An England International And The Illegal Indonesian Premier League

An England International And The Illegal Indonesian Premier League

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Indonesia is a funny place to find a former England international, but that is where former Aston Villa midfielder Lee Hendrie finds himself, currently playing for Bandung FC. Lee Hendrie was once a bright young hope for English football and when he was capped for the national side in 1998 it looked to be the first of many, although it turned out to be his solitary cap.

Hendrie’s career got off to a bright start, being named Villa’s Young Player of The Season in 1997-8. His career highlights included playing in Europe, where Villa won the Intertoto Cup and appearing in the 2000 FA Cup final defeat against Chelsea. Although aged just 27 his fortunes took a turn for the worse with him, then in the Championship, his England call up in 1998 couldn’t have looked further away.

After moving to Stoke and having a short spell at Sheffield Wednesday his career nosedived with him struggling to get regular football anyehere. A typical story, a highly rated young Englishmen not living up to his billing. Personal problems played their part with Hendrie picking up a reputation as a trouble maker, once famously crashing his Porsche on the M6 whilst racing to make it in time to the airport for one of Villa’s Intertoto Cup games. A reputation he’s found hard to shred and which has certainly effected his opportunities later in his career.

However aged 33 and with no move in sight he was moments away from signing for non-league side Mansfield when Indonesian club Bandung FC came in for Hendrie. Apparently being a former international (despite only playing 13 minutes for England) carries a lot of weight and the Indonesian side were quick to make on offer for the star who now earns a reported $550,000 a year, far more than he could have envisaged earning after being released from Bradford City.

The ‘Illegal’ Indonesian Premier League

In a day when English players very rarely make moves abroad, Indonesia is a very strange destination for a player to pick, with footballers like Beckham and Robbie Fowler opting for countries, in America and Australia, that are merely homes away from home. The lifestyle and playing conditions in Indonesia are certainly a lot different than in England. It can take over 9 hours to get to away games in Papua, there are poor playing surfaces as well as regular eruptions of violence from fans.

However football is the most popular sport in Indonesia with fans regularly being able to watch their favorite teams from Europe on TV and with huge support for their much maligned national team who attract crowds of over 90,000. Indonesia’ most high profile footballer Irfan Bachdim has almost 1 million twitter followers, more than Rio Ferdinand, further demonstrating the sports popularity in the World’s fourth most populous nation.

The most  bizarre aspect of Hendrie’s move is that his new club Bandung FC are playing in an illegal league that is not sanctioned by the countries FA or, until recently, by FIFA. The league was set up to show that football in Indonesia could be run corruption free and efficiently.As a response to the way the nation’s sport was governed by PSSI (Indonesian FA) President Nurdin Halid who was running the FA from prison after being arrested for smuggling. Mass dissatisfaction with Halid and with the performances of the national team who are ranked 129th by FIFA , as well as anger of the distribution of TV revenues prompted the move for a break away league which was started by an Indonesian Oil Tycoon Arifin Panigoro. The breakaway league has 19 teams, 3 of whom defected from the PSSI recognized Liga Indonesia,which adds further credibility to the project.

The aims of the league are bold. The IPL wants to make all teams self sufficient (most Indonesian teams are subsidized by their regional government), imrpove the countries poor quality youth development. One huge stride forward they’ve made is in using foreign referees who are less receptive to receiving bribes or being influenced by local bias. Adding to the success of the league they kicked off the season in January with  Attendances have also been good with the opening game that was held in January attracting 20,000 supporters and attendances more generally are better than they are in other Asian leagues.

To help boost the league Arfin Panigoro and his business partners have invested a reported $72.2 million into the league, which is a huge amount in the context that Singapore’s S-League only receives $10 million a year in investment. The amount of money in the game is thus huge with individual teams also receiving revenue from the broadcasting of their matches something that did not happen in the Liga Indonesia. The influx of money has allowed the league to attract other foreign talent such as former Chelsea Academy players the Younghusband brothers, as well as Singapore captain Shahril Ishak and various stars from Australia’s A-League.

Corruption has been a huge problem within Indonesian football especially within the PSSI. Which was made worse by the fact that Halid managed to win re-election to be the organisations president in 2007 despite as previously stated him being in jail for smuggling. Indonesian Corruption Watch stated that “candidates for the PSSI chair should possess clean backgrounds, not rap sheets,” which coincided with a protest outside the association sees 3,000 people demanding Halid step aside. As a result of the endemic corruption in the Indonesian game FIFA moved to suspend the PSSI leadership.

The only further stumbling block having been recognized by FIFA is that only one Premier League is allowed to exist in each country, and thus the league may need to be merged with the PSSI recognized Liga Indonesia.

The potential is there for the IPL especially if the PSSI is effectively reformed as FIFA are trying to do through their ‘normalization committee.’With the vast sums of money that the league creates through its big sponsorship and TV deals the league can really thrive.  With attendances being reportedly so impressive the league could help revitalize Indonesian football and represent a fresh start for the game after it was blighted by corruption for so long. With the influx of foreign stars as well as the massive investment put up by Panigoro there is definitely cause for optimism and the league could one day become one of the best in Asia as a result.

As for Lee Hendrie its got to be one of the strangest overseas moves for a former England player, his impact has been limited with only 2 goals in 15 games his side is floundering near the bottom of the table. Hendrie’s role is however more than just about sport. His signing represents the ambition and the financial muscle behind the IPL, Hendrie as well turning out on the pitch for the side is also holding a role as the clubs “football ambassador for coaching grassroot and youth development.’ With the club hoping he will be a role model to young children in the area. Clearly his signing was as much about marketing and media attention as it was about football with fans mobbing Hendrie both home and away a far cry from the days when he’d get abuse riding his bike around Solihull.