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A year without the Beautiful Game: Indonesia struggle for Football

Words by: Ahmad Shafiq Imagine not being able to watch a football match on a weekend, not being able to go to the stadium to watch a game, not being able to support your local team, or even worse, not being able to support your national team. In Indonesia, they’re living this nightmare.While the country as a whole is experiencing a slow economic growth, lack of infrastructure, and environmental abuses, Indonesian football on the other hand faces a similar daunting scenario with lack of investment on facilities, unstable clubs and leagues, and a seemingly endless series of scandals.First of, Indonesia is a nation with a lot of football potential. With a population over 260 million, they are bound to be a footballing nation sooner rather than later. Some say it is already a footballing nation with football fanatics there being one of the most electrifying in the world. You might just have to agree with them.Football in Indonesia had a very rich history. They qualified for the Asian Cup 4 times, AFF Suzuki Cup (Regional Tournament) runners-up 4 times, and Olympic quarter-finalists back in 1956. But the most notable achievement of Indonesia is that they were the first Asian nation to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. Only difference back then they were called Dutch East Indies during the Dutch colonial era. It was 1938 at the time where France hosted the competition. Unlucky for them, during the time only knockout rounds existed, so you’ve probably guessed the outcome. Thumped 6-0 by Hungary, which eventually became the runner-up of the World Cup that year.Currently Indonesian football is in turmoil, with the most recent significant problem was being sanctioned by FIFA. As of 30th May 2015, suspension by FIFA meant that Indonesia’s national team would not be able to compete in competitions held by FIFA and Asian Football Confederation (AFC). They will be out of the running for the joint 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaigns. FIFA banned Indonesia after the government’s sport ministry intervened with the operations of the Indonesian football association (PSSI), which is in violation of the FIFA statutes under article 13 and 17.The initial crisis began even before the suspension by FIFA. Back in 2010, two politically connected business factions fought over control of the national sport. They figured running the game in a football crazy country was a good way to get support. It left Indonesia with two national football associations, each running its own league and both fighting to be the national competition. One named Indonesian Super League (ISL), which was the breakaway league, and the other Indonesian Premier League (IPL), which was under supervision of the (PSSI). FIFA finally stepped in, and the two managements finally merged and agreed to run a unified league in 2014. Since then, the Indonesian Super League (ISL) is the highest professional competition for Indonesian football clubs and the Indonesian Premier League (IPL) disbanded. The feud boiled over last year when the association suspended domestic competition, only for the ministry to retaliate by freezing the association’s activities.With all this fiasco happening on the top level of the management, it is the players and fans alike who are caught in the middle. This meant that some of the biggest derbies didn’t happen. But at least they had football then though. This current crisis is a lot more serious- and again it’s the fans that suffer the most, we met up with a couple of hardcore Persija Jakarta fans to get their views about the situation. Based on what Irlan said, a member of ultras group called the ‘Hard Line’, he said he rather let the poisoned (PSSI) take control of football rather than the sports ministry due to the fact that the government doesn’t know anything about football compared to (PSSI). He even said that football is his call to prayer, and with the current God (meaning the sports ministry) not knowing what football is all about, how is he to follow his religion.This has shown the crippling effect this football ban is having in Indonesia. The local players are suffering, the fans are suffering and most importantly the game is suffering. It is going to take a lot of hard work and time for Indonesia to recover from this. But the real tragedy is the toll on the young ‘Garudas’ where there future for football is hanging by a thread. We went to West Sumatra, Padang to be precise to watch an opening match of a regional youth tournament called the Irman Gusman Cup. It’s a huge tournament with over 180 teams of under-17 and 19 participating. We spoke with the Mayor of Bukittinggi where the tournament was held, and he said that a majority of Indonesians are born with a conscious that football is everything for them, and it was very important that such of these tournaments are taking place. It helps the community stay united and provide entertainment for the population of Bukittinggi. In the end it was reassuring to know that the passion and love of the game among the next generation is as strong as ever.On the business side of things, we know that football is a huge business; it helps sustain communities and provide work at different levels So this lack of football has an effect on everyone, from the players all the way down to the people who sell shirts and snacks outside the stadium. Of course no football, no people means no business. The struggle caused sponsors to jump ship, leaving clubs in massive debts and players unpaid. Players even had to retire from playing football and search for different jobs in order to feed their families. Sales from stalls experienced a 200% loss, making it even harder to sustain. Things went from bad to worse when Paraguayan striker Diego Mendieta, playing for Indonesian club Persis Solo, died from an easily treatable infection in December 2012. He was owed four months’ salary and could not afford medical care.Now with no official tournaments being held, the government has organized unofficial tournaments for the game to ‘stay alive’ in Indonesia. Unofficial football tournaments are held usually 2 to 3 times a year, with each competition running for up to 3 months. All these tournaments had received a positive feedback from some supporters as they give back what Indonesian’s missed most- football. Without any of these friendly tournaments the fans would be left without any directions to run as a football club.There is another form of unofficial football that is well known in the hearts of Indonesians, it is known as ‘tarkam’. It originates from the word ‘antara kampong’. Tarkam is a football competition between the villages around the city where villages or simply anybody with a team is allowed to compete in the knockout format tournament. No restrictions on who could play in these tournaments. Therefore we could see even professional players having a stint in these unofficial games. Those who no longer have clubs to play for are willing to risk career-ending injuries by competing in these exhibition matches in small, village tournaments. Tarkam isn’t your average Sunday league football type of matches, it is a more rugged style of football where the pitch can be dodgy and the stakes are high, especially with the current situation without any professional football being played week in week out. The setting is equally fascinating as the football match, fans can be seen supporting just outside the line of the pitch. It adds to that much closer approach towards fans and players. Food stalls surrounds the pitch, which also adds to a mesmerizing scene of a football match. Tickets can be purchased outside the vicinity of the pitch in a cube like building where only cash and hand can be seen. Tickets are 5,000 Rupiah each convert into USD and Pounds are 40 cents and 25p respectively, now how’s that for ticket pricing. Villagers who attend the match can be seen betting with one another to prove which is the better team. A lot of money has been poured in just for the sake of leaving richer than the day before. It provides some sort of a gambling hub even for such a small village tournament. All in all the evening went tremendously well with supporters from young, old, men and women enjoying the event. It doesn’t matter if you support either of the team, its just about getting to see the game that they love and one they can’t live without. Never have I seen a community coming together just to enjoy a match with such passion even for a small village game.Football brings people together. It unites the people, this is what football is all about and the reason why we love it. The sooner (PSSI) and  the government resolve their differences the sooner Indonesian football can improve for the better. A time of dispute should be over and the time for reform should begin. Indonesia is best labeled as “The Sleeping Giants of Asia”.
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