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a big old mess

Protests, Politics, and Corruption: The Fight to Control Indonesian Soccer

The ongoing controversy over Indonesia's top soccer league is like "Game of Thrones" mixed with geopolitics and Indonesian history.

Rowan Kane

Less than four weeks ago, no one was sure if Indonesia's national soccer league would start. It did, with a whole lot of fanfare, but after just two rounds of matches, the entire enterprise was suspended, under ambiguous circumstances, by the national soccer federation.

The league had been slated to start in February but was postponed because, according to BOPI—a committee under the Sports Ministry responsible for sanctioning professional sports in Indonesia—a bunch of teams weren't financially ready: they hadn't paid their players or staff in months. By April, most of those teams were ready, and BOPI gave the go ahead to begin league play, barring two teams that were still a financial disaster. The league, which is run by Indonesia's FIFA-sanctioned national soccer federation, the PSSI, did not follow BOPI's orders. Rather, it changed its name from the Indonesian Super League to the Qatar National Bank League, or QNB, and began league play with all its teams—including the two financially shaky clubs.

Read More: Can Indonesia's Top League Finally Get Under Way?

The league's stutter start is just the latest example of an almost decade-long saga of rivalry, corruption, and scandal that has plagued Indonesian soccer. Among other embarrassments, the instability in Indonesian soccer has left the national team tied with Turkmenistan and Belize for 159th in FIFA's world rankings. Indonesia is the world's fourth largest country, by population, with about 250 million people. Turkmenistan's population is roughly 2 percent of Indonesia's. Belize's is right around 0.1 percent.

Now back to those ambiguous circumstances. The originally stated "reason" for the hiatus had to do with a scheduling conflict with an international conference, the 60th Anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference, which was being held in Bandung. But since this really made no sense as a reason to not play soccer, and few took it seriously as a pretense, a second, slightly more believable excuse was floated for the league's stoppage: the league would wait until an Extraordinary Congress (big fancy meeting) was held and a new PSSI chairman and Executive Committee could be elected.

Well, that Extraordinary Congress was last weekend, and what went down can only be described as Martinian (as in George RR).

I got your Extraordinary Congress right here, pal.

Let's start with the setting. The Congress was held in Surabaya, a major port city in East Java and the place where soccer was first played in what was then the Dutch East Indies. The city is also home to one of the country's most historic teams, Persebaya, and its fanatic supporters, the Bonek—short for Bondo Nekat, meaning "those who are reckless."

Persebaya was founded in 1927 and is undergoing its own mini-Game of Thrones. Persebaya—along with their fiercest rivals, Arema—were one of the two teams still deemed unready for the league at its start. This is largely due to a schism in the club that began back in 2010, when the original club became two separate clubs that competed in rival leagues. One of those teams has since been dissolved, but the ownership of the Persebaya brand has not been settled.

A leader within one of the factions, La Nyalla Mattalitti, is a part-owner of the still-existent club and is also Chairman of the East Java Chamber of Commerce. Since 2013, he has also been vice-Chairman of the PSSI. (The Chamber is currently under investigation for corruption. La Nyalla is not an official suspect. Yet.). The Bonek, who had thrown their support behind the now-dissolved team, don't like La Nyalla very much. Not only did he split their club, but he also supported a separate supporters group.

Last Thursday in Surabaya, one of La Nyalla's rivals for, and the Bonek-supported heir to, the Persebaya throne was slapped on live TV by a member of a "youth social organization"—in this case a euphemism for the Pancasila Youth, a right-wing paramilitary group with ties to La Nyalla and his political party and a reputation for intimidation forged in the late 1960s, when its members aided in the systematic extermination of more than a million suspected communists, ethnic Chinese, and other groups labeled enemies of the state.

On Saturday, thousands of Bonek took to the streets in protest of the PSSI's Extraordinary Congress. Their demands were threefold:

1) Support the President of Indonesia against the FIFA "mafia" on behalf of the sovereignty of Indonesia.

2) Support the Sports Ministry and BOPI firmly in regards to PSSI and PT Liga Indonesia, the registered company that officially administers the national league.

3) Restore the rights of PT Persebaya Indonesia. (In other words, remove La Nyalla.)

I get the impression these folks don't play around.

One-thousand-four-hundred-fifty police were called in keep the peace and protect the JW Marriott, where the congress was held. Inside the Marriott, the election for Chairman was a nine-way race. But minutes before the vote, three of the candidates inexplicably dropped out. La Nyalla won the chairmanship in a landslide.

As La Nyalla shook his supporters' hands to a standing ovation, word arrived from Jakarta: the Minister of Sport and BOPI had suspended the PSSI's operations. Any elections would be null and void, and a transition team would be established to administer the PSSI.

From my position, it seems pretty clear that the three withdrawn candidates, which included the incumbent chairman, got word about the Sports Minister's decree and backed out of a PSSI-government fight that's sure to continue. La Nyalla, who was already the frontrunner, seems determined to fight. In the aftermath, he said the Sports Minister "doesn't understand" and that he would be meeting with him on Monday "to explain the truth." A week later, that meeting has yet to happen.

So where does this leave us? Immediately after the Congress, La Nyalla said that the PSSI will fight the freeze and vowed to only answer to FIFA (who, according to La Nyalla, have declared the elections legitimate). He also claimed the league would restart on April 25th, despite the fact that the Sports Ministry's freeze also instructed all government agencies, including the police, to not cooperate with the PSSI. It did not. With further government involvement, it's becoming increasingly likely FIFA will follow through on recently threatened sanctions. As the Sword of Damocles hangs over Indonesian soccer, the House of Representatives has called for the parties to meet and work out a deal, but even if they do, the struggle over Indonesian soccer's throne is likely to continue.

The Indonesian soccer mess is just one example of how the corrupt remnants of the Suharto dictatorship still affect the lives of everyday Indonesian citizens. Suharto came to power via the 1967 coup d'etat that he justified by citing the chaos of the aforementioned mass killings. He commanded the army during the massacres and at the very least incited then turned a blind eye to the slaughter. (At worst, he participated in them directly. Oh, the CIA was involved as well.)

The new administration of President Joko Widodo—Indonesia's second directly-elected President and a political outsider—is pushing for reforms and "a battle against the old ways." Six months into his first term, that battle has become a war of attrition. On a recent Sunday evening news program, one segment featured a chyron that read "Indonesian Football Revolution," and video played of protesters—many dressed in the green of the Bonek—singing the Indonesia National Anthem outside the PSSI HQ, in Jakarta.

For the Bonek, much like for the President's administration, this is clearly about more than just soccer. Andi Peci, a Bonek organizer, while sparring with a PSSI spokesman on the same Sunday evening news program, repeatedly used revolutionary rhetoric and cited Indonesia's George Washington, President Sukarno (the man Suharto overthrew), and his struggle against the Dutch colonial regime in the 1930s and 40s.

Where other fan groups stand is also becoming clear. At least two have openly supported the freezing of what some are calling the P$I. One Bali United supporter summed up the sentiment best: "Politics, corruption, and fighting. That's Indonesian soccer. How can we ever move forward?"