GIVING INDONESIA A SPORTING CHANCE © Duncan Graham 2007
Imagine this: Indonesia wins the Asian Cup in July to be hailed as regional soccer champions with eyes on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Manchester United gets anxious and Real Madrid revises its tactics to combat the threat from afar.
Indonesia produces its own David Beckhams, household names from Arsenal to Argentina. European clubs jostle to pick the archipelago's best. What a boost to national pride, what great benefits to the Republic's reputation!
Instead of being the butt of coarse jokes, unable even to best tiny Singapore in some sports, this huge nation could build teams renowned for excellence.
These dreams aren't exclusive to Indonesians. Australian entrepreneur and footy fan Geoffrey Gold has also been giving his imagination a workout. He thinks Indonesian soccer is currently in its "blackest period" but there could be light ahead if synergy can be developed with its southern neighbor.
Gold has been commissioned by the Western Australian (WA) government to talk to clubs in Surabaya and Malang. He will report on how soccer can be made the catalyst for regional development in Indonesia using the long established formal relationships between WA and the province of East Java.
There's been a 'Sister State' agreement in place since 1990. It includes sport along with commerce, tourism, education and culture. But till now the big-ticket issues have taken priority.
If everything clicks in the Gold plan, Australian skills in running and marketing football, coaching players (male and female), sports medicine, training youngsters and improving facilities could be made available to Indonesian clubs. In return the teams Down Under could promote their brand names in Asia.
"With the entry last year of Australia into the Asian League there's now a sport that Indonesians can understand and share," said Gold. "In the past Australia has been better known for rugby and Australian Rules football, but soccer is rushing to the front line.
"Soccer in Australia has undergone huge changes in the boardrooms and the field during the past few years. Once it was seen as the plaything of ethnic groups. Now the Socceroos are a united force in the sporting world.
"These changes could really improve relationships at all levels. Indonesians are fanatical about football. Australia is internationally recognized for its sporting skills and resources and has much to offer its neighbor to lift the quality of the game."
Things in the Republic are getting better – though slowly. Proposed management restructuring and the Asian Cup contest are the main drivers- along with the anger of fans denied the chance to see their teams do well.
The Jakarta stadium has been given a US $10 million (Rp 90 billion) facelift and should be able to seat almost 90,000 people enjoying modern facilities. Sports administrators want other regions to follow suit. Till now the comfort of fans has been the last thing on the minds of many clubs.
Instead their attention has been focused on a more basic need – money. There are 36 teams in Indonesia's Premier League. All but four are funded by regional governments, often out of welfare budgets.
The national government has ordered this practice to stop. What could justify taxpayers' rupiah earmarked for the local poor being channeled into the pockets of high-wage players, including big names from overseas?
The obvious answer is vote buying. What mayor or regent wouldn't want tens of thousands of soccer supporters reckoning they're great guys because they've helped the local lads knock out a rival team – particularly at election time.
Next year (or so the plan goes) there'll be no more slurping at the public trough. Instead teams will have to find their own fodder.
Gold reckons this is a good move because it will allow creative and progressive managements the chance to get their act together, be truly professional and better promote their product.
"Because the teams had this regular source of money, supporters and sponsors were considered unnecessary," he said. "At some regional grounds the fans are treated like animals with no-where to sit and disgusting toilets.
"If facilities are improved women and families will feel more comfortable about attending matches."
Ground conditions aren't the only hassle. At the moment Indonesian soccer suffers a severe image problem with fans linked to hooliganism – once the English disease.
A feature at some events is a vicious set piece brawl between the police, supporters and their rivals. That might be a thug's idea of a good day out, but law-abiding citizens who love soccer would rather not take the risk of seeing their kids trampled and car torched.
Next year the Football Association of Indonesia is introducing rules to create Super and Premier Leagues each of 18 teams, and meet new standards of safety, security and accountability. These will include sound financial backing and programs to train youngsters properly.
Malang's Arema is one of the few that don't get government rupiah, a point made often and vigorously by club chair Satrija Budi Wibawa. Arema relies on smokes sponsorship from a big-name brand headquartered in Malang. Other clubs are bound to go knocking on the tobacco tsars' doors, but that may not be a healthy move.
In neighboring nations like Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and Singapore tobacco links to sport are banned. If Indonesia wants to play on the world stage it will have to quit its addiction to cash from ciggies.
The Indonesian League is also funded by a cigarette manufacturer – but no nicotine names are on the Asian Cup sponsors' list. Instead the backers are airlines, hotel chains, electronic goods companies, makers of power tools and sports gear.
These were the advertisers prominent in the recent match between Sydney and the East Java team Persik Kediri at Solo - won 2-1 by the locals. No tobacco ads could be seen on the telecast.
Although he's been involved with Indonesian business since the mid 1980s, Gold only recently realized the importance of soccer in Asia when he saw a game in Kuala Lumpur featuring English team Birmingham City.
"Till then I'd mixed with ex-pats who were only interested in rugby and Aussie Rules," he said. "The enthusiasm for soccer and English teams in particular throughout the ASEAN region is huge.
"People want to see professional football. At the end of a hard day's work this is their catharsis. It's the tribalisation of the modern world. When I came back to Indonesia I suddenly saw the obvious. But the game hasn't been well run or marketed."
If Gold's report is positive and his recommendations followed then formal links may be forged with Australian 11s like A-league team Perth Glory. Indonesian national teams have already used the facilities in WA to hone pre-match skills.
"The question raised in Indonesia is money, the issue in Australia is security," said Gold. "When we can sort these out then everything else will be about football."
BIG TIME – SMALL CHANCES
The contest to decide who'll be Asia's top football team will be decided at Jakarta's Bung Karno Stadium on Sunday 29 July. It's being promoted as the biggest sporting event ever staged in Indonesia, expected to draw an international TV audience of close to one billion.
Quarterfinals will be played in Jakarta and the other host countries, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.
At the moment hopes of Indonesia making an international mark any time soon seem fanciful indeed. Although Indonesia will be playing in the Asian Cup it has earned its place not through merit but because it's one of the four host nations. The hot favorite is Australia.
The 46-member Asian Football Confederation headquartered in Malaysia runs the Asian Cup.
The first Asian Cup match was in 1956 and it's contested every four years. The trophy has been won three times each by Iran, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Singapore won in 1984. So far Indonesia has never made it to the finals.
The first contest this year involving Indonesia will be against Bahrain on the evening of Tuesday 10 July at Bung Karno.
For more details of matches, times and locations see www.afcasiancup.com
(First published in The Weekender (JP) June 07)