Southeast Asia Indonesia

Why No Relegation Worked in J1 and Why It Won’t Work in Liga 1

For the past few days the Indonesian football scene on social media has been buzzing with the Football Federation of Indonesia (PSSI)’s plan of abolishing relegation for the upcoming 2021 Liga 1 Indonesia season. While a few Liga 1 clubs are supporting this scheme – citing benefits in terms of economy and youth player development – a sheer majority of stakeholders within Indonesian football are completely against the idea, which both the PSSI and league operators PT Liga Indonesia Baru (LIB) have adopted from the 2020 J.League 1 season.

Whilst the idea itself seem feasible – the abolishment of relegation would ease pressure on struggling clubs amidst a COVID-altered footballing landscape – in reality abolishing relegation isn’t as easy as it seems. It is like a double-edged sword.

Both the J1 and the 2020 Turkish Super Lig season have proven that leagues do function properly with the temporary suspension of relegation, providing that an extra set of teams go down in the following season.

And whilst both the PSSI and PT LIB are keen to adopt a similar model, there are a number of concrete factors on why the scheme could lead to the downfall of Indonesian football.

This article will discuss on these factors that the Japanese have gotten right and the Indonesians could potentially get wrong should the abolishment of relegation is to be implemented for 2021.

J1 Abolishes Relegation After Start of Season, Liga 1 to Abolish Relegation Before the Ball is Even Kicked

When J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai announced the abolishment of relegation for the 2020 season on March of that year, both the J1 and the J.League 2 have only played one matchweek whilst the J.League 3 have yet to play any matches at all. With this in mind, teams across all three tiers of professional Japanese football have already prepared themselves for the season ahead of them.

Putting the J3 out of discussion – since promotion into the league and relegation to the amateurs depend on the availability of teams having the relevant licenses to participate in the professional leagues within the top 4 teams of the 4th tier Japan Football League, the fact that both the J1 and J2 have already commenced prior to the abolishment of relegation is a clear sign that force majeure is the reason behind the J.League’s decision, as the league had expected to complete its season within its usual course.

As for Indonesia, complications regarding security permits with the Indonesian Police meant that both the 2020 Liga 1  and 2020 Liga 2 seasons had to be declared null and void and although the recently-concluded Menpora Cup was a success in terms of organizing a football competition within a pandemic-ravaged Indonesia, both the PSSI and PT LIB have jumped the gun when signaling their intent to abolish relegation for the 2021 season.

It is true that the postponement of relegation aids clubs whose season was impacted massively by the pandemic. However it will be wise if federations and league operators would try to commence competitions as normally as possible during these trying times, albeit with the inevitable format changes.

Leagues from Indonesia’s neighboring countries managed to finish their 2020 season with relegation being implemented smoothly and successfully, however they made some adaptations to their league format to accommodate for time being lost by COVID-related suspensions.

The 2020 Liga Super Malaysia managed to finish their season by abolishing the entire second half of the season, with the league title, AFC competition spots, and relegation spots being decided after 11 matchweeks.

The 2020 V.League 1 season circumvents the obstacles provided by the pandemic by implementing a split during the halfway point of the season, which saw teams being separated into a championship group and a relegation group for the second half of the season, thus ensuring that the league would finish on schedule.

A more unorthodox route was taken by the 2020 Thai League 1, as they retained their usual double round-robin format with three teams going down at the end of the season without any curtailment of the season’s second half or a mid-season split. What the Thais did is extending their calendar to 2020/21, which saw the top four teams from the first half of the season qualify for the 2021 AFC Champions League before the league title, AFC competition spots, and relegation spots being decided as usual at the end of the season’s second half.

The 2021 Liga 1 Indonesia season must try their best to finish their upcoming season as normally as possible, even though it means altering the league’s format and calendar. Then when all else fails, they could pull the force majeure card like the Japanese did and abolish relegation, instead of giving up without trying.

The Japanese’s Integrity is Much Better than Indonesians

One of the biggest fears that the Indonesian football stakeholders have voiced regarding the plans to abolish relegation in 2021 is the increased risk of match-fixing.

Without relegation, the bottom half of the table would have nothing but pride to play for and this could potentially entice teams within that section to throw away matches for financial gain, especially considering that the pandemic have impacted clubs’ finances.

Unlike Japan, who has a strict regulation on sports betting that helped prevent match-fixing occurrences within the J.League, Indonesian football is still rife with such problems.

It’s not even 10 years since the last major match-fixing incident within Indonesian football – a bizarre 3-2 win for PS Sleman over PSIS Semarang in the Indonesian second-tier that saw both sides score 5 own-goals in 7 minutes in purpose so that they can avoid a meeting with Pusamania Borneo FC in the knockout stages.

With the drop being thrown out of the window, teams inhabiting the lower reaches of the league table were not given enough incentives to remain competitive and while meetings between these teams can churn out dour, unentertaining matches, should a lower half team faces-off against a top half team under these circumstances, chances are there’s a possibility of the match being manipulated by third parties.

The Japanese are Well-Prepared. How About Indonesia?

In terms of human resources and finances, the J.League is more better-equipped than their Indonesian counterparts when being faced with a crisis of this magnitude. The J.League are also much more competent in regards of youth development, facility construction, and policy-making thanks to their 28 years worth of experience within the footballing business.

