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Dec 11, 2012

Indonesian turmoil nears an end

Visit the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta when 100,000 fans are in full voice and you are in footballing heaven. Yet head deep into the bowels of that Soviet-constructed arena into the stale air of quiet, winding corridors of the national federation, PSSI, with its walnut brown wallpaper and windowless offices and you are in the realm of one of the most chaotic associations in the world.

That passion, the blessing and curse of Indonesian football, that rolls down from the terraces above has long been used by those below for their own nefarious purposes while FIFA looked the other way.

Not any longer. A FIFA ban for the country is set to be announced on Friday. Opinion is divided as to whether it will be good for the game or not, but all agree that something must be done. It can't go on like this - two leagues, two national teams, fan violence, corruption, corruption and corruption and last week, the death of a player, abandoned by his club thousands of miles from home.

The passing away of Diego Mendieta was heartbreaking and senseless. A Paraguayan footballer, unpaid for four months by Persis Solo and unable to afford treatment for his easily-treatable illness, nor make the long trip home. The 32-year-old father of two died alone in a Solo hospital. It will not even be a small consolation to his family that his death made the world aware of what is going on in Indonesia.

"We are fully aware that Indonesia is passionate about soccer and that sanctions will have a major impact," said FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke last week in a letter to Indonesian Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng - well, he was sports minister at the time, he has since resigned after being named a suspect in a multi-million dollar corruption scandal, charged with abusing power to enrich himself. This is what Indonesian football fans have to deal with.

Many think that suspension is the only way football in the country will get its act together, citing the example of national airline Garuda. When the European Union banned Garuda from its airspace in 2007 until 2009 due to safety concerns, it was the kick up the backside it needed and now the airline is winning awards. Others fear that without being part of the global family and access to international events - qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup starts in February - then a total meltdown will follow. But how much worse can it get?

If suspension does come, FIFA should also issue an apology as it is responsible for many of the problems in the country. Allowing Nurdin Halid to serve as FA president from behind bars - twice - when he had been convicted of, well, you can guess, and continue upon his release was not only contrary to logic, common sense and decency but also the statutes of the world governing body. It also helped enshrine corruption at all levels of the game.

Nurdin, not only a convicted criminal but a member of a political party (also against the rules), was the centre of a cancer that spread throughout football in the country for years. But neither FIFA nor the AFC batted an eyelid.

You don't have to be a cynic - though in Indonesian football these days pretty much everybody is - to wonder whether the election battle between Mohamed Bin Hammam and Sepp Blatter in 2011 meant the end for Nurdin. Seen as a supporter of the Qatari, FIFA suddenly decided that while a criminal and politician, loathed by the fans, could serve two terms as FA chief, a third was simply too much.

The whole episode is worthy of a book, though it would be a depressing and complex one. The short and simple version is Nurdin was forced out in March 2011 and the reformers finally had their chance but a number of those were politicians as much as football men. Their first acts were to try and clean the FA of anything to do with the despised Nurdin. Within hours, a bewildered national team coach Alfred Reidl, liked by fans and players, was out. It was not an auspicious start to the new regime.

By that time, there were two federations, the breakaway organisation, KPSI, and two separate leagues. Many top clubs and players left to take part in this unofficial competition. Then there were two national teams with two coaches. There was a meeting in June in which a Memorandum Of Understanding was signed in front of AFC and FIFA officials to move towards one league and federation, but recent and contradictory comments from the PSSI are ominous.

"No, there's no agreement. I don't see any agreement," PSSI secretary general Halim Mahfudz said on December 7. "We still believe that we comply with the FIFA statutes."

PSSI seems braced for sanctions with Halim talking already about going to the Courts of Arbitration for Sports.

While the talking continues, the fans suffer. The national team failed to make it out of the group stage of the AFF Suzuki Cup - south-east Asia's regional biennial tournament - last week, but that was nothing compared to what happened on February 29, 2012 - a leap year that signified a new low.

Indonesia had lost their first five games in the third round of qualification and the final match in Bahrain was meaningless. It wasn't upon full-time as the hosts, needing to win by nine goals to have a chance of making the final round, recorded a 10-0 win. With Bahrain's desperation for victory and Indonesia not having the cleanest reputation when it came to football, it was not a surprise that many called foul. FIFA investigated and found nothing. But it was another humiliation.

While Indonesia deserves to be known around the world for its amazing fans, a small section also bring shame on the local game and some fixtures are not for the faint of heart. Three were killed at a clash between rivals Persija Jakarta and Persib Bandung in May. The stepfather of one of the victims said: "I really hope that Rangga will be the last casualty of soccer brutality and hooliganism. I don't wish for any other victims, as quite a lot of people have already become victims."

The majority of fans have had enough of the corruption and the violence. They are sick too of hearing about potential in their country, and just want basic football freedoms such as an end to corruption, one league and one federation, things that fans in other countries take for granted.

But you can't get away from it, there is huge potential. India and China grab the headlines in that field, but Indonesia, with a population of a quarter of a billion - a quarter of which is under the age of 14 - has a deeper love for the game. With the right people formulating the right policy and a little patience, a powerhouse can be born.

There is money, but given the corruption and chaos there is understandable reluctance in the private sector to invest. Billionaires from the country such as Erick Thohir, spend their cash on acquiring foreign sports teams and bringing the likes of David Beckham to Jakarta for exhibition matches. Such games are ultimately meaningless but still probably a better investment at the moment.

So FIFA is set to suspend. It should either do so, and then all can move on to the next stage, and/or stop threatening to do so and resolve to help the game in the country. Though, when the parties can't even keep to agreements that have been brokered, that is easier said than done.

The present situation is a mess. Indonesia could be footballing heaven with its fans, passion and potential but it has been dragged down to the abyss by decision-makers at home and in Switzerland.

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