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Teflon tycoons and sticky-taped kits as club unravels – but you won’t read about it in Jakarta

The shirt numbers of Brisbane Roar player Ivan Franjic are seen to dislodge during the Preliminary Stage 2 AFC Champions League match between the Brisbane Roar and Ceres Negros FC at the Queensland Sports and Athletics Centre in Brisbane, Tuesday, January 23, 2018. AAP Image/ Dave Hunt

The rollercoaster fortunes of the Brisbane Roar football team mirror those of the Indonesian conglomerate that owns the three-time Australian championship club.

The previous two years the club was in a financial shambles and players were not being paid on time.

In late January, the Roar lost an Asian Football Confederation playoff to Philippines premiers Ceres Negro. The match was played in front of a dismally small home crowd and – in what one British media outlet described as a “bizarre kit row” – the club’s director of football was sacked after being blamed for numbers peeling off players’ jerseys during the match.

Lately, “embattled” is the word most frequently used in the Australian media to describe the club. The Courier Mail reported that the Bakrie Group wasn’t budging when it came to selling the club, knocking back offers perceived as too low.

Rappler – the independent, Philippines-based media outlet the Duterte government is trying to shut down – reported the kit fiasco, adding that the Roar had underestimated the recent champions of the Philippine Football League.

I’m writing this from Jakarta, and you’d think “jersey gate” would have featured in the local press given the Roar’s Indonesian ownership. But there hasn’t been a peep about it.

To understand why, take a look at where the Roar fits into the Bakrie Group’s assets and where it fits into Indonesia’s corporate and media landscape.

A concentration of elite interests

Twenty years since the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime, Indonesia’s thriving media landscape is concentrated in the hands of conglomerates (of which the Bakrie group is the tenth largest by market capitalisation).

Read more: Media oligarchy and the shaping of news in Indonesia

These conglomerates control the country’s ten national TV stations and more than 1,000 print and online outlets as a route to power and influence. Broadcast, print and online outlets are frequently aligned to a political party or entity. This is reminiscent of then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media stakes existing alongside his building interests and one-time ownership of AC Milan.

Coincidentally, Indonesian media mogul Eric Thohir is the current chairman (and minority stakeholder) of AC Milan’s crosstown rival, Inter Milan. Thohir’s Mahaka group includes major commercial broadcaster Gen FM and popular Islamic newspaper and portal Republika.

In the same vein as Thohir and Surya Paloh – the politically active owner of Metro TV – the Bakrie brothers have conflated media ownership (including the popular station TV One), business and political influence.

Stakes in sporting clubs are side gigs for these guys.

A business of survivalists

The Bakrie Group’s main activities are in mining property and construction. It became embroiled in Indonesia’s worst ever environmental disaster in 2009, when mud started to spew in Sidoarjo, East Java, burying villages and displacing around 40,000 people. Nearly a decade later the the mud is still flowing (though at a much reduced rate). Scientists are still debating the cause, with one side arguing it was caused by mining exploration by a part-Bakrie-owned company and another believing it was due to an earthquake several days prior.

In the lead-up to Aburizal Bakrie’s tilt at the presidency in 2014, the company paid compensation to the villagers, although the Indonesian human rights commission argued it wasn’t nearly enough.

Aburizal’s failed presidential bid was another flash point in the family’s long-standing involvement in Indonesian politics. There is a close connection with Golkar, the party of former dictator Suharto. Aburizal left the business world in 2004 to become co-ordinating minister for the people’s welfare, departing the ministerial cabinet in 2009.

Foreign business magazines describe the Bakrie family in survival-like terms. The group has “always bounced back” from its financial rollercoaster rides, according to the Financial Times. The Economist christened Aburizal Bakrie the “teflon tycoon”.

Future trends and learnt lessons

In a nutshell, the current trend for conglomerates in Indonesia is to move into media and digital companies. In presentations to participants of the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) journalism practicum program which I ran here in 2018, speakers including former Jakarta Post editor Endy Bayuni and editor in chief Wahyu Dhyatmika referred to a trend among conglomerates to focus on media and digital news sites.

The conglomerate that owns the Roar is not in a great financial state, and it wants to offload assets like the club it has spectacularly mismanaged so far.

When the Bakrie Group became the first foreign owner of an Australian football side, my colleague and I at the ABC questioned the league about how much it had looked into this corporation’s background. To the best of my knowledge, we were the only journalists in Australia to do so.

Perhaps the league and Australian sports journalists should have asked more questions when a problematic, controversial Indonesian conglomerate bought the Roar, whose sloppy kits are the least of the Bakrie Group’s many problems.

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