From prime-time TV to village games as Indonesian crisis hits players

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Cilacap (Indonesia) (AFP)

When Indonesian midfielder Asep Berlian signed a contract to play last year with top local club Surabaya United, it looked like he had secured a lucrative future among the country's elite.

But football in the country ground to a halt soon afterwards, and the 25-year-old and many others like him have been left scraping a living by playing in small, low-key tournaments.

The crisis was triggered when the domestic league was halted due to a row between the country's football association and the sports ministry, and was then compounded by FIFA's decision to suspend Indonesia over government meddling.

"This is very hard for players, because we earn our livelihood from football," Berlian told AFP at an ad hoc tournament in the small town of Cilacap, on Java island, that attracted a number of big-name players desperate for the chance to earn even meagre wages.

Football in Indonesia has been dogged by problems for years, from the creation of a breakaway association that tore the football establishment apart to cases of foreign players dying after going unpaid and being unable to afford medical treatment.

But the current crisis is the most serious yet.

Top players who no longer have clubs to play for are willing to risk career-ending injuries competing in exhibition matches and small, village tournaments, and other footballers and coaches are leaving to pursue their careers abroad.

"Indonesian football is dying," Aris Budi Sulisto, a former coach from East Java club Persik Kediri, which used to be part of Indonesia's top league, told AFP after the Cilacap tournament.

"It will be very hard to get players back to their peak performance."

- Village football -

The Cilacap event was typical of the kind of competition that Indonesian footballers are now taking part in, and saw well-known stars, including veterans of the national side, playing in a basic stadium.

With modest prize money at stake, and a scoreboard changed manually by a stadium groundskeeper, the small-town meet was a world away from the glitzy league matches beamed from Indonesia's big cities to tens of millions of fans across the football-crazy country.

Berlian admitted playing in such competitions was not ideal, but said he had no choice after his salary was slashed.

"If there was a (league) competition, of course I wouldn't be playing in this village tournament," he said.

The crisis began brewing last year as the football association and the sports ministry locked horns over which teams could participate in the top division, the Super League.

The feud boiled over in April when the association suspended domestic competition, only for the ministry to retaliate by freezing the association's activities.

FIFA -- which takes a dim view of governments interfering in domestic associations -- then intervened, criticising Jakarta for the effective "takeover" of Indonesian football and giving it a deadline to allow the association to resume its business.

Talks failed to break the impasse and in May FIFA banned Indonesia's beloved national team, and its professional clubs, from competing in international football, including qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.

Indonesian football has been in limbo ever since, with an interim committee set up by FIFA failing to mend the rift between the government and the association.

Emergency talks held this week ahead of a FIFA congress in Zurich appear to have made some ground.

Agum Gumelar, the head of the interim committee, said President Joko Widodo had ordered the sports ministry to lift the ban on the football association, but talks are ongoing and it is unclear when -- or if -- this will happen.

Despite signs of progress, FIFA looks unlikely to lift its ban on Indonesia soon. In a statement on Wednesday, its executive committee recommended a decision on Indonesia's future be postponed, and that it be barred from voting in FIFA's presidential election on Friday.

- 'It's very stressful' -

The players who have chosen to remain in Indonesia and wait for the crisis to pass are struggling to provide for their families, competing in local tournaments to stay match-fit and earn a modest living.

At village tournaments like the one in Cilacap, top players like Samsul Arif, Jean Paul Boumsong and Emile Mbamba are mobbed by fans seeking pictures and autographs of superstars they've only ever glimpsed on TV.

But behind the scenes, these top players share simple accommodation and basic meals, eschewing the high life of first-grade football for a chance to earn an income.

"We've got to pay rent, cover costs for our residency permits, let alone eat every day," Boumsong, a 31-year-old Cameroonian striker from Papuan club Perseru Serui, told AFP.

"It's very stressful. Many footballers are not saving for the future."

Brazilian player Anderson Da Silva, a defender who has lived and competed professionally in Indonesia since 2001, said he would keep accepting offers to play in small, one-off matches but also had a back-up plan -- opening a cafe with his wife in her home town.

But the real tragedy was the toll on young Indonesian players, Da Silva said. Instead of fulfilling their dreams to play for the national side, these rising stars were without contracts, pay or a certain future in the prime of their careers.

"I hope the crisis is resolved soon. Not just for the players, but for all Indonesian people," he told AFP.