The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


Soccer diplomacy                                      

If Indonesia and Australia are to ever play well together, they need a kick.  If not up the backside, then into the arena of international relationships.

Here’s a man for the job -  former soccer star Robbie Gaspar, 38, the first Australian to play professionally in Indonesia.   Although now retired his favorite word is “passion” for the game and getting young Indonesians involved.

Politicians advocate transnational trade while bureaucrats urge security to dampen distrust, but Gaspar offers a readymade solution:  Football fun.  He argues that soccer’s global appeal brings all levels together where they can revel in sharing the things which unite.

Soccer thrives in the Republic in quantity of raucous support, though not always quality of facilities and play. Indonesia is 160 in the men’s world rankings.  The game is currently dominated by European and South American nations.  Australia is 43rd.
Gaspar’s concerns are not desultory.  Back in his hometown Perth this decade he joined other retired professionals in Pro Football Training, an enterprise to lift the game – and the health of those who play and watch.
A spin-off is the Soccer Super Heroes (SSH) for children which Gaspar wants to export to Indonesia. The company claims to be training more than 1,600 youngsters a week through school and club based programs.
Gaspar has been exhorting action by State and Federal governments, big business and sports administrators in both countries.  So far the handshakes have been warm but wallets have yet to be opened. 
His cheer-leaders are hoping the kick-off of an Indonesian version of SSH can coincide with next year’s 30th anniversary of the Sister State relationship between East Java and Western Australia.
At the 25-year benchmark in 2015 WA gave one billion rupiah to support disabled kids.  Backers of Gaspar’s plan reckon far less is needed to get SSH going, starting in Surabaya.
The indoors program uses places like badminton and futsal courts. It’s designed to bring pre-schoolers into the game so they grow up enjoying sport and staying fit; parents are encouraged to get involved.
“We need to wean the next generation off their cellphones and get them outdoors,” Gaspar said. “Constantly stuck to a screen isn’t healthy.  Exercise and participation are important for physical and mental health.  So is self esteem and confidence. All this starts at home.”

Gaspar  runs the talk.  His family migrated from Croatia where soccer is king, so after getting honored as a teen champion in Perth, the midfielder joined a club in his parents’ homeland. 

Not a happy time as the former Yugoslav state was still torn from its war of independence.  So Gaspar headed to clubs in Brunei (QAF) and Malaysia (Sabah) before being recruited to play in Indonesia. 

Like most Australians he knew little of the country.  An early jolt: Although English might be understood in the boardrooms, it was alien in the changerooms.  So he rapidly learnt the language and is now fluent.

He also found the differences with his previous teams striking.

“Indonesians were disciplined,” he said. “In other places we’d have to drag players out of the carpark for training, but here they were already jogging on the grounds before the scheduled start time. Indonesia has more football potential than anywhere else in Asia.”

That was in 2005.  Gaspar stayed for seven years and at various times wore the colors of Persib Bandung, Persita Tangerang,  Persiba Balikpapan and Persema Malang.

Although he says it was a great experience working with fine athletes and performing before sellout crowds, it wasn’t always win-win.  But the faults were not with the players,
First the politics.  Disputes over who ran the game climaxed in  2014 after Kemenpora  (the Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs)  and the football association couldn’t settle on who was running the game.
So the world governing body FIFA showed Indonesia the red card,
The suspension, which has since been lifted, ruled the national team out of the joint 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaigns, a mighty blow to fans, players and Gaspar. 
Next were business attitudes.

“Many club owners are frustrated footballers who think they know best,” Gaspar said.  “They reckon the players are hobbyists when in fact they are professionals land and should be treated with respect

“These are the top sportsmen from 260 million people.  They need to be appreciated, paid properly, rested after long trips and fed well.”
When Gaspar found his colleagues weren’t getting a fair deal he became an advisor to the players’ union, FIFPro Asia.  Now he’s working part time as Player Development Manager with the national Professional Footballers Australia organization.
Then there’s the pros’ dread – their 30 plus use-by date:  A new generation of nimble ball benders is invading the pitch.  Where to go when the knees creak and the final whistle blows?
“It’s another problem for Indonesian athletes,” said Gaspar who’s studying accountancy so his money stays in play when the muscles won’t.  “They need care when their career  is over.”
Like many Indonphiles he’s vexed by his fellow Ozzies’ indifference to their neighbor.  At first his disquiet is muted – “relationships could be better,” he says politely.  But when elbowed lets rip:
“Too many Australians are superior - they think they’re better than Indonesians. That’s partly the media’s fault because they frequently report on crises rather than explain more about the country.
“Governments are fine with handshakes all round, but little happens later.  This has to change; we can make it change.”
Gaspar’s  playing code runs into his life values: “Be humble, stay positive, work hard, never stop learning, keep fit, listen to your parents and enjoy your sport.”
Jingoists  paranoid about Western ideas corrupting their culture would find the list hard to contest.
“Indonesians and Australians have so much in common,” said Gaspar. “We both love our families and sport. Let’s build on the positives by playing together.”

 First published in The Jakarta Post 13 August 2019

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