On Monday 21 September 2015, AIYA Western Australia together with the Australian Society for Sports History held a special Basa Basi event with professional football (soccer) player Robbie Gaspar. Robbie was the first Australian footballer to play professionally in Indonesia, and played in Indonesia for seven years including playing for one of Indonesia’s biggest football clubs, Persib Bandung. He currently works as a FIFPro (International Federation of Professional Footballers) consultant and is studying a Bachelor of Accounting and Asian Studies degree at Murdoch University. Robbie was not there that night to discuss his own achievements as a player, but rather to offer an insight into what has gone wrong with Indonesian football and what can be done to see the game progress in this football-mad nation.
Club Management and Non-Payment of Players
The first topic Robbie addressed on the night was the management, or rather, mismanagement of the Indonesian football leagues and clubs, including non-payment of players. Robbie explained how in 2011 the situation became increasingly more difficult in Indonesia, as a rival administration the Indonesian Football Saviour Committee (Komite Penyelamat Sepak Bola Indonesia, KPSI) was set up in opposition to the Indonesian Football Association (Persatuan Sepakbola Seluruh Indonesia, PSSI). The KPSI established their own football league as they were from rival political affiliations to those governing the PSSI. Instead of making football more competitive in Indonesia, this rival league led to further complications for the Indonesian national team (Timnas). PSSI did not recognise the legitimacy of the league that they created and therefore players from the league were ineligible to play for the national team. Robbie argues that the motivations of the people in charge were political rather than in the interest of the national competition.
Robbie talked candidly regarding the problems in the administration of the PSSI. He told of how officials and players used to have to go and meet then PSSI Chairman Nurdin Halid in jail as he continued to run the PSSI from his prison cell. The current PSSI Chairman La Nyalla Mattalitti also appears to have a suspect past with Robbie commenting, “the less said about the current PSSI Chairman the better.”
The issue of non-payment of players is widespread in Indonesian football, with Indonesia currently ranked first in the world for non-payment of players. Robbie spoke passionately about how players from some clubs go months without being paid. Worse still, there have been five players who have lost their lives due in part to not being paid. Robbie gave the example of Diego Mendieta, a Paraguayan footballer playing for Persis Solo who tragically lost his life from a common treatable illness. Mendieta had not been paid for four months by the club and did not have enough money to finance his medical treatment. In the end it was the club’s own fans who raised money for Mendieta, but it was all too late to save him. One of the problems for local players is that they cannot take non-payment claims to FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC). As a result, there is little accountability on behalf of those responsible for the payment of players.
Although Robbie admitted that match-fixing was a fairly common occurrence in Indonesian football, he argues it was often the match officials rather than the players who engaged in it. He explained that before the non-payment of players became an issue, it was simply assumed that in away matches you were playing against 14 players (the 11 opposition and 3 match officials) rather than 11. One club, Persewa Wamena (Papua), for instance did not lose a home game in five years. When Robbie’s team drew against them away from home, the team celebrated as though they had won the league. The correlation between the non-payment of players and officials also saw a rise in the number of incidents of players engaging in match-fixing. When the Federation do not take care of players, they often feel that they have no other alternative. Robbie believes match-fixing amongst players became more prevalent in 2011-2012 due to the problems at the administrative level of Indonesian football and the political fighting between the two rival administrations. Greater accountability in the payment of players would help to reduce the problems of match-fixing and also lead to closer scrutiny of officials.
Scheduling and Travelling
Scheduling and travelling is also a major difficulty in Indonesia. For instance, Robbie recalls a time where he had to play 13 games in 43 days including an 18-hour trip from Papua to Malang. The structuring of the fixtures demonstrates how little the federation appears to care about the welfare of the players. All of the games are squeezed into a very short period, followed by a whole month without any scheduled matches. One season of the regular season once took 14 months to complete. The PSSI need to organise a more professional league schedule if Indonesia is to reach its full potential. There must be consistency in scheduling and enough time for players to rest and recover. Perhaps playing more games in the evening, such as what is done in Malaysia, would also help combat the strains caused by high humidity and travel pressures..
Robbie outlined the lack of facilities and junior development as another barrier to success. He spoke about how pitches are kept in awful condition and this leads to player injuries and decreased quality of matches. A major reason for this is the lack of irrigation and drainage of pitches. One time there was no rain in Balikpapan for three months and Robbie told us how the pitch had become so dry that the players could no longer use their moulded studs and had to instead use their futsal shoes. Given that Indonesia has a tropical climate with a wet and dry season, pitch quality often becomes a major problem due to flooding or lack of rain. One idea Robbie suggests to overcome this challenge would be to adopt synthetic pitches (such as what they have done in Russia).
Indonesia could take its cues from its regional neighbours, who have developed quality youth development programs. It is not only the senior players who need better access to facilities, but also the up-and-coming talent. For instance, in Thailand no team can take part in the national league unless they have their own training facilities. Thailand’s national team has now passed Indonesia in the FIFA world rankings. Whereas, Thai players used to come to play in Indonesia it is now Indonesian players wanting to play in Thailand. Neighbouring countries such as Malaysia have started setting up football academies to develop their young players. The development of good quality coaches with professional qualifications will also help to develop the game in Indonesia.
Sponsors also need to start investing in Indonesian football. For instance, if you watch the English Premier League you will often see billboards with Indonesian sponsors (some even written in Indonesian). However, these sponsors also have a responsibility to help the national league in Indonesia and need to start investing in the local game.
One aspect that Robbie would not change is the passion of the fans. He described the Indonesian fans as being from a “different class”. Wherever you play the stadiums are full and there passion is unrivalled. Robbie said the biggest game he was ever involved in was the derby between Persib Bandung and Persija Jakarta, known locally as the El Clásico. Even though he played in front of 90,000 fans in the Malaysian Cup final, he said that the atmosphere amidst the 65,000 fans at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium that day was the most amazing atmosphere he had ever experienced on a football field.
After his talk, time was given to the audience to ask questions of Robbie. The audience was very engaged as people asked questions about the ownership of football clubs in Indonesia, ways to improve the scheduling, as well as suggesting other leagues Indonesia could use as examples of success. One interesting point raised was the lack of involvement of the Football Federation Australia (FFA) in helping develop the game in Indonesia and Asia more broadly. Despite, Australia agreeing to help with the development of football in the Asian region when it joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006. One audience member asked a very pointed question; after all that has been said, do you think Indonesia realises it is the sleeping giant of world football? Robbie’s answer was an adamant “yes”. Indonesia just needs to realise its potential.
A big thank you to AIYA WA President Matthew Satchwell, Australian Society for Sports History’s WA chapter coordinator Christopher Egan and of course Robbie Gaspar for putting on a great event.