Indonesian football now making headlines for right reasons

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This has been an interesting season already for fans in Indonesia and it is only two games old.

After no official league since 2014, this year could become something special; the start of Indonesia’s journey to become South-east Asia’s number one.

The news that Didier Zokora has joined Semen Padang, following in the still-fresh footprints of Michael Essien, Carlton Cole and Peter Odemwingie, is another encouraging development for a country that was banned from the international game by FIFA from May 2015 to May 2016.

Not that the 36 year-old Ivorian is going to single-handedly deliver the title to the West Sumatran club. But it is another development in Indonesian football that makes international headlines for the right reasons. In recent years, all the news coming out of the country to the world media have been depressing.

The list includes (though is not restricted to) the PSSI (as the Indonesia FA is known locally) having its chief in prison on charges of corruption, but keeping his job. His eventual ouster in 2011 led to the country having two competing leagues, national teams and federations. Worst of all was the death of Diego Mendieta. The Paraguayan was unable to afford medical treatment after his club failed to pay his salary. He died in December 2012.

In 2015, FIFA stepped in to ban Indonesia from international competition after the government had frozen the PSSI. The country’s clubs were withdrawn from the AFC Cup and the national team never had the chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.

An unofficial league was set up in 2016 to give clubs and players some games to play and money to earn but the whole scene was not looking healthy at all.

In May last year, the ban was lifted and the national team somehow made it to the final of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, pushing Thailand all the way.

That has to be the eventual target for the Indonesian league too. It has to challenging to be the best in the region. In fact that has to be the least of its ambitions.

The country is by far the biggest in Southeast Asia in terms of population and the proportion of those 250 million or so inhabitants that love the beautiful game is as high as anywhere in the world.

There is a long way to go to rival the Thai Premier League but it is not impossible. There is money in Indonesia, more than most in the ASEAN region. Despite all the nonsense that has gone on in recent years, salaries are reasonable, attendances can be impressive and have real potential and there is a large wedge of private sector cash itching to get involved.

The FIFA ban was the first issue that had to be resolved. It has. Now that the league is up and running, there is optimism that despite the often-erratic standards off the pitch in terms of professionalism and vision, that it will go from strength to strength.

Then come the big-name foreign signings. If Manchester Unted were signing the likes of Essien, Cole, Odemwingie and Zokora –all on the wrong side of 30 – then fans at Old Trafford would be less than happy.

In Indonesia, this is different. These new imports may be of the veteran variety, but they give the league a bigger profile at home and overseas. It gives media outlets, both traditional and social, reason to write about and feature a league that they otherwise would not. International interest has a major knock-on effect domestically too.

It also encourages casual fans and persuades potential investors that the league is becoming a normal football league, that Indonesia is becoming something of an ordinary football country, without losing that extraordinary passion of course.

The stars may be old but they are still stars and still have a job that is as important off the pitch as it is on it. They can bring some international know-how and experience, pass that on to their team-mates and hopefully encourage young Indonesians to try to travel overseas too.

Of course, it won’t be easy. In Southeast Asia, all imports are expected to produce the goods from day one and that burden becomes even weightier when you are well-known.

It will be a greater challenge for the likes of Essien, Cole and Zokora than they realise, but if they can embrace that, they can make a real difference.

And if they can help Indonesia’s league improve, that is enough. Indonesia should aim to be the best football country in South-east Asia and not just the biggest.

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