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Asian Eye - Will Indonesia be wiped off the footballing map?

Say “Indonesia”, and one of the last things that will come into your mind is probably football. Yet, against all odds Indonesia has been making World football headlines of late. However, unfortunately for the football-mad nation, it has been doing so for all the wrong reasons.

First there was the fishy capitulation of the national team in a recent World Cup qualifying competition to Bahrain. FIFA launched a probe into the match after Indonesia shipped 10 unanswered goals in a game that their opponents needed to win by nine if they were to qualify.

Indonesia has an unfortunate reputation for corruption, and alarm bells were ringing across the globe after this seemingly farcical game.

Uninformed critics might also point out that the Indonesian team seemed very depleted that day, some real unknowns turned out versus Bahrain for that fateful match – but the actual reason for this fact was that Indonesian football is embroiled in another attention-grabbing disaster.

Despite the enormous popularity of football in Indonesia, the country is in the grip of a crisis that could see them thrown out of all international competitions indefinitely. A civil war has broken out in the domestic game. A group of teams has broken away from the top club division in the country, the Indonesian Premier League (IPL), and formed its own division, the so-called Indonesian Super League (ISL).

This has left the Indonesian footballing authorities, the PSSI, with egg on their faces. FIFA has been forced to step in again, demanding that the PSSI get Indonesian football into order. The breakaway ISL league players have been banned from FIFA-sanctioned competitions, explaining the under-strength squad that faced Bahrain. But, worse still, FIFA has threatened to kick Indonesia out of international football if it cannot resolve the divide. 

No signs of willingness to back down

A deadline of March 20th was originally given to the PSSI, but FIFA has since revised this to June 15th. However, the ISL teams have shown no signs of a willingness to back down.

The PSSI’s Rudolf Yesayas was quoted in the media saying, "We will put in every effort to engage the Super League and try and convince them to play under the PSSI. But we need the Super League to talk to us. We invited all the clubs to a meeting recently but no one even replied."

In fact, a resolution seems more distant than ever, despite FIFA’s stay of execution. Lasya, club treasurer of Persipura Jayapura, arguably the biggest of the breakaway ISL teams, told the state news agency Antara that he expected no quick end to the dispute.

He said, “It’s already too late. It was us who invited the PSSI to a discussion to resolve this problem earlier this year. And now they want us to rejoin them but with conditions? There is no way we would give in to the PSSI’s demands.”

Even the government has stepped in, with sports minister Andi Mallarangeng going public on the matter. Yet, even he seemed reluctant to pick a side in the dispute, releasing this cagey statement, “I believe that the best way to deal with the problems for the time being is to merge the two rival leagues. Everyone has to make the interests of national football their top priority.” 

Breakaway clubs

National football, however, could rapidly become a thing of the past in Indonesia – the breakaway clubs know that they have nothing to lose at this stage.

Attendances have not suffered significantly, fans have remained loyal, and the PSSI, with their depleted IPL still limping along impotently, seem to be holding very few of the cards in this game.

Indonesian teams from the ISL have even secured league sponsorship deals, and have taken place in Asian Champions League qualifiers, much to the embarrassment of the IPL, which is now looking like a poor cousin in comparison.

However, there is still a long way to go until June, and if there is one thing that could unite Indonesian fans and officials in the nation – it might just be the national team. Nobody really wants Indonesia to become the pariah of the footballing planet.

The problem is, in a country where club football is king, FIFA’s angry rallying calls might just as easily fall on deaf ears.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly, Best Eleven

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