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Becoming a Soccer Star in Indonesia

By: Ade Tanesia

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

In Sleman—a district in the Special Territory of Jogjakarta—the local football club PSS Sleman has just won a match against Persikota Tangerang, the Tangerang city football club, with a score of 2-1. Spectators in the packed stadium greet the victory with cheers, rush into the field and throng the players. Anderson Da Silva, a player from Brazil, is mobbed too, although he didn’t even play in this game. The fans, mostly youngsters, jostle for Anderson’s autograph. Relaxed and friendly, he gives them what they want.

The same thing happened when PSS Sleman held an ‘I love football’ campaign in the local schools. Many of the students, especially adolescent girls, went hysterical welcoming the players, especially handsome foreigners like Anderson and Marcelo from Brazil, who left with their jackets covered with student signatures. In Indonesia these foreign players are like gods—idolized in a way they would never be in their own countries.

In Indonesian neighborhoods everywhere, football (which Americans still call ‘soccer’) is everyone’s favorite sport. Nearly every private television station broadcasts key football games from places like Italy and Latin America. People religiously memorize the names of international football stars, and teenage girls adore the good-looking players. T-shirts, posters, stickers and lighters with the insignia of famous teams and the names and pictures of their top players are hot sellers in the markets. People also support national football clubs and their own local teams, even if they are not very good. With foreign players in the country, people are becoming increasingly keen about the sport. It is as though the presence of the foreign players brings people closer to their dreams of world football stars, whom they can see only on TV.

All this public enthusiasm has encouraged local football clubs to improve. One way they can do this is by hiring foreign players, who are considered more skilled than local players. The irony is that while people’s lives are generally in crisis, the world of football is booming with foreign players who are paid billions of rupiah. At the beginning of 2004, some eighty-four foreign players were playing for Indonesia’s eighteen main division clubs. Their number has swelled compared with past years because of a new regulation of the PSSI (the All Indonesia Football Association), allowing each club to hire up to five foreign players—with contracts averaging more than a hundred million each. One team, PSM Makasar, has already spent Rp3.5 million on foreign player contracts this year, and they want to add two more on an additional contract of Rp500 million, since one of their players has left. Given the extraordinary rate at which ball players circulate and wear out, it’s no wonder that so many foreign players come try their luck in Indonesia.

I meet Anderson Da Silva on a Sunday morning, at the house in Sleman that the PSS Sleman club has rented for him and three other Brazilians. Sunday is their day off, and Anderson has just woken up. In fairly fluent Indonesian, he invites me and photographer Sahlul Fahmi, to join him for a cup of coffee. Anderson, who is 28 years old and the father of one child back home in Brazil, lives up to his reputation as a warm and outgoing conversationalist. With no awkwardness, he begins telling his story.

In 2002 in Brazil, Anderson met a friend of his, Arioso Rivera, who had played with the Pelita Jaya Jakarta Club and married an Indonesian woman. “Are you game enough to play football in Indonesia?” Arioso asked. “Sure, why not?” Anderson answered. A chat in Brazil is not just empty talk. Arioso called Anderson soon after returning to Indonesia. In no time, Anderson had his ticket booked and was ready to go.

“Before coming here, I knew nothing about Indonesian football. All I knew was that Indonesia was beautiful. I couldn’t speak a single word of English or Indonesian,” he says. At first he stayed at Arioso’s house, and with his friend’s help, got into PSS Sleman. “There was already another Brazilian there by the name of Deca Dos Santos. He was like my big brother. At first I had trouble eating Indonesian food, because of the hot spices. Then Deca took me to places where they had such delicious food that I put on weight. It was Deca who taught me to speak Indonesian—it took me about six months to learn.”

Like many Brazilians, Anderson fell in love with football as a child. He entered his first club at thirteen, and at twenty-two he had the chance to join Club Football Zico, a club mentored by the former world football star, Zico. “Getting into a top main division club in Brazil is very hard. The competition is stiff. If I could get in there, I wouldn’t need to look for career opportunities in another country. The Brazilian clubs are excellent and produce many world class players,” he says. According to Anderson, Indonesia could become more professional if it had age-group-based clubs like Brazil. He explains, “Here people begin playing at seventeen or eighteen. That’s already late. Over there, there are football leagues for seven and eight year olds. Then there are junior leagues for thirteen to seventeen year olds, and others for seventeen to twenty year olds. A ball player is trained early; by the time he is seventeen, he already knows all the rules and the code of ethics of playing ball.”

