Despite having the passion to succeed, corruption and mismanagement have turned Indonesia into football’s failed state.
Standing at 1.45 metres in an oversized shirt, 13-year-old Muhammad Iqbal is the smallest player in the Indonesian Under-14 football team. He relies on his technique, determination and game intelligence to outplay bigger and more physical opponents.
His father, Muhammad Sofyan, hopes he will turn professional and become famous like his favourite player, Argentine star Lionel Messi. At least three times a week, Sofyan takes his son to training and matches on his motorcycle. Iqbal promises to buy him a car if he ever plays for the senior national team.
But the boy has to overcome more than a physical disadvantage to get there. Professional football in Indonesia is paved with pitfalls, despite possessing the ingredients to succeed.
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The best-loved sport in the nation of 240 million enjoys a talent pool larger than powerhouse Brazil and crowds matching the English Premier League. Yet match-fixing and mismanagement have left the nation near the bottom of world rankings, a far cry from its heady days as Asian giants in the 1950s.
In 2010, two politically connected business factions further crippled the game when they fought over national control of the sport, seen as a way to win popular support.
It left Indonesia with two national football associations, each running its own league and both fighting to be the official competition. The struggle caused sponsors to jump ship, leaving clubs in massive debt and players unpaid.
Things came to a head when Paraguayan striker Diego Mendieta, playing for Indonesian club Persis Solo, died from an easily treatable infection in December 2012. He was owed four months’ salary and could not afford medical care.
Facing sanctions by world football governing body FIFA, the two managements finally merged and agreed to run a unified league in 2014.
Mendieta’s fate is never far from the thoughts of players like Alamsyah Nasution, a former Indonesian international now plying his trade with second-tier club PSMS Medan. His employers owe him 17 months’ wages over two seasons.
Once a local hero, he is forced to ride a motorcycle taxi to eke out a living. With PSMS knocked out of all competitions this season, Alamsyah and some of his teammates play in amateur tournaments for spare cash and to keep fit for prospective employers next season.
Joko Driyono of the Football Association of Indonesia hopes new regulations on club management will improve professionalism and financial planning next year, in order to attract sponsors again. By January 2014, he warns, clubs with undue payments will not be allowed to take part in the unified league.
But national coach Jacksen Tiago doubts the situation will improve in the short term. The Brazilian has lived in Indonesia for most of the past two decades, starring as both a player and a coach. The problems run so deep, says Tiago, because most football clubs are linked to politicians who see the sport as a way to influence public support and win votes. When their investment wavers, clubs have no sound business plan to sustain themselves.
In this episode of 101 East, we meet a match fixer closely connected to a second-tier club chasing promotion. He agrees to speak anonymously and reveals the club owner has fixed most of its matches this season by bribing referees, and sometimes opposing managers, to make decisions that favour his team.
Promotion to the top league next season means more sponsorship, TV coverage for his business, worth a possible tenfold return on the amount he has put into match-fixing. The local government has also promised to award him construction contracts for the prestige of taking the team to the top division for the first time.
A professional footballer of 13 years verifies what he says. Also speaking on condition of anonymity, he adds that seven out of 10 matches he has played in this season were fixed. Competing in the top division, he says players receive between $300 and $1,000 each from the club management when it agrees to fix a match. He describes how the assistant coach signals to the team when they are supposed to score or concede goals, assisted by dubious decisions from the referee.
In the suburbs of the capital city Jakarta, Muhammad Iqbal dribbles a plastic ball by himself in a run-down courtyard full of graffiti. In his mind, the only deception comes from his quick feet and trickery against his imaginary opponents, as he covers every square inch of cracked concrete.
Asked about match-fixing, Iqbal simply calls it “stupid” because it “goes against sportsmanship”. But sportsmanship and talent are not enough for him to fulfill his potential. Indonesia’s future stars need all the game changers to pull together to tackle the dark side of football, starting today.