JAKARTA: The appointment of state-owned enterprises minister Erick Thohir as Indonesia’s new football association chief has injected optimism into the sports fraternity but there are also steep challenges ahead as he seeks to overhaul the entire ecosystem, experts said.
The country’s football scene has been marred by various problems for decades, including match-fixing scandals, crowd trouble and infrastructure woes.
A total of 135 people were killed in Malang, East Java in October last year when police fired teargas into a packed stadium after supporters invaded the pitch following the loss of Malang’s home team Arema FC against rival Persebaya Surabaya.
The disaster led to calls for members of the football association to resign. In late February, the Indonesian football association (PSSI) elected Mr Thohir as its new chief. His appointment is until 2027.
Former national football player and retired coach Djadjang Nurdjaman told CNA that he believes in Mr Thohir’s capabilities.
"Erick Tohir is very experienced in the world of football, and he has good intentions to clean it up.”
Jakarta-based football analyst Justinus Lhaksana noted that the minister is the best choice among a limited pool of candidates.
The former national futsal head coach and commentator for several sports shows, who is also known as Coach Justin, said Mr Thohir’s managerial capabilities and experience in owning football clubs would help him thrive as the new PSSI head.
He said: “I am the most optimistic with this new head. But whether he can solve all the problems, most likely not.”
Listen: What caused the tragic football incident in Indonesia?
WHO IS ERICK THOHIR?
After his appointment, Mr Thohrir pledged to overhaul the entire football ecosystem in Indonesia.
“We will have a blueprint for medium-term and long-term, and this is our commitment,” he said after the new committee met President Joko Widodo on Feb 20.
He said that the government is ready to support PSSI, adding that the police would help them eradicate football mafias behind match-fixing cases.
Mr Thohir, 52, is a well-known figure in Indonesia. He has been the country’s Minister of State-owned Enterprises since October 2019, at the start of Mr Widodo’s second and last term in office.
Before being a minister, Mr Thohir was widely known as a businessman, media mogul and sports enthusiast.
He once owned foreign football clubs such as Inter Milan and DC United. He also owned NBA club Philadelphia 76ers.
He is the founder of Mahaka Group, a holding company of several companies focusing primarily on entertainment and media.
Mr Thohir was head of the organising committee of the 2018 Asian Games, which Indonesia hosted simultaneously in Jakarta and Palembang city in Sumatra.
Despite initial doubts about whether Indonesia could successfully host it due to last-minute venue readiness issues, Mr Thohir proved critics wrong.
After a successful 2018 Asian Games, Mr Widodo then entrusted him with the role of leading his campaign team for the April 2019 presidential election.
“Everything he led was always successful. We still remember he was the chairman of the 2018 Asian Games organising committee," cited Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, in September 2018.
According to the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission, Mr Thohir’s estimated wealth in 2021 was about 2.3 trillion rupiah (US$150 million), making him one of the wealthiest ministers in the current Cabinet.
Besides his new role as the head of the PSSI, Mr Thohir has also been making headlines as a potential vice presidential candidate for next year’s election.
The National Mandate Party (PAN) on Sunday (Feb 26) expressed its support for Mr Thohir to be the country’s vice president in 2024, pairing him with Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo as president.
This led some to say there may be a conflict of interests should Mr Thohir run in the upcoming election.
But analyst Mr Lhaksana says it is not an issue.
“If you look at the previous heads of the PSSI, there were no conflicts of interest, yet there was almost no result of their chairmanship.
“So, I don’t see this as a problem because he is already rich, and I don’t think he is hungry for power. I think he has good intentions, so it doesn’t matter,” he said.
MATCH SCHEDULING, REFEREEING AMONG TOP CHALLENGES
For now, Mr Thohir appears to have his work cut out for him, with challenges including match scheduling, youth development and referee quality at the top of the agenda.
Mr Lhaksana said: “If we talk about Indonesia’s football, there are many problems in developing talent, infrastructure, scheduling. There are many many problems that have to be solved.
