Rahmad Darmawan, the head coach of the Indonesian Under-23 soccer team, surprised soccer enthusiasts when he relinquished his post on Dec. 13, less than a month after he led his team to the final of the 26th SEA Games’ soccer tournament at home, which they lost.

The Indonesian Soccer Association (PSSI) had tried to persuade Rahmad to stay but to no avail, for one substantial reason: to defend the right of every best-suited player to play for the national team.

The PSSI has decided to ban players from the Indonesian Super League (ISL), which it deems as illegal as it rivals the PSSI-sanctioned Indonesian Premier League (IPL), from donning the national jersey.

It means Rahmad would have been unable to pick the best players as he did during his short stint as assistant to Wim Rijsbergen, the head coach of the senior national team, and for the SEA Games.

With Rahmad assisting Rijsbergen, the senior team stormed into the Third Round of the Asian Zone 2014 World Cup Qualifying but in his absence from the pitch’s sidelines, the team was eliminated after losing five of the six matches they played during this phase.

Apart from the failure to clinch the gold medal, the U-23 national team under Rahmad performed quite well at the SEA Games and in the friendly match against Los Angeles Galaxy on Nov. 30.

Soccer lovers view that having proved his chemistry and managerial skills in handling the promising U-23 national team, Rahmad would be the right person to take over the senior national team to end a long drought of achievements.

Had he maintained his job, he would have faced heavier challenges simply because almost all the players he brought to the national squad play in the ISL.

Young talented players like Titus Bonai, Patrich Wanggai, Okto Maniani, Hashim Kipuw, Dutch-born Diego Michiels, and many others belong to ISL clubs.

No doubt stable clubs will generate healthy competition, while a healthy competition will result in a strong national team.

Unfortunately, the PSSI has failed to create a healthy competition due to the prolonged conflicts involving its members and soccer elites, which have sparked division among the top-tier professional leagues.

Almost half a year since Djohar Arifin Husin took office as the PSSI chairman on July 9, during the association’s extraordinary congress held by the Normalization Committee in Surakarta, Central Java, the soccer elites remain unable to end their differences.

The congress merely produced a deal on figures concerning the day-to-day running of the PSSI’s businesses but failed to convey the association’s basic spirit to unite the nation as echoed by its founder, the late Suratin. The soccer elites wasted their opportunity to reconcile and formulate collective agreements on actions to develop the nation’s soccer.

But, as Rahmad said, it is unfair to sacrifice players in the dual-league controversy while the PSSI and its stakeholders have not exhausted efforts to end their deep and prolonged differences. Why must the elite rivalry punish the players?

Rahmad has left the national team but it does not negate respect for him. His yet unanswered question presents a deep lesson that reminds me of the words by Sir Bobby Charlton, English soccer’s living legend and 1966 World Cup winner: “Some people tell me that we professional players are soccer slaves. Well, if this is slavery, give me a life sentence.”

Soccer is for all. Keeping the regulations intact is absolutely correct. Enforcing the rules in line with
the spirit of fair play and unity in soccer, however, requires more than strict actions, let alone punishment for “rebel” players and clubs under the ISL.

Since both leagues have rolled on, 18 clubs in the ISL compared to 13 from the initially proposed 24 clubs in the IPL, let soccer enthusiasts see and judge the standard of the rival leagues since “soccer is democracy” and “democracy is soccer” wherein the spirit of respect exists.

It would be highly appreciated if the soccer power brokers, conflicting parties among the PSSI board members and both the ISL and IPL club officials don’t give up trying to find the best formula to take the advantages from the dual leagues for the greater objective of building a strong national team.

The difference can stand for the love of soccer and the lovers of soccer, and for the joy of all, without hurting each other.

* The writer is a freelance editor, writer and media consultant. Published on the ‘Opinion’ page, The Jakarta Post, Saturday 17 December 2011.