Professional football in Indonesia did not came until 2008 when the Indonesia Super League (ISL) was formed and clubs were required to wean themselves off public funding and it became apparent on how far the Indonesian top flight are lagging behind Japan’s.

In the ensuing 13 years that came after the establishment of the ISL, Indonesian football underwent a number of turbulent periods that was brought on mostly by the individual agendas of stakeholders within Indonesian football, the general incompetencies of said stakeholders, and a general sense of over-expectation whenever Indonesian football showed any slight signs of progress.

This include the formation of the breakaway Liga Prima Indonesia (LPI), infighting within the PSSI that split the Indonesian football pyramid into two, the dualism conflict of both Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya that led to FIFA suspending Indonesian football in 2015, and the rapid decline of a golden generation of Indonesian talent in Indra Sjafri’s U-19 national team of 2013/14 due to numerous individuals piggy-backing the team with their own agendas following their success.

One might also argue that the PSSI and PT LIB’s intentions of emulating the J.League and abolishing relegation for 2021 is yet another chapter of incompetency within Indonesian football as well, as the Liga 1 attempts to emulate the J.League 1 on certain policies without learning and implementing what has made the Japanese league one of Asia’s finest in the first place – jumping the gun, so to speak.

However there is one factor that even the Japanese got it wrong when implementing a relegation-free season, and that is…

The Declining Entertainment Value of Football

As stated prior, the abolishment of relegation would mean that teams within the lower half of the table have little to no incentive at all in finishing the season and that is apparent from the brand of football that these teams are displaying.

Having covered the J1 for the 2020 season, I have to personally admit that matches involving the teams from the bottom half of the table are much less entertaining then those within the title race. Although Kawasaki Frontale romped their way to the 2020 title, excitement still exists in the race for the silver medal that involved Gamba Osaka, Nagoya Grampus, Cerezo Osaka, and Kashima Antlers.

The J1’s mid-table section of 2020 also has some spice and excitement to it, such as Michael Olunga’s haul of goals single-handedly carrying newly-promoted Kashiwa Reysol to a very strong finish at the end of the season and Oita Trinita overcoming second-season syndrome to finish the season as a solid mid-table side.

Moving down the table and although you have the incredible recovery story of Sagan Tosu who almost went out of business during the J1’s suspension only to defy all odds and embark on a steady upwards trend that continues to this day as well as newly-promoted Yokohama FC who managed to churn out a respectable season in the top flight, you also have the story of Vegalta Sendai who failed to win any of their home games throughout 2020 and Shonan Bellmare who had a yet another subpar season which they were very fortunate, yet again, to survive.

Once it became known that relegation is off the cards for 2020, both Vegalta and Shonan basically stopped trying.

Out of the six wins that Shonan etched that season only one were made with a goal margin of more than 2, a 2-0 win away at Vissel Kobe. The aforementioned win was also one of the only two times that Shonan had scored more than one goal in a win, with a 3-2 win at home over Kashiwa Reysol. Including draws and defeats, Shonan scored more than once only six more times, finishing as the league’s lowest scorers.

As for Vegalta, other than their torrid home record, their 2020 has been marred with fan protests and financial issues that affected their on-field performances.

Safe to say, both Shonan and Vegalta were not good enough for the J1 in 2020, knew they were not good enough, but instead of welcoming the abolishment of relegation as a chance to improve themselves with the limited resources that they had, they just simply waited until the end of the season knowing that they will spend another year in the top flight regardless of position.

And Indonesian football is no stranger to such scenario – 2016 saw the establishment of the Indonesia Soccer Championship, a stand-in top flight league that serves as an interim competition after FIFA had removed PSSI’s suspension that year.

All 18 teams of the previous top flight season participated in the ISC and relegation was abolished due to the league’s nature as an interim competition, organized to prepare for the upcoming 2017 Liga 1 season.

Whilst the first few matchweeks of the ISC saw exciting games being played out, said excitement began to peter out as the season went on, with teams within the league’s lower half realizing that without relegation, they have nothing to play for except in deciding the fates of the title-chasing teams above them.

The Final Say

It is worth noting that the plan to abolish relegation in the upcoming 2021 Liga 1 season is and still is a proposed notion.

In order for the plan to be finalized and implemented, the PSSI must bring up this issue with its member clubs in the upcoming PSSI Annual Congress which will be held on May 29th. The congress will decide on how the 2021 Liga 1 and Liga 2 seasons will be carried out, with the general consensus – should the plan to abolish relegation is to be implemented – sees two teams being promoted out of the Liga 2 this season to form a 20-team Liga 1 season for 2022.

And while the PSSI and PT LIB can take inspiration from the 2020 J.League season that saw relegation being suspended, this article must stress that the abolishment of relegation should be taken as a last resort should all attempts in organizing a normal competition during the pandemic couldn’t be done.

Countries within Southeast Asia have successfully organized their leagues during the pandemic with relegation being fully implemented, albeit with a few format changes. There’s no reason for the PSSI and PT LIB to take what’s possibly the safest route possible in organizing a pandemic-affected league without considering the possible implications that could came with it.

It is hoped that the PSSI and PT LIB can take cues from leagues from around Southeast Asia first before considering taking the force majeure route out. There’s nothing wrong in being inspired or taking cues from an already established league, however the Indonesian league must not recklessly adopt a certain aspect from another league without going through the other factors that made that aspect feasible.

And should Indonesia want to follow in Japan’s footsteps, they should start by adopting the same ethos that made the J.League a huge success first.