*Tim Flicker writes on the poor state of Australian football relations in Asia
Robbie Gaspar (pictured below) is a name known to few Australian football fans, and yet he is one of the few Australian footballers to have had a stellar decade-long career in Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia . While games in Australia’s growing A-league often attract less than 20,000 fans, Robbie often played in front of 70,000 fans while in Indonesia and Malaysia. To football fans in Indonesia Robbie is a star, and yet back at home he is virtually un-heard of. Robbie’s fame in Indonesia and anonymity in Australia is one indication the poor state of sporting relations between the two countries.
Football Federation Australia’s (FFA’s) decision to move Australian football into the Asian region has played a role in the recent success of the national teams. Fans won’t forget the Matilda’s 2010 Women’s Asia Cup win, nor the Socceroos 2015 win on home turf against South Korea. During the Asian Cup, Australians welcomed with open arms the incredible support of Iran’s Team Melli fans, the sublime skills of United Arab Emirates star Omar Abdulrahman, and the amazing achievement of Palestine just to make it to the tournament.
Despite our apparent embrace of Asian football, a double standard from the FFA means that Australian football is taking more than it gives to the Asian region. No clearer example of this exists than in the case of the relationship with Indonesia: a nation frequently referred to by Gaspar as the “sleeping giant” of football. But Indonesia is more than just a “sleeping giant” – it is a nation with incredible interest in the game. An Australian team first toured Indonesia (then the Netherlands East Indies) in the 1920s. This early start to footballing relations has never been seriously consolidated.
Australia Moves Confederation
In 2006, after numerous attempts to join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Australia finally became an AFC member and moved from ‘Oceania’ to ‘Asia’. Since the 1970s Australia had tried to move to the Asian zone because the competition was stronger and more financially lucrative than Oceania. It also offered the opportunity of tougher qualifying matches, but at the same time a greater chance of World Cup qualification (no longer needing to play a two-way play off to qualify for the World Cup).
The benefits for FFA were clear, but what has been the benefit for Asian football? The former AFC President Mohamed bin Hammam accepted Australia’s request to join the confederation because of its status as an “economic power” and also the marketing possibilities of having Australia in Asia. However, earlier this year Australia came under fire as some of the AFC member nations (particularly the Gulf nations) have complained about Australia’s lack of Asian engagement since joining the AFC. Furthermore, the current AFC President Sheikh Salman Bin revealed that the “Arabs are not the only ones” seeking the removal of Australia from the AFC.
Perhaps, commentator and football analyst Simon Hill is right to suggest this is a case of other nations being jealous of Australia’s success since joining the AFC. After all, both the men and women’s national teams have been able to capture Asian Cup titles in the space of ten years. Such a view, however, fails to acknowledge broader socio-political factors that have long created tensions between Australian and Asian governments. Relations between nations have sometimes been governed by arrogant and condescending attitudes towards Asian nations, which have tended only to be overcome in the face of clear economic and financial gains. It is little surprise then to see that some Asian nations are viewing the FFA’s lack of engagement with Asia through a critical lens.
Australia and Football Diplomacy
Has Australia actually done anything to help the game grow in the region since joining the AFC back in 2006? In November 2005, Anthony Bubalo from the Lowy Institute wrote a detailed report outlining some of the ideas Australia might adopt to help build the game throughout the region after the AFC had approved Australia’s request to be admitted into the AFC. In the report he included five key recommendations of how Australia could build their football diplomacy in Asia. One of these ideas was the “FFA and government should launch a football development program with Indonesia to enhance Australia’s public diplomacy effort in that country.” The FFA has as one its targets, to “Embrace Asia. Football will lead Australia’s sporting and social engagement with our neighbours across Asia. Football will provide a platform for both commercial partners and government to build meaningful relationships with our Asian neighbours.”
Since the report, Australia-Indonesia football engagement has been limited to a handful of coaching and technical exchanges between the two countries. In addition, two officials from the Indonesian Football Association (Persatuan Sepakbola Seluruh Indonesia, PSSI) visited Australia on a six-week fellowship. The two officials gained valuable experience into the management of the FFA and the makeup of the various footballing departments. It seems however, that without a more significant football development program between Australia and Indonesia, it is unlikely a one-off exchange will make a significant impact on the development of Indonesian football.
