JAKARTA (Reuters) - As monsoon rains swept the stadium, the chanting grew louder. “Indonesia! Indonesia!”
More than 60,000 people packed into Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta on a recent Saturday night to see the national soccer team play. Another 100 million tuned in to television to watch the match, underlining the appeal of soccer in Indonesia where attendance rivals the top English and German soccer leagues.
Among the fans are two of Indonesia’s most powerful people - President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and politically ambitious businessman Aburizal Bakrie. Their parties have long been battling for control over the sport and its huge audience, hoping this could be a factor in elections next year.
Bakrie, who leads the Golkar party and has said he will be a presidential candidate, seems to have wrested control of a unified soccer association that was formed in March after almost two years of the two groups running parallel associations and parallel leagues.
The association in charge of the sport controls marketing in the stadiums and on television.
“If you can control football, you are half way to controlling Indonesia,” said a senior official at the Indonesian national soccer association, or PSSI.
“No political party campaign can get such a huge, devoted and noisy crowd. No wonder they (politicians) are dying to get hold of this.”
Bakrie has own TV channel to both show matches and advertise his presidential ambitions. While he has announced his candidacy, Yudhoyono’s Democrats have yet to announce their front-runner for the 2014 presidential polls, which will be preceded by parliamentary elections.
Several other candidates are also in the fray for president and latest opinion polls suggest the front-runners are Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo and former military general Prabowo Subianto.
But controlling soccer will provide an edge in the country of 240 million people, where the sport is widly popular despite Indonesia being ranked 170 out of 209 soccer-playing nations.
Weekend games are watched by 52 million television viewers, while about 12 million attend games each year, said Widjajanto, chief executive of PT Liga Prima Indonesia Sportindo, the operator of the Indonesian Premier League. The league will merge with the rival Indonesian Super League by 2014, according to the agreement thrashed out in March.
By comparison, Germany’s Bundesliga had an attendance of about 13.8 million in the 2011-12 season, while England’s Premier League attracted 13.1 million people to its matches.
Votes are not the only prize. The potential business, if the sport can get back on track, is also mouth-watering.
The Indonesian Super League’s TV broadcasting rights were sold for just 1.3 trillion rupiah for 10 years in 2011. Widjajanto estimates that once there is a unified league, broadcasting rights and advertising would be worth at least $360 million a year.
“It’s very clear that it’s a proxy battle between the Democratic Party and Golkar for the 2014 elections,” said Tjipta Lesmana, a university professor and former head of a PSSI committee, of the battle for control of the association.
“The association has been used for political purposes and both parties’ executives realised that soccer has the influence to help them gather support.”
Before the chaotic arrival of democracy 14 years ago, Indonesia’s soccer was tightly regulated under the three-decade autocratic rule of former president Suharto. After his ouster in 1998, management of the sport went into decline.
In the new political era, freewheeling business interests gained influence. They included the Bakrie Group, founded by businessman Achmad Bakrie, whose son Nirwan became PSSI vice chairman in 2003. Nirwan is Aburizal Bakrie’s brother.
In 2010, the government stepped in and the battle for dominance began.
Yudhoyono, elected a year earlier to a second term, dispatched his sports minister to wrest back control of the PSSI which resulted in Nirwan Bakrie and the PSSI chairman kicked off the association board in 2011. Bakrie’s backers set up their own association and the rival Indonesian Super League.
The dispute scared off sponsors and ravaged club finances. The government also withdrew state financing that some clubs received each year, causing many to shut down.
The sport hit a low point late last year when a Paraguayan player, unpaid for so long he could not afford medical treatment, died. Media reported that some other foreign players had taken to the streets to beg because they had not been paid.
This year, Yudhoyono sent Democratic Party executive Roy Suryo to sort out the mess. “The government put me in the lion’s den,” Suryo said. He convened a congress in March attended by both sides. Dozens of police stood guard in case tempers flared.
By the end of the meeting, a deal was brokered and Indonesian soccer was again left with one controlling body and the promise of a single league, although the outcome seemed skewed in favour of the Bakries.
Djohar Arifin Husin, who is aligned with the Bakries, was named chairman of the PSSI while six of the board members, aligned to the Yudhoyono faction, walked out. Husin told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting that the deal was a major development for the future of Indonesian soccer.
Nirwan, although no longer affiliated with the association, is considered an influential figure in it. He dismissed suggestions that the battle for control of the PSSI was all about politics and money, calling it a dispute among people who loved the game but simply had different ideas how to run it.
“If you fall in love with your girlfriend, you give your heart but if you fall in love with football, you’ll give your heart and your soul,” he told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Thatcher and Andjarsari Paramaditha, Writing by Jonathan Thatcher, Editing by Jason Szep and Raju Gopalakrishnan)