Politics and money tear into Indonesian soccer
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -The start of the 2013 Indonesian football season earlier this month has brought little cheer at Jakarta's Persija, a club whose history stretches back to 1928 and the era of Dutch rule over the nation.
Its captain and other top players watched from the stands, unpaid for the previous five months. The club's supporters were still grumbling about the existence of another team playing under the Persija name - with the same bright orange shirts - in a rival league. Ticket prices had risen more than 20 percent over last season.
Football is the most loved sport by far in this nation of 240 million people, and local matches attract huge TV audiences. With the economy booming, the game should be capitalizing on its popularity, attracting sponsors and building a strong national team to challenge in Asia and one day beyond.
But a feud over control of the sport by two politically-connected business factions has left those hopes in tatters: there are two rival leagues, a national side from which the best players are banned or are unwilling to join, bankrupt teams, fleeing sponsors, allegations of match-fixing and irregularities, and organizational chaos.
In November, Paraguyan striker Diego Mendieta died in hospital, owed at least four months of wages from his club. While the cause of death has not been established, the incident was taken as another sign of the mismanagement blighting the sport.
After a December deadline to sort out the mess went unheeded, football's governing body FIFA said it will ban the country and its clubs from international competition in March unless the rival leagues can be reunited. That would punish a generation of Indonesian players and fans for the mistakes of those running the game, but some within the sport say it might be the shock required to prompt genuine change.
"In December, the good thing was we escaped a ban and the game was still on, but the bad thing was so was the fight,'' said Bambang Pamungkas, an iconic Indonesian striker and captain of the Jakarta-based Persija. "Everyone Indonesian player feels sad about this. We are being stupid. The two sides should sit down and sort it out.''
The dispute broke out in 2011, but had been simmering since 2003, when a controversial businessman won election as head of the Football Association of Indonesia or PSSI. Nurdin Halid remained in the post for two terms, even though he was convicted and imprisoned for corruption twice during his tenure.
After a bitter struggle, a new head was elected in 2011 who immediately expelled Halid's associates from the grouping, as well as the respected national team coach, Austrian Alfred Riedl. The former members set up a rival body, the Indonesian Football Rescue Association (KPSI), which is supported by some of the clubs in the country and runs the unauthorized league.
Because the national team is run by the PSSI, many of the clubs in the breakaway league will not release their players to represent it, hobbling its development. Several club sides also have versions playing in both leagues, angering and confusing fans. The duality makes it hard for either to prosper.
Persija admits it doesn't have the money to pay its players.
A week before the season began, a group of fans raised a few hundred dollars and bought a fridge and oven for the canteen where many of its younger plays live and train.
"We are stuck,'' said spokeswomen Viola Kurniawati. "Potential sponsors don't trust Indonesian football anymore. They are afraid because there are two Persijas.''
Each faction claims to be the genuine representatives of the sport in Indonesia and the best placed to manage it professionally. But the dispute is now largely about money - it costs around $1 million a season to keep a large club running - the egos of those behind the factions and even national political considerations. In interviews with both camps, much bad blood is apparent.
"We want fair football, they don't,'' said PSSI secretary general Halim Mahfudz, who says FIFA should take its side and the Indonesian police should enforce a law that he says prohibits sports organizations existing without the blessing of the national association. He accuses KPSI of trying to engineer a FIFA ban, so it can rise from the ashes.
"People outside Indonesia don't understand this is about political considerations and a lack of law enforcement.''
The KPSI is funded by Nirwan Bakrie, the brother of Aburizal Bakrie, a wealthy tycoon who is a candidate for president in next year's elections. Mahfudz and other officials charge that Bakrie - a polarizing figure in Indonesian politics - wants control of the sport to boost his profile in the elections.
Many clubs in Indonesia receive money from their local governments to keep running and have been used by politicians to spread money to powerful regional figures and mobilize supporters. While Indonesia's electorate is becoming more sophisticated, some politicians believe that association with the sport can boost their popularity come election day.
Joko Driyono, the head of the KPSI league, denies Bakrie's political ambitions are a factor.
"This is a black campaign from the other side,'' he said. "We respect PSSI, but not the people behind it.'' He says a congress should be held of all clubs and members of PSSI to choose a new leader, a process he says would end in the KPSI faction coming out on top.
Despite the chaos, European clubs are lining up to play friendly matches against sides in Indonesia, keen to expose their brand - and that of their sponsors - to Indonesia's ravenous consumers. "Football in Indonesia is very sexy because of the size of the population,'' said Widjajanto, the CEO of the PSSI league, in a sleek office block in the city's central business district.
FIFA and Asia's governing body, the AFC, are in a difficult position. Despite the threat to disband Indonesia, some believe they will not go through with it because of opposition within their ranks. Some in the AFC, itself involved in a turbulent leadership transition, might not want to lose a member at this crucial time. The AFC did nothing when Halid led the organization from behind bars, and both it and FIFA share some blame by allowing mismanagement in the Indonesian game for so long.
Some other countries have two leagues, but FIFA states that both have to be sanctioned by the national association, something that looks unlikely in Indonesia given the personalities involved. The Indonesian government is threatening to take over the national side, but that would trigger more opposition by FIFA, which doesn't allow state interference in the running of the sport.
Meanwhile, the fans are running out of patience.
"FIFA should just choose one of them,'' said Yuditya Abhayamudra, a copywriter watching Persija's opening fixture in early January. "It can't be that hard.''
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