Why can’t a nation of 276 million field a decent soccer team? – The diplomat

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Earlier this month, Indonesia’s Minister of State-Owned Enterprises, Erick Thohir, called for a “complete overhaul‘ by the controversial Indonesian Football Association (PSSI). The statement was a recognition of the extent to which politics – not a lack of talent, skill or passion – is derailing Indonesian football’s global competitiveness. Indonesia is currently the fourth most populous country in the world with more than 276 million people and has the largest economy in Southeast Asia. However, international football governing body FIFA currently ranks Indonesia at a low 152nd out of the world’s 211 national teams. The Merah Putih (“Red and White”) have only reached a World Championship once, in 1938 when they competed as the Dutch East Indies. This underperformance is the result of the rampant corruption, mismanagement and political infighting that plagues Indonesia’s governing football authority.

On the playing field, Indonesia lags behind regional neighbors like Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and North Korea — not to mention Asian powerhouses South Korea and Japan. Such results come despite the archipelago’s well-known obsession with the sport that borders on the realm of the sacred: agamaku bola, or “My Religion Is Ball,” as many say. An estimated 180 million Indonesians watched the 2022 World Cup – almost two in three of the country’s residents. At major international games, the team often draws crowds of 100,000 or more, including the nation’s president, at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in central Jakarta.

But it takes an entire village to build a competitive soccer team, and the Merah Putih have repeatedly suffered from the venality of the PSSI. Former leader Nurdin Halid was jailed in 2007 for involvement in a corrupt cooking oil distribution scandal, but continued to run the organization from his prison cell. Between 2010 and 2013, PSSI misappropriated over $1.8 million in government funds to support new youth development programs. The PSSI is responsible for distributing broadcasting rights revenue, which can exceed US$13 billion annually, to domestic football teams, but often only half of this reaches the clubs due to corruption. In 2018, a PSSI executive resigned after a recording surfaced of him offering a $10,000 bribe to the coach of Indonesian soccer team Madura FC to throw a league game. A year later, interim chairman Joko Driyono was sentenced to 18 months in prison for match-fixing.

Political power struggles between rival factions also hamper the PSSI. “If you can control football, you are halfway to controlling Indonesia,” a PSSI official once said. In the late 1970s, Suharto, Indonesia’s longest-serving leader, appointed his close associate Bardosono to head the organization. In the early 2000s, the association became a political tool under Chairman Halid, who had close ties to the political party Golkar and its then-billionaire leader Aburizal Bakrie. After Halid, Indonesia’s ruling Democratic Party, under then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, installed its preferred candidate, Djohar Arifin Husein, as leader and elected a senior Democratic Party official to manage the national team.

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This dysfunctional management has resulted in under-resourced facilities, deficient programs to develop Indonesia’s abundant youth talent and the lack of a well-managed system of national competition for players of all ages. And the consequences go well beyond underperforming international match results. Ten Indonesia national team members were found guilty of taking bribes before the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta and received life bans. In 1998, Indonesian defender Mursyid Effendi deliberately scored an own goal against Thailand, earning him a life ban from FIFA. Two decades later, a surprise 10-0 defeat by Bahrain during 2014 World Cup qualifiers sparked an international scrutiny. In 2015, FIFA banned Indonesia from all international competitions for excessive government interference in domestic football.

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Calls for the dissolution of the PSSI and criticism of its leadership are not new. In 1996, Suharto chided the organization, saying that in a nation of 200 million people, the team should do better. In 2016, one activist pushed for the creation of a “new federation, a new statute, a new structure,” and another bemoaned the “parasites” and “malignant cancers” within the organization. But despite frequent public denunciations, little seems to be changing. In October of this year, the PSSI swept aside the recommendation of a government-appointed task force calling for fresh leadership after the recent attack on Kanjuruhan Stadium that killed 135 and injured nearly 500. Acting PSSI chairman Mochamad Iriawan has also declined requests for him to resign, with his spokesman dismissing the 124-page task force report as “just a recommendation”.

Many rightly criticize FIFA for its complicity in persistently bribing the PSSI. Football’s international governing body has mostly looked the other way during Halid’s scandalous tenure, and only intervenes in Indonesia when its own interests are threatened. FIFA declined to sanction Indonesia following the Kanjuruhan Stadium tragedy, despite local police firing 45 rounds of tear gas inside the stadium, which FIFA regulations prohibit. The relationship between FIFA and PSSI will be put to the test again as Indonesia prepares to host the 2023 U-20 World Cup next summer, the first FIFA competition to be hosted in the archipelago. Still, the primary responsibility for Indonesian football’s problems lies with the PSSI. It is an Indonesian problem that requires an Indonesian solution.

Opinion polls suggest that Thohir, the former owner of Italian football club Inter Milan, could become the PSSI’s next chairman. Such speculation is not without precedent: after chairman Edy Rahmayadi resigned in 2019 over match-fixing allegations, many called for Thohir to take over the reins of the organisation. At the time, he declined to support President Joko Widodo’s re-election campaign.

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The second time could be the charm. Thohir has expressed an interest in the position if he gets enough votes. The charismatic, American-educated businessman previously won praise for organizing the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang. However, his task of transforming the scandal-plagued Indonesian organization into one that delivers results that reflect the aspirations of one of the world’s most passionate football fanbases will be a Herculean task. History shows that leadership changes rarely lead to significant improvements. The PSSI has consistently “failed to deliver, no matter who ran the organization,” wrote the Jakarta Post in a 2019 editorial.

But there is hope on the horizon for the future of Indonesian football. In August, the U16 national team won the ASEAN Football Association U16 youth championship for the second year in a row. Ultimately, such players probably dream of achieving what no Indonesian team has achieved in almost a century and qualifying for the World Cup.

Indonesia’s talent, skill and passion for football are there. The question is whether this is matched by honest support from the PSSI.