Football Tribe SEA Editor
2011 was a strange year for Indonesian football. It was during this year that businessman Arifin Panigoro, tired of the constant problems that plagued Indonesian football, decided to establish his own professional football league – the Liga Primer Indonesia. It was hoped that the LPI would rectify the problems that has been plaguing Indonesian football as of late, with the establishment of a fully professionally-run league where clubs doesn’t have to depend on their local governments for funding and with proper organizational and financial structure that is transparent and professional.
19 clubs participated in this league, with four of them being clubs that have broken away from the PSSI-sanctioned league system. PSM Makassar, Persema Malang, and Persibo Bojonegoro joined the LPI from the Indonesia Super League, then the top-flight of Indonesian football, while Persebaya Surabaya came into the LPI from the Indonesia Premier Division, which was then the 2nd tier of Indonesian football. The other 15 clubs were made out of scratch and one of them, representing the westernmost point of Indonesia that is the Aceh Special Autonomous Region, was Aceh United.
Playing at the 45000-seater Harapan Bangsa Stadium, Aceh United were back then coached by Frenchman Lionel Charbonnier, who was France’s third choice goalie in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. They were captained by Cameroonian defender Pierre Njanka, who had experiences in both the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and had led Arema Indonesia to the 2009-10 Indonesia Super League title. Not much are known about this Aceh United team due to the lack of archiving regarding the LPI, but according to a blog written by Acehnese citizen Mukhlisuddin Ilyas, Aceh United were not popular amongst the local populace. Back then, there were four teams in Aceh competing for local supremacy – Persiraja Banda Aceh, PSAP Sigli, PSSB Bireun, and PSLS Lhokseumawe. Matches between these four are high in tension and passion amongst supporter groups in the region and thus are events that are much anticipated. However, Aceh United, whose name signify their intention of being a team that unites the supporters of these four teams and other Acehnese teams for the sake of the region, was widely jeered and booed in each home match by the people who were meant to support them. According to Ilyas, Aceh United had neglected the most important thing that they should’ve done in order to win the hearts of the region’s people – actually playing Acehnese talent. There were no homegrown talent that was recruited by this team, from either Persiraja, PSAP, PSSB, PSLS, or other smaller teams within the Aceh region. This was down to the illegal nature of the LPI – FIFA only recognized the PSSI-sanctioned leagues as the competitive football leagues of Indonesia, and thus players are reluctant to make the switch from the PSSI-sanctioned leagues to the LPI, especially to the 15 clubs made specifically for the league.
The LPI didn’t last long and after 50% of the season being played, the league was shut down altogether. This led to a very tumultuous period in Indonesian football where PSSI attempted to bring the LPI underneath their wing, only for the league to once again split into two for the 2011-12 season. The 15 clubs that were created for the LPI met various different fates – Minangkabau FC were merged with Persik Kediri, Bandung FC were merged with Persiba Bantul, and Bali Devata were merged with Persires Rengat. Jakarta FC and Bintang Medan became clones of Persija Jakarta and PSMS Medan respectively, with both Persija and PSMS experiencing a dualism of management that was brought on by the league splitting into two. The rest disappeared into obscurity – Aceh United included. They were merged with Persiraja, with the already established club pretty much gobbling up the club’s hierarchy and legal body and leaving behind the Aceh United name to sink into the unknown.
Fast forward to 2017. Indonesian football was recovering from a FIFA suspension and a new league pyramid was established. The Liga 3 was the lowest-tier of Indonesian football, with various regional leagues being played simultaneously before the best teams of each league duke it out in the national rounds for promotion to the second-tier Liga 2. And amongst the clubs competing in the 2017 Liga 3 Aceh, the regional league for the Aceh Special Autonomous Region, there was Aceh United. Not a new club that took on the name of the old LPI club, it was the LPI club being resurrected to compete in a PSSI-sanctioned competition, bearing the same badge and orange jerseys as their former incarnation, even acknowledging the year 2010, the year Aceh United were founded to play in the LPI, as their year of establishment. And this time, they’ve learned their lessons and recruited local talent to play for them. Underneath the stewardship of former Indonesia international Ansyari Lubis, Aceh United fought their way through the 2017 Liga 3, eventually advancing to the national rounds and finishing third overall, earning themselves a ticket to the 2018 Liga 2. Aceh-born Assanur Rijal was their best player from that campaign and his performances didn’t go unnoticed by the league, who awarded him with the 2017 Liga 3 Best Player title.