Anderson thoroughly enjoys living in Jogjakarta. “I really love Jogja and wouldn’t think of switching clubs. Jogja is not too quiet, but it’s not as busy as Jakarta. In Jakarta, my money could get quickly used up. It’s better here—I can save for my child and buy a house in Brazil,” he says, laughing. He’s not willing to reveal his salary, but according to the PSS Sleman manager, a foreign player is paid twelve to fifteen million rupiah a month, aside from their contracts, which average Rp100 million. The amounts vary, so players are reluctant to disclose their salaries, as it could make things unpleasant with the others. To relax, Anderson and his friends go to pubs to play billiards or just stay home to do Brazilian cooking and play with their play stations.

According to Anderson, they have great relationships with the local players. If there is ever gossip about him or his friends, they address the problem directly. “Brazilians are more open. When I first came here, I was confused. It seemed as people were afraid of me or didn’t like me. But once they knew I was a Brazilian ball player, they usually warmed up right away. Once I got into a taxi. I noticed that the driver was very tense. After I got out of the car, I asked him what the problem was. Then he asked me where I was from. When he found out I was from Brazil, his face relaxed and he was very nice. It turned out he’d had a negative experience with a Nigerian, so he was afraid of black people. But I explained that his bad experience was not caused by the color of the person’s skin.”

Anderson is concerned about conditions in Indonesia; he feels that here, people more often think only about themselves. In Brazil, players usually donate their bonuses to schools or orphanages. Once a year, each club stages a competition where the spectators pay only a donation of food. Then the food is given to the poor. Charitable activities are a regular part of the world of football in Brazil, so when they are asked to go to the schools here to talk about football, they do so happily.

For Anderson, playing football in any country is gratifying. Every time his name appears in the mass media, he saves the clipping. “Mama asked me to collect all the articles that carry news about me or my photograph. Later, my child can see me in the media,” he says.

Although Anderson has been under contract with PSS Sleman for more than a year, most players are contracted only for a year, or even six months. Juan Duran Nunez (33) from Chile, for example, has changed clubs three times, most recently to PSIM, the Jogjakarta-based Mataram Indonesian Football Association—a first division club, one level lower than main division.

Juan came to Indonesia in 2001 through Nelson Sanchez, a broker in Chile. For the first year, he was on contract to Persijap Jepara, the Jepara Football Association. He says, “At that point I was still going through the broker, so I had to give him a commission. After completing that first contract I no longer needed a broker—I could negotiate directly. That’s nicer.” After Juan’s year in Jepara, his trainer moved to Persela Lamongan, the Lamongan Football Association in East Java, and asked Juan to help strengthen that club for a year. After a year in Lamongan, Juan returned to Chile for a few months, not knowing whether the contract would be extended, but when he came back, the club had already replaced him. Finally, at the end of December 2003, Juan joined PSIM in Jogjakarta.

Age thirty is past prime for football players. So Juan was interested in coming to Indonesia. “When I was young, I had lots of hopes, but now that time has passed. What’s important now is to play as well as possible in each club,” he says. According to Juan, there are many gifted Indonesian players, but their key obstacle is lack of discipline. “In Chile we can never be late. Here, training may start at 7:00 in the morning, but some of the players are still asleep at 7:30. The trainers here are very kind—they rarely get angry at me.” Juan explains how much harsher Chilean football training is—a ball player who is known to be dishonest or hits people is sure to get a heavy penalty. In Indonesia, he was shocked to see that players could repeatedly strike the referee. “In Chile, a player who behaved like that wouldn’t be allowed to play ball again for three years,” he says. Another thing he finds astonishing is the use of magic in the world of Indonesian football. “I saw a guy urinating on the goal post just before a competition. Apparently, he was a dukun (magician) who wanted to use supernatural power to ensure that the champion team would win. In Chile there is nothing like this.”

Juan deplores the bribing of referees. “Usually, the host club is sure to win. It’s very rare for a club to win in its opponent’s home turf, and when it does, it’s sure to be because the referee was paid off. It will be impossible for Indonesian football to grow if bribery like this persists.” Indeed in Indonesian football there is a term, mafia wasit, or referee mafia, signifying the practice of collusion between bettor and owner, club manager and referee, to make a team win. This practice is a public secret.

Ali Shaha (27) is a Tanzanian ball player who also came in to strengthen PSIM, and he can well understand this business of bribery. “That’s Indonesia for you,” he says. Ali has been in Indonesia since 1997. Before that, he played with a club in South Africa for a year. “Over there the football is excellent, but life is uncomfortable—there’s way too much crime. You feel uneasy all the time, especially at night.” he says. Later, through an agent from the Cameroons who had played at the Pelita Jaya Club, Ali got interested in Indonesia. He explains, “Every ball player in Tanzania wants to play abroad. In Tanzania, we are local players, while in a foreign country we’re imported players with much better pay.”

