FIFA’s suspension of Indonesia shines spotlight on years of mismanagement

By John McBeth, Jakarta

GIVEN THE CORRUPTION scandal that has engulfed FIFAquestions abound over the circumstances of its executive decision on May 29 to suspend Indonesia from international competition for government meddling in its domestic league.

Such interference would normally be frowned on. But in their push for reform, President Joko Widodo and Sports Minister Imam Nahrawi clearly believe the Indonesia Football Association (PSSI) is as crooked and mismanaged as the world’s governing body.

Indonesians might even be tempted to find echoes of former president Suharto’s rule in the way FIFA’s leadership spread largesse around to ensure the lasting loyalty of the majority of football associations in Africa and Asia.

“The governance crisis at FIFA highlights the problems with FIFA statutes that prohibit so-called political interference,” says Brendan Schwab, the Asia chairman of FIFpro, the global players’ union. “Football is not above the law and administrators have to be held to account.”

Despite months of pressure from FIFA, Nahrawi refused to lift a freeze imposed on the PSSI last April for failing to fully implement administrative changes aimed at improving transparency and governance among the country’s far-flung clubs.

“It doesn’t matter whether we are absent from international competition for a while as long as we can win big in the future,” Widodo said in a move that drew wide support, despite it meaning the cancellation of the PSSI’s 18-team Indonesian Super League.

"It doesn't matter whether we are absent from international competition for a while as long as we can win big in the future."
        - President Joko Widodo

The PSSI has for years been riven by corruption allegations, leadership tussles and claims of malfeasance in the disbursement of money to clubs that have seen Indonesia’s most popular sport descend into chaos and mediocrity.

Things came to a head in 2011 when self-styled reformers finally succeeded in a campaign to oust the entrenched PSSI leadership. But the coffers were empty and they soon found they were without any of the key officials needed to get the job done.

In what descended into an ugly proxy war, oilman Arifin Panigoro was left backing the PSSI’s Premier League, while rival tycoon Aburizal Bakrie funded a breakaway Super League, tied to the programming boost it gave his two television stations.

FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) threatened sanctions and a deal was eventually hammered out that left Bakrie’s people in charge with the Super League as the main competition and a revamped PSSI agreeing to undertake wide-ranging reforms.

One was for all clubs to become incorporated under their local municipalities. Another was to address concerns about player welfare: many clubs being notorious for not paying their players or taking care of their medical needs.

When the PSSI ignored warnings that two of the clubs were failing to meet those conditions, the Sports Ministry in mid-April announced it would disband the association and start afresh with a 17- man transitional board.

The PSSI responded by suspending the Super League in early May. In doing so, it took the questionable step of authorising the scrapping of all player contracts, including those of 40 foreigners, and allowing clubs to pay only 25 per cent of their value. “Once again,” says Schwab, “the players – like the fans – are being treated with contempt.”

More than that, the ban raises additional questions over the ability of players to transfer in and out of Indonesia, possibly denying them the opportunity to play in the World Cup qualifiers.

Football in Indonesia is a mess, even if it does still draw huge crowds. The financial crisis in the late 1990s sucked most government money out of sport and post- Suharto decentralisation removed the all-important nexus between sport, education and health.

Since then, the PSSI has done next to nothing to foster junior development, with naturally gifted kids not getting the necessary mentoring in physical fitness, nutrition, strategy and teamwork – all the things that are missing in today’s national team.

The record speaks for itself. After holding eventual winners the Soviet Union to a scoreless draw in the 1956 Olympics and taking the bronze medal at the 1958 Asian Games, Indonesia has failed miserably to take advantage of its potential.

It has held the Southeast Asian Games title only twice, in 1987 and 1991, has never won the ASEAN Football Championship. It sank to a new low in 2012 by losing 10-0 to Bahrain in a World Cup qualifier. It was the exact number of goals Bahrain needed to go through.

“The PSSI can’t hide behind FIFA,” Schwab said. “It, together with the government and all key stakeholders, must now put the interests of Indonesian football first by embracing fundamental governance and business practice reform to achieve a lasting solution.”

Good luck with that.

First published as "Indonesia Loses on Penalties" in The Edge Review, 12-18 June 2015 

See also: "The business of Indonesia football and the hopes of players and fans," 1 April 2007