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 football team play. Another 100 million tuned in to television to watch the match, underlining the appeal of the sport in Indonesia where attendance rivals the top English and German football 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 football 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 football will provide an edge in the country of 240 million people, where the sport is widely popular despite Indonesia being ranked 170 out of 209 football-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 ($133.5 million) 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.
In Indonesia, football is kicked around by political parties