While the state of football within Australia has improved over the past decade with the development of strong and successful national teams (both men and women) the same cannot be said of the sad state of Indonesian football. Indonesia is currently banned by FIFA from World Cup qualifying after it was judged that the Indonesian government (Sports Ministry, Kementerian Pemuda dan Olahraga) was interfering with the management of the PSSI. The football infrastructure in Indonesia is in a terrible state: pitches, stadiums, playing and coaching development.
This interference by the national government is despite the fact FIFA has a strict “no interference” policy of government being involved in the management of national football organisations. The ban means that no Indonesian national team is able to compete in international qualifying until the issue of governance is resolved. Even before the ban though, Indonesia had been sliding down the world rankings and has been struggling to compete at the international level. For instance, in 2014 the national men’s team lost 10-0 to Bahrain in a World Cup qualifier. Unlike India and China, where football is not the most popular sport, Indonesians are football mad. Perhaps, understandably, many Indonesians become die-hard English Premier League fans rather than “waste” their time suffering under the stresses of a heavily corrupted and damaged league.
In Bubalo’s 2005 report he wrote about using part of Australia’s assistance program to Indonesia for the development of football in the country. Bubalo argued, “small contributions of equipment, coaching clinics and exchange programs could be managed through the existing bilateral institutes.” In fact, at the request of the Indonesian government the Australia-Indonesia Institute had already developed a similar plan in the early 1990s. The plan, however, was never implemented. Despite the significant gains Australia has been able to make in Asia through hosting events such as the Asian Cup in 2015 it seems the need to engage through practical football assistance (at least in Indonesia) has been largely neglected.
Providing assistance to Indonesia through coaching and referee clinics, contributions of equipment and promoting the responsible governance of football in the country are all ways Australia could positively benefit Indonesian football. Already Australian players who are playing in Indonesia and contributing to the development of the game, but further support from the national footballing body would give this assistance greater legitimacy. Another step that would give Asian players including Indonesian players more opportunities would be for FFA to have a visa spot open for players from neighbouring Asian countries. This visa system is already commonplace throughout the region and would be a way to encourage more Asian players to play in the A-League. Ultimately, Indonesia has problems to resolve if they wish to be competitive on the international stage, but there is no doubt that Australia’s support would help them achieve greater success in the future.
Why though is it in Australia’s interest to grow the game in Indonesia? Growing the game in Indonesia would be an example of Australian engagement with Asian football. A more competitive Indonesian national football team could actually increase competitiveness in the region and therefore increase exchange and quality opportunities for players. In previous years Malaysian players would go to Indonesia to play football, but due to the problems of the domestic competition it is now often Indonesian players wanting to play in Malaysia. Collaboration between Australian and Indonesian football would also improve people-to-people and government links between the two countries and give both countries a common point of interest.
Australia is not responsible for Indonesia’s lack of footballing success; mismanagement and corruption within the PSSI are largely to blame for the current problems confronting Indonesian football. But, Australia can be a part of the solution. Critics would also suggest that FFA needs to worry about its own development before assisting other rivals such as Indonesia. This is a typically myopic viewpoint of those who are cynical towards broadening relations between Australia and Asian nations.
The development of Indonesian football can be positive for Australia-Indonesia relations and be a real tangible way to strengthen ties between Australia and Indonesia more broadly. Although Australia and Indonesia are often seen as very different neighbours, both culturally and politically, in football we have a sport that both countries are passionate about. With a population of more than 250 million, Indonesia really might be the ‘sleeping giant of world football’. Perhaps, Australia can play a part in its awakening.
Robbie Gaspar speaks fluent Indonesian and remains well-liked in Indonesia and Malaysia. This is not just because of his playing career, but because he continues to take an interest in the professional development of the game in those two countries and the region more broadly. What is curious is that a figure like Gaspar is such a rarity. Australia and Indonesia already exchange so much in trade and through the arts. Politicians routinely trot out that the cliché of the importance of the relationship between the two countries. The possibilities for sporting collaboration between Indonesia and Australia would prove mutually beneficial – if only they are to be imagined, planned and implemented.
Waiting for football Reformasi
*Tim Flicker is studying Master of Communications at RMIT University, Honours thesis about corruption in Indonesian football, editor of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association blog.