“If Erick Thohir can fix half of them, I think it will be very good because the Indonesian football problems are wide-ranging. So it is almost impossible to solve them in four years,” said Mr Lhaksana.
He added that the priorities should be fixing scheduling issues for the league, youth development, and improving the quality of the refereeing.
“If he can achieve that, it would be very good for the future of the Indonesian football league.”
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of football club Bali United told CNA that the lack of match schedule certainty has been an issue.
“Scheduling is an issue, match schedule certainty. Without a clear schedule, it is hard for the teams to prepare themselves, train and rent a field. There are so many things affected by this,” Mr Yabes Tanuri said.
Mr Tanuri said there had been instances in the English Premier League when the schedule had been changed. But the parties involved would usually know a month in advance, unlike in Indonesia.
In Indonesia, most football clubs do not own a stadium and have to rent match venues from the local governments, resulting in a need to deconflict match arrangements with other scheduled events.
The PSSI’s rules state that match schedules need to be determined two weeks in advance, but changes can be made until seven days before a match. The latter scenario means clubs have little time to secure a venue.
Meanwhile, the commissioner and manager of Bandung’s football club Persib is more concerned about the quality of refereeing.
Mr Umuh Muchtar said the referees should be more objective. “Hopefully, Erick (Thohir) can manage this. And he can make firm and accurate decisions and perhaps even buy video assistant referee (VAR), so the referees won’t act recklessly.”
Mr Nurdjaman, a former coach of several big Indonesian clubs such as Persib and Persebaya Surabaya, concurred.
“There are so many problems. From the competition schedule that is far from good, too tight and often changes to the quality of the referees, and so many more.
“But the most urgent ones that need to be addressed are the quality of the competitions and nurturing talent because even in Southeast Asia, we cannot win against Thailand and Vietnam,” Mr Nurdjaman said.
Mr Thohir and president Jokowi are well aware of these issues.
A football training centre will be built in Indonesia’s planned new capital Nusantara in Kalimantan.
“PSSI will soon work on the football field, and it is expected to be completed in no more than one year," said Jokowi accompanied by Mr Thohir, when they visited the planned new capital in eastern Kalimantan on Feb 24. FIFA would fund the football field, said the president.
He also said that 22 football stadiums have been audited following the disaster in Malang last October.
Jokowi said out of the 22 stadiums, five were heavily damaged. As a result, four have to be renovated while one has to be demolished.
The rest were either moderately or lightly damaged, he revealed, adding that renovations would need to be carried out.
Jokowi added that the Kanjuruhan stadium in Malang, where the deadly stampede happened, is still undergoing a redesign so it can be completely overhauled.
Infrastructure and organisational issues aside, rowdy supporters and deaths in football-related accidents have for the past few decades cast a shadow over the football scene in Indonesia.
Over the last 28 years, more than 200 people have died in football-related incidents in Indonesia.
In an Instagram post after his appointment, Mr Thohir said Indonesia needs to hold "safe, fun soccer matches."
The safety of football fans in the country is a significant problem, said pundit Mr Lhaksana.
“I have been watching football for more than 40 years. Not just a year or two.
“But honestly, I haven’t watched a game here because I don’t feel it is safe,” said Mr Lhaksana.
Even so, Mr Lhaksana said the issue of rowdy supporters is not impossible to tackle.
“It is simple. Just follow FIFA’s standards: Strengthen the organising committee and security, as simple as that.
“This is not difficult, but they must fork out more money. They must spend more money to have more people and police officers to secure the area outside of the stadium … This all comes down to budget,” he stated.
He added that the clubs should do more to educate their fans.
Mr Tanuri of Bali United claims they regularly meet with field coordinators to address issues. Such coordinators, who are usually volunteers, serve as information intermediaries between the clubs and their supporters.
“But even though we meet up with our supporters, we cannot meet everyone, tens of millions of people.
“And many don’t belong in a fan group, so this is a work in progress.”
Read this story in Bahasa Indonesia here.