Once again football in Indonesia stands at the crossroads.
In the same week that Serie A powerhouse Inter Milan is visiting the country,
playing to a packed house at the Gelora Bung Karno, there is a real
risk that professional football in Indonesia is being brought undone by
political infighting, financial instability and general disorganisation.
FIFA is understood to be seriously considering imposing a ban on the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI)
after years of infighting whilst there is a key meeting on Monday in
Jakarta with leading players and coaches who are up-in-arms over unpaid
salaries – with talk of a boycott being openly discussed.
All of which is incredibly disheartening in a nation of such immense
footballing potential and for a people that has a passion for the sport
not matched anywhere in the region.
My introduction to domestic club football came last weekend in Jakarta
and in many ways spoke loudly of all that's good – and bad – with the
sport in the country.
Along with Antony Sutton, author of the fantastic Jakarta Casual blog, I travelled to the city's outskirts to watch a first division match between Persipasi and PSS Sleman.
The visiting side brought seven bus loads of supporters on the 12 hour
journey from Yogyakarta. Despite having slept barely a few hours after
the epic road journey, most spent the entire match chanting and singing;
their support fashioned, they told me, out of the ultras from Italian
club football – AC Milan in particular.
The home supporters also turned up in numbers; lighting flares, singing and dancing.
All was well until the referee denied the visitors a clear-cut penalty and the mood turned.
The first sign of what was about to unfold came with the full-time whistle – or at least the first one.
The referee had blown time only to realise he was standing near
the centre circle and so, oddly, let the match resume. From there he
made his way towards the touchline, blew full-time for a second time,
and before the whistle had left his mouth turned and ran full-speed for
the dressing rooms.
Before he arrived there was a crowd of 15-20 irate officials and supporters in tow and heaven knows what happened to him.
If the scenes outside were an indication, it can't have been good. Pitch
side resembled a battlefield as both sets of players and officials
traded punches and kicks, with one even using a green plastic chair to
clobber anyone who came into sight.
They made the North Korean women look a group of saints.
One fan was punched to the ground by a policeman, fireworks were raining
down from the home stand and it was a general scene of chaos that took
almost 10 minutes to clear.
This, mind you, came after an incident several weeks earlier when
visiting Persija was forced to flee Persipura's stadium three hours
after full-time by boat after it had won 1-0.
Such is the fear of clubs crossing from one competition to the other
(the country still has 'official' and 'rebel' leagues operating
side-by-side) that no punishment was meted out to the home side.
Those scenes, although over-the-top, show just how deep the passion is for the game here.
Those who know little about football here struggle to comprehend it –
crowds of 50,000, 60,0000 even 70,000 are common-place, supporters will
travel almost an entire day by cramped bus or minivan or hang off the
roof of a train just to see their side play – there's a fanaticism for
the sport not seen in many European nations let alone in Asia.
It's a massive country where kids are consistently playing on any
available space yet it's being run by two sets of administrators that
are seemingly unable to find a medium of consensus about the best way
forward for the sport.
Even trying to explain the league structure bends credibility; in a case
that makes wife-swapping look straight-forward this year's 'official'
league (the Premier League) was last year's rebel league and last year's
official league (the Super League) is this year's 'rebel' league with
the Premier League's current boss being last year's outcast and
The only common ground between the two is a fight for political influence and an inability to pay player salaries.
The majority of players across both competitions haven't been paid for
almost three months and this is the fuse for what should be a lively
debate on Monday, as push may finally come to shove and one or both
leagues may be shut down.
It's often said that football mirrors the society from which it emerges
and in the case of Indonesia that means there may be many years of
heartache to come before this sprawling land can fulfill it's undoubted
NOTE: Over the next couple of days
I’'l be posting an interview with PSSI's new Technical Director on the
challenges facing Indonesia as well as an in-depth feature on the
nation's biggest domestic derby –Sunday’'s clash between Persija Jakarta
and Persib Bandung.