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Players and fans pay price as Indonesian football loses its way again

Long-suffering fans will have to wait at least until April for the new Indonesian season to kick off.

The 2015 Indonesia Super League was due to kick off on Feb. 20 with reigning champions Persib Bandung hosting Persipura Jayapura at Si Jalak Harupat Stadium in Soreang. After several days training in different parts of the country, Persipura were safely ensconced in their Bandung hotel and fans around the country were eagerly awaiting a new season of local football.

But with just over 48 hours until the big kickoff, the little-known Indonesian Professional Sports' Council (BOPI), a government body, recommended to the nation's sports minister that the league be delayed because none of the 18 participant clubs passed their criteria.

The minister agreed and it was officially announced the ISL would be postponed for two weeks to allow the clubs to fulfill the requirements, which included issues over players' contracts, outstanding salaries, tax obligations and agreements in place with responsible authorities for stadiums. If the clubs could pass the benchmarks imposed by the government body then the league could go ahead.

The decision created a firestorm that spread to Switzerland, where FIFA issued a stern rebuke to the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI), reminding them of their responsibilities and warning any government interference in the running of football could have severe consequences for member associations.

"In relation to criteria [as well as any other conditions that could affect ISL clubs from participating in the ISL], we remind you that only FIFA Member Associations [or affiliated leagues] can be the licensor and body responsible for governing and imposing criteria of which clubs must meet in order to participate," wrote FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke in a letter to the PSSI.

"Should the ISL continue to be delayed as a result of BOPI or indeed the Indonesian Ministry of Youth and Sports imposing its own criteria upon ISL clubs, the matter would be referred to the relevant FIFA body to take appropriate measures, which could go as far as an immediate suspension," the letter added.

Legendary Indonesian striker Bambang Pamungkas' much-awaited return to Persija Jakarta has been put on hold.

Indonesian football is no stranger to controversy. Recent years have seen rebel leagues set up, two different national teams prepare for an international tournament and even two unions claiming to have the interests of the players themselves at heart. Against that kind of backdrop, a delay to a season is positively small fry.

The irony is the PSSI would point to the fact they have tried to be more stringent on clubs meeting criteria. Two clubs -- Persik Kediri and Persiwa Wamena -- were told they could not compete in the ISL for failing to reach certain benchmarks while other side have been told to sharpen their act in the future, especially when it comes to unpaid salaries.

With the strongly worded missive from FIFA ringing in their ears, representatives of the 18 ISL clubs descended on Bandung over Chinese New Year to discuss the impasse. They then returned to Jakarta for intense discussions with BOPI and members of Commission X, a parliamentary body that oversees sports.

After a series of meetings at the House of Representatives between the PSSI and BOPI, overseen by Commission X, an agreement was finally reached that would allow for the ISL season to begin on April 4. At least one politician, Fahri Hamzah, went to great lengths to distance the government from any involvement in football's affairs.

"The government only wanted to give input on the nature of the regulations, not interfere,'" he said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of BOPI, Noor Aman, called for the ISL clubs to honour players contracts. "Contracts must be paid," he said. "And not only last season but the previous seasons as well."

After once more teetering on the precipice, Indonesian football seems to have pulled back from the abyss and the threat of sanctions from FIFA. But the past few days leave more questions than they have answered.

Ahead of the ISL 2014 there was little demand from government bodies for football to clean up its act. Yet the issues highlighted by BOPI in their recommendation to delay the league this year are not new; they have remained unaddressed for many years. So why were they raised this year? A clue may lie in the elections to be held later this year for top positions at the PSSI.

Whatever the reason, football is the loser. The thrill and excitement football fans all over the world feel on the eve of a new season has been somewhat diluted by the shenanigans of the past few days. Clubs face an agonising few extra weeks where they have to spend extra money on salaries, transport and accommodation with worryingly little money coming in.

Once again, Indonesian football has had to take a back seat because of issues off the field, with the fans and players the biggest losers.

Antony Sutton is a regular contributor to the Jakarta Globe as well as Indonesian language websites. Follow him on Twitter @JakartaCasual

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