry that is steeped in the country's history.

On one side, there is a still-powerful, well-entrenched old guard left over from the 30-year dictatorship of President Suharto, who fell in 1998. These guys, primarily belonging to the Golkar political party, have run Indonesian soccer (and plenty of other industries) for decades. Following the Golkar party's colors, let's have them wear yellow jerseys.

Then, wearing red, you have a strong quasi-revolutionary, reformist movement. The red team idolizes the first President of Indonesia, the left-leaning Sukarno, who was pushed out of office by Suharto in the 1960's. These guys surround—but aren't exclusively members of —the PDI-P, a party run by Sukarno's daughter. In the 2014 presidential elections, the PDI-P rode a wave of populism to a victory which brought Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) to office with enormously high expectations of change. Think of the expectations surrounding Obama in 2008.

President Joko Widodo faces high expectations. Photo: Wikimedia.

The conflict between these two sides, red and yellow, is quite literally being playing out on soccer pitches, in boardrooms, and among fan-bases across the country.

As Andy Fuller, who has written a book on the subject, put it in one article, "Soccer in Indonesia doesn't serve as a separate and discrete metaphor for 'Indonesian society', as some kind of parallel, but remains deeply intertwined with the everyday machinations and Machiavellian manoeuvres of politics, money and corruption."

So where does FIFA come into all this?

For all of the country's soccer-related troubles, FIFA has only intervened when its interests are directly at stake. When Nurdin Halid—the infamous former PSSI chief of the establishment yellow shirt-side— was incarcerated on unrelated corruption charges in 2007, there were public protests and a "demand" by FIFA that he step down. Nothing happened, however, until 2011, when an opposition group started a new league and attempted to usurp the PSSI. It was only then that FIFA stepped in.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter and his cronies disbanded the PSSI's executive committee, and then blocked Halid, the founder of the rebel league, and a couple others from participating in elections meant to re-staff the executive committee. They also created a "normalization committee." The rogue organization and league were absorbed into the existing structure but, with very few exceptions, the old cadre remained firmly in power.

The next year, the PSSI leadership controversially voted to create a new premier league that would usurp the Indonesian Super League as the highest in the country. However, a number of executive committee members continued to support the Super League. Unlike in the 2011 rebellion, everybody remained firmly within the PSSI and thus under FIFA. With their control over soccer in Indonesia not under threat, FIFA left the issue up to their regional authority, the Asian Football Conference and the situation sorted itself out.

Then, last April, Imam Nahrawi, the minister of youth and sport and a member of the reform-minded Jokowi's administration (red jerseys) intervened. Ostensibly he did so because several top clubs were financially unstable and administratively unregistered. Digging slightly deeper though, it seems like the move was more an attempt by the red jerseys to break the political stranglehold the yellow jerseys have had on Indonesian soccer for decades. With FIFA's authority in Indonesian soccer again challenged, Blatter's bureaucracy dropped the hammer and banned the country from international competition.

To be fair, government interference in the affairs of national federations is against FIFA statutes and FIFA should not be held responsible for solving all of Indonesia's ills. It is telling, though, that the only two times the international body has involved itself in Indonesian football have come when their feudal representation has been challenged. At best, FIFA is guilty of simply standing by while a corrupt organization represents them.

Police deal with a pitch invader at a 2014 ISL match. Now the pitch invader has no pitch to invade. Photo: EPA.

So where does Indonesian soccer go from here?

Over the past months, there have been meetings and announcements of further meetings and encouraging statements from a FIFA delegation about the return of sanctioned soccer to Indonesia, but nothing much has been done. After these months of seeming inaction, news recently broke that, following a meeting with his vice president and the leader of the committee charged with reforming the PSSI, President Jokowi was hoping to "reactivate" the PSSI. This seemed to be the first positive step forward.

Unfortunately the news of the reactivation wasn't entirely true. The announcement came from the head of the reform commission, a man named Agum Gumelar, and was immediately walked back by the administration. A few days later, President Jokowi received a report on the PSSI from Nahrawi and announced that his government must first meet with the administration of newly-elected FIFA President Gianni Infantino before any final decision would be made.

While the politicos hash things out, clubs and their incredibly passionate fans have been left in limbo. There have been several cup competitions of various sizes played over the past year. The largest were the President's Cup, which was won by Persib Bandung, a Javanese team that also won the league in 2014, and the General Sudirman Cup, won by a team from East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Both patriotically-named competitions were well attended, but that doesn't mean fans are happy about what's been happening to their sport.

Partoba Pangaribuan, an activist and member of the Indonesian Supporters Discussion Forum (FDSI), told VICE Sports that he doesn't think the government should unfreeze the PSSI, but start from scratch. "Forget about [the] PSSI. [A] new federation is [the] better solution. New federation, new statute, new structure," he said.

Dewa Ozora, another member of the FDSI, elaborated on this saying that the new PSSI must follow FIFA and government regulation. "So far they always do as they want and never care about the rules. [There are] many cases where players [do] not get paid and but they [PSSI] do nothing."

A quick resolution seems unlikely. While Indonesia's troubles are headline news across the country's 17,000 islands, they are doubtful to be high on Infantino's priority list. He has his own corruption problems to deal with first.

In Indonesia, the political movements, as well as corruption and mismanagement, will remain entrenched even if this immediate crisis is resolved. Indonesia's potential as Southeast Asia's largest economy is huge, but its ills, shown so clearly in the country's most popular sport, are a continually drag on the beautiful and vibrant (and hot) archipelago.

In an interview with a leading Indonesian magazine just before he submitted his report to Jokowi, Nahrawi summed up the PSSI's relationship with its parent, FIFA, like this:

"Naturally they protect each other," he said. "Look, the person who sanctioned Indonesia, Jerome Valcke (the former FIFA Secretary General) is now suspended for 12 years. This means there's a problem."

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