Why Can’t a Nation of 276 Million People Field a Decent Soccer Team?

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Why Can’t a Nation of 276 Million People Field a Decent Soccer Team?

Despite the Indonesian public’s passion for the world game, the “Red and White” have consistently under-performed on the global stage.

Why Can’t a Nation of 276 Million People Field a Decent Soccer Team?

Children playing football near the National Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Credit: Depositphotos

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

On the pitch, Indonesia trails regional neighbors like Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, and North Korea – to say nothing of the Asian powerhouses of South Korea and Japan. Such results come despite the archipelago’s well-known obsession with the sport, which borders on the realm of the sacred: Agamaku bola, or “my religion is ball,” as many say. An estimated 180 million Indonesians have watched the 2022 World Cup – nearly two out of every three people in the country. At major international matches, the team often draws crowds of 100,000 people or more, including the nation’s president, at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in central Jakarta.

But it takes a village to raise a competitive soccer team, and the Merah Putih have repeatedly suffered at the hands of the PSSI’s venality. Former chairman Nurdin Halid was imprisoned in 2007 for involvement in a corrupt cooking oil distribution scandal but infamously continued to lead the organization from his jail cell. Between 2010 and 2013, the PSSI misused over $1.8 million in government funds intended to support new youth development programs. The PSSI is responsible for distributing the income from broadcast rights, which can exceed $13 billion per year, to domestic soccer teams, but only half often reaches the clubs due to corruption. In 2018, a PSSI executive resigned after a recording surfaced in which he offered a $10,000 bribe to the coach of Indonesian soccer team Madura FC to throw a division game. One year later, interim chairman Joko Driyono was sentenced to 18 months in prison for match-fixing.

Political infighting between rival factions further hobbles the PSSI. “If you can control football, you are half way to controlling Indonesia,” a PSSI official once said. In the late 1970s, Suharto, Indonesia’s longest-serving leader, appointed his close aide Bardosono to lead the organization. In the early 2000s, the association effectively became a political tool under chairman Halid, who enjoyed close ties with the political party Golkar and its then-billionaire chairman, Aburizal Bakrie. After Halid, Indonesia’s ruling Democratic Party under then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono installed its preferred candidate, Djohar Arifin Husein, as chair, and selected a senior Democratic Party official to manage the national team.

This dysfunctional management has resulted in under-resourced facilities, deficient programs to develop Indonesia’s plentiful youth talent, and the absence of a well-managed system of domestic competition for players of all ages. And the consequences extend well beyond subpar international match results. Ten Indonesian national team members were convicted of accepting bribes and received lifetime bans ahead of the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. In 1998, Indonesian defender Mursyid Effendi deliberately scored an own goal against Thailand, and FIFA subsequently banned him for life. Two decades later, an eyebrow-raising 0-10 loss to Bahrain during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers sparked an international investigation. In 2015, FIFA banned Indonesia from all international competitions for excessive government meddling in domestic soccer.

Calls for the dismantling of the PSSI and criticisms of its leadership are not new. In 1996, Suharto chided the organization and said that the team of a nation with 200 million people should perform better. In 2016, one activist urged the creation of a “new federation, new statute, new structure,” and another lamented the “parasites” and “malignant cancers” within the organization. Yet despite frequent public denunciations, little seems to change. In October of this year, the PSSI brushed aside the recommendation of a government-established task force that called for new leadership after the recent Kanjuruhan Stadium stampede that killed 135 people and injured nearly 500. Incumbent PSSI chairman Mochamad Iriawan has also rejected requests for him to resign, with his spokesperson dismissing the task force’s 124-page report as “just a recommendation.”

Many rightly criticize FIFA for complicity in the PSSI’s persistent graft. Soccer’s international governing body mostly looked the other way during Halid’s scandal-ridden tenure and primarily intervenes in Indonesia only when its own interests are threatened. FIFA declined to sanction Indonesia after the Kanjuruhan Stadium tragedy, although local police fired 45 rounds of tear gas inside the stadium, which FIFA regulations prohibit. The relationship between FIFA and the PSSI will come under renewed scrutiny as Indonesia prepares to host the 2023 U-20 World Cup next summer, the first FIFA competition to be held in the archipelago. Still, the bulk of responsibility for Indonesia’s soccer woes lie with the PSSI. It is an Indonesian problem that will require an Indonesian solution.

Opinion surveys indicate that Thohir, the former owner of Italian soccer club Inter Milan, could become the next chair of the PSSI. Such speculation is not without precedent: After chairman Edy Rahmayadi resigned over match-fixing allegations in 2019, many urged Thohir to take the organization’s reins. Back then, he declined to assist with President Joko Widodo’s reelection campaign.

The second time around might be the charm. Thohir has expressed interest in the position if he receives enough votes. The charismatic, American-educated business executive previously earned widespread praise for his organization of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang. That said, his task of transforming Indonesia’s scandal-plagued organization into one which delivers results that reflect the aspirations of one of the world’s most impassioned soccer fan bases will be a Herculean one. History shows that leadership changes rarely result in significant improvements. The PSSI has consistently “failed to deliver, no matter who has led the organization,” the Jakarta Post wrote in an editorial in 2019.

But hope for the future of Indonesian soccer looms on the horizon. In August, the Under-16 national team won its second consecutive Under-16 ASEAN Football Federation Youth Championship. Eventually, such players likely dream of achieving what no Indonesian team has in nearly a century and qualifying for the World Cup.

Indonesia’s talent, skill, and passion for soccer is there. The question is whether that will be matched by honest support from the PSSI.