The 2018 Liga 2 season saw Ansyari stepping down from his position, being replaced by Chilean Simon Elissetche. Assanur’s services was retained by the club and so was the services of Arianto, another Aceh-born talent who was the top scorer of the 2017 Liga 3. A number of players from the Liga 1 and Liga 2, some seasoned veterans and others up-and-coming talents, were brought in to Aceh United for their first campaign in the second tier of Indonesian football – the likes of Rully Desrian, Feri Komul, Yongki Aribowo, Syahrizal Syahbuddin, and Zikri Akbar to name a few. The prospect of a local derby with Persiraja also enticed the excitement of the Pomeurah, Aceh United’s very own supporters group. Once again Aceh United played at their old home of the Harapan Bangsa, though they made a switch to Bireun’s Cot Gapu Stadium mid-way through the season. Overall, Aceh United fared well in the 2018 season – they finished 3rd in the West Region, below rivals Persiraja and above Persita Tangerang, all three teams tied on 35 points. As a result, the trio – alongside region winners Semen Padang – qualify to the round of 8 playoffs. Throughout the 2018 season, Aceh United were unbeaten at home, however at the same time they’ve only won 3 games on the road. A low point of an otherwise brilliant season saw Aceh United lose the Aceh derby 6-1 at Persiraja’s H. Dimurthala Stadium.
However, it was then that financial problems made themselves known. Simon was let go of his position, being replaced by Bonggo Pribadi. Aceh United stuttered in the round of 8 playoffs, finishing dead last of their group and failing to advance to the semifinals – denying them a second straight promotion to the Liga 1. It was the least of Aceh United’s problems though. The club were unable to secure funds to participate in the 2019 Liga 2 season and were on a verge of disappearing once again after such a promising revival.
Thankfully, the club did survive their financial ordeals – but the Aceh United name and brand did not. Prior to the start of the 2019 Liga 2 season, Aceh United were merged with Liga 3 side PS Timah Bangka and moved to the Depati Amir Stadium in Bangka Belitung – thus becoming BaBel United. The merger and move saw the club that was once Aceh United lose their badge, name, and their orange jerseys – being replaced with white and sky blue ones. BaBel United themselves only lasted one year in Bangka Belitung – prior to the 2020 Liga 2 season, the club upped sticks once again and moved places, this time to Musi Banyuasin Regency in South Sumatra, where they merged with another Liga 3 side Muba United, thus becoming Muba BaBel United.
Despite their short revival, the story of Aceh United was one that was worth remembering. From an illegal club formed to participate in an illegal breakaway league to actually competing legally in a PSSI-sanctioned competition and almost making their way up the leagues to the top flight, it has been a roller-coaster of a ride for Aceh United. With the likes of Semarang United, Manado United 9, Tangerang Wolves, Bogor Raya FC, Real Mataram, Cendrawasih Papua and others disappearing into obscurity once the LPI was dissolved, the name Aceh United served as a throwback to when Indonesian football were rocked to its core by the formation of a breakaway league, a much more difficult time where Indonesian football were faced with crisis after crisis after crisis. And despite disappearing into obscurity themselves, Aceh United at least ended their story on a sweet note – proving themselves as a competitive force in both the Liga 3 and the Liga 2. It’s tragic that the Aceh United name did not see the light of the Liga 1, but what a redemption and revival that they underwent during their short tenure back in the Indonesian leagues.
Rest well, Aceh United. Rest well.