Since 1997, Ali has played for five different clubs: four in Indonesia and a club in Dubai for six months. “ In Dubai I felt very alone. Different from Indonesia, where the people are much warmer, like your own brothers,” says Ali, who hopes to marry an Indonesian woman. Neverthehless, he finds the Indonesian contract system puzzling. Abroad, players are commonly contracted for more than a year. He prefers to play with the same club for two to four years. He says, “We’re just on the point of learning the other players’ characters when suddenly the contract ends. Football emphasizes teamwork and knowing the playing character of your teamates. So I can’t understand why Indonesian clubs contract for only one year.”

Since the beginning of 2004, PSIM has hired four players—two from Chile and two from Tanzania: after Juan and Ali were hired, each of them brought in a friend from his own country. The idea of working as brokers once they can no longer play ball is something both Juan and Ali have considered.

According to Juan, many clubs here have been cheated by agents. For example, he says, “They bring in a player from Chile only to find out later that he is not registered with the Chilean football federation.” Although reluctant to go into detail, Juan himself has had trouble with agents, so that, if he ever becomes an agent, he promises not to exploit players. He explains that the player and the agent each receive a percentage of the contract value, but sometimes the players gets an unfair cut: “Sometimes the broker takes a commission of up to 100%. That’s excessive—the player’s percentage should be higher.”

Dessy Arfianto, manager of PSIM, has also heard of agents acting in ways that disadvantage players. Later, he says, these agent problems will be dealt with by PSSI. And in the future, each club will only be able to deal with agents acknowledged by the Federation Internationale de Football (FIFA). He stresses that the clubs must be vigilant. PSIM pays for contracts in three installments—25% upon signing, 50% at the beginning of the season, 25% at the end. “Many foreign players do great on the tests, but then perform perfunctorily in the game. This is something we must anticipate, and one way to do that is by not paying the entire contract at once,” Dessy adds.

To check out the quality of a player, aside from running health and skills tests, a club usually asks for a recommendation from PSSI, as some foreign players have been blacklisted—usually because they failed to set a good example to the local players. PSIM ran into trouble with one player (Dessy won’t mention any names): “We hired this Brazilian player. He had fine skills, but his lifestyle and disposition weren’t compatible with local culture, and we had to terminate his contract. He was very emotional and verbally abusive with teamates. Outside the playing field too, he had an unfriendly attitude. For example, someone would ask: ‘Did you win the last game?’ How hard is it just to answer ‘won’? Instead he’d snap, ‘You can read about it in the newspaper’. This sort of thing is critical, because the public wouldn’t like it, and it would damage our image. Aside from technique, a foreign player has to be adaptable to the culture.”

Many clubs in Indonesia have come to realize the value of football as entertainment, and the value of foreign football players to attract spectators and strengthen their teams. PSS Sleman used to have an ‘allergy’ to foreign players, but in 2001, their standing fell, because most of their opponents had started employing foreign players. Bapak H. Subardi, manager of PS Sleman recalls, “We saw that the public’s support was so positive, we shouldn’t let that enthusiasm die. But moving forward would be costly. Finally, in 2002, we decided to recruit foreigners. The Sleman local government had also realized that football could promote the district, so they were ready to provide bigger subsidies.”

Daniel Roekito, a PSS Sleman trainer, seconds Pak Subardi’s opinion on the extent of public interest in football when foreign players are involved. They are treated like celebrities. Sometimes, though, they become arrogant. Daniel says, “They might be nobody at all in their own country, but here they’re stars. Some time ago I trained at the Bontang Club in Kalimantan. There was a player from Cameroon who was very skillful but conceited. Once we went out to eat in Balik Papan, and he started acting strange, demanding pizza and Mc Donald’s. Where were we going to find food like that in Balik Papan at that time? At last I said, ‘Hey, what do you eat in Cameroon? Now, we’re here, so don’t keep asking for food that’s unavailable. Eat what there is or I’ll send you home’. He immediately apologized. Many trainers are reluctant to work with foreign players. That’s not right, because we’re trainers and we must educate them. Football is a team sport; skill alone is no guarantee without good team cooperation. Luckily, the foreign players that PSS Sleman has now are professionals, and this is what local players should emulate.”

Many people are cynical about the spread of the foreign players. Some think that their presence will counteract the development of local players. Others think that foreign players will be of no help as long as corruption continues to undermine the credibility of national football. But perhaps, with the coming of these players from all corners of the globe, a sense of shame will emerge if Indonesian football cannot clean up its act. Surely it’s an inspiration to know that a person can work all over the world as a ball player. At least, instead of just continuing to export domestic servants, we can someday, like Brazil, export ball players: to become ‘stars’ in other people’s countries, rather than ‘maids’.

Ade Tanesia is Associate Editor of Latitudes.
(Translated from the Indonesian by Latitudes.)

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