AFR: Indonesia’s football woes, when government and sport collide

Indonesian football fans watching Indonesia play Uruguay
Indonesian football fans watching Indonesia play Uruguay

A Football Report: Soraya Soemadiredja, writing from Jakarta

The play by play of the recent friendly between Indonesia and Uruguay mirrors the conditions of which the Indonesian fans have been subject at the international level for their national side. They started out enthusiastic, strong and willing to commit, even managing to score first. But with every attack on their goal, be it a poor result by the national team or corruption, the more disenchanted they become. Fatigue sets in from dealing with politicians taking advantage of the most popular sport. Then the unravelling,  opposition hammering at their net without defence from an adequate development system.

Despite having suffered the largest loss in over three decades, Indonesia has a history of performing well at the international level. They were the first Asian side to qualify for a World Cup, in 1938 competing, while still under occupation, as the Dutch East Indies. They were runners up in the Tiger Cup ASEAN football championship in 2002. Indonesian league football titles, despite the many scandals it faces off the pitch, remains challenging for clubs. Footballers who decide to play in the domestic leagues have opportunities to play to the best of their abilities and foreigners come to Indonesia to play. But recently there have been a spate of disappointing results. One of the most recent was at the 2010 U-16 ASEAN tournament where Indonesia, as host, lost to a fairly new Timor-Leste side and crashed out early.

After the match, coach Albert Riedl remarked, rather unnecessarily, that Uruguay were of a much higher calibre and no match for the Indonesians. Officials have said that while the result of the friendly was disappointing for the home side, “it was not about the score-line but about the experience.” What it was was that it was expensive. Uruguay were paid 448,000 USD for the appearance by the National Team body according to their head, which included a 20,000 USD personal fee for Diego Forlan’s appearance.

At those prices, the question, “why can’t we find 23 players good enough to compete at an international level?” is answered. It’s not because there aren’t any. By this, the FA shows they are not willing to invest in the immense pool of waiting talent to be discovered in the archipelago nation, instead relying on employing short-term foreign coaches to miraculously dig out the potential that was shown in our past and spending unsustainably to keep up support for themselves, rather than on their work.

If the FA’s original purpose was to give the national team experience while knowing they weren’t ready, why did Indonesia have to look as far as Uruguay for a worthy opponent? Why did they not play their neighbours, the national sides whom they are most likely to face during FIFA competitions and whom are most likely to give the Indonesians obstacles toward international titles?

For many Southeast Asian politicians, “spending vast amounts of money is almost equivalent to productivity and work”, and in many developing countries, the ties between government, politics and football are intricately linked.

The Indonesian FA is headed by Nurdin Halid, no stranger to the nation’s political party scene and a man who, while serving a sentence after having been convicted of illegal importation of goods, ran the FA from behind a prison cell. Upon his release, he spearheaded a bidding for the 2022 World Cup in a year when many were suffering from devastating earthquakes and floods. He is living proof of how entrenched football and politics has become in this part of the world. Even club football is  heavily linked to government. Most of the clubs rely on local government funds, as much as up to 95 percent, to run their programmes, and many are owned by local governments while those run as private companies are staffed by civil servants.

The success of the national team depends on the ability of the FA to look beyond money and meet the desire of the nearly 300 million inhabitants to do well at a consistent level. Great results with a lot of hard work every so often amongst our Southeast Asian neighbours no longer satisfies the average Indonesian consumer of football used to watching high level European football every week, and who have slowly come to be resentful and envious of watching their neighbours now beginning to quickly surpass them on the pitch in international trophies.

The fans cried out for the resignation of the head of the FA: “Nurdin turun!” they cried, as the policemen guarding the match looked on, almost bemused. They had no worry of hooliganism or rioting; the crowds were far from hostile. Instead, they expressed worrying disappointment, not as a result of a loss their home team, but a resigned, festering pain of the long-suffering.

The woes of the Indonesian football team can be reflected in other parts of the world, one of many examples where an overwhelming popular love for the game does not necessarily translate into a willingness of officials, elected and appointed, to translate this love into a commitment to work for the development of the national game at all levels.

If governments continually want to involve themselves in football, they must demonstrably behave in an accountable manner and be committed to the development of the game, not the development of their image and how far this will help them get in their professional career or just how much they can scoop off to line their pockets. If government officials are unwilling or unable to do so, then perhaps it should be left to the private sector.

It is a simple request we always ask of officials and one that seemingly is possible, but  without many replies. With corrupt and unstable leadership, no matter how hard national team players at all levels train, how can one expect to get very far? Who can fans turn to for honest accountable control of the footballing system?

The author would like to thank Hedi Novianti for his invaluable knowledge.

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