Southeast Asia Indonesia

OPINION – How the 2021/22 Liga 1 Indonesia Season Will Unfold

The Indonesian Police, the Indonesian Ministry of Sport and Youth, and the Indonesian COVID-19 Task Force have finally green-lit the 2021/22 Liga 1 Indonesia season much to the relief of football fans throughout the archipelago, with the season set to start this August 27th. Defending league champions Bali United and newly-promoted 2019 Liga 2 Indonesia champions Persik Kediri will contest the league’s curtain-raiser at the Gelora Bung Karno in Jakarta and before the two will face-off, let’s take a look on how the upcoming season will unfold and predict who will finish where at the end of the season.

The 2021/22 Liga 1 Indonesia season will utilize a bubble-to-bubble system in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with three bubbles being planned out throughout the island of Java. The first bubble will encapsulate the provinces of Banten, West Java, and the Jakarta Capital Region, while the second bubble covers both Central Java and the Special Region of Yogyakarta. Lastly, the third bubble will cover the East Java province, including the island of Madura.

Teams will play a certain set of matches twice within a bubble, called a series. There will be six series this season, with the first bubble playing out the first and last series, the second and fifth series being played at the second bubble, and the third bubble hosting both the third and fourth series.

With the technicalities out of the way, let’s see how Football Tribe Asia predicts the upcoming Liga 1 season will unfold.

Five Teams Vying for Glory

Being the defending champions from the 2019 edition, Bali United naturally went into the new season as favorites to defend their crown. Paulo Sergio and Irfan Bachdim were their only notable exits from that 2019 squad while the likes of Hariono and Nadeo Argawinata will have points to prove after their 2020 season got curtailed by the pandemic. The addition of Rizky Pellu is a well-welcomed reinforcement and while the Serdadu Tridatu are still looking for a replacement for Sergio, the returns of Melvin Platje and Brwa Nouri from their loan spells would restore the defending champions’ strength.

Considering their squad depth and how they’ve reinforced themselves in recent times, Persib Bandung would come as Bali United’s closest challengers for the title. The devastating partnership of Wander Luiz and Geoffrey Castillion that struck fear in the hearts of defenders everywhere in the 2020 season will continue into the new season. And while the likes of Kim Jeffrey Kurniawan, Ghozali Siregar, Omid Nazari, Zulham Zamrun and Fabiano Beltrame went out of the door, Persib managed to snag a newly-naturalized Marc Klok away from fierce rivals Persija Jakarta along with adding highly-rated striker Ezra Walian into their ranks.

Speaking about Persija, they may have lost Klok to Persib and Evan Dimas to Bhayangkara FC, however they still managed to keep talismanic striker Marko Simic around, who would surely devastate the league once again. The likes of Riko Simanjuntak, Ramdani Lestaluhu, and Osvaldo Haay are still contracted with the Macan Kemayoran, while Braif Fatari have stood out as a promising young talent during Persija’s 2021 Menpora Cup run, which culminated in them lifting the title. Former Juventus and AS Roma defender Marco Motta is also still around and he will act as a mentor figure to another Motta, former Tanjong Pagar United player Yann Motta of Brazil.

A team packed with quality players but with only a few people cheering them on from the stands, Bhayangkara are seeking to repeat their 2017 league triumph in the upcoming season. The Indonesian Police-backed team have quite the talented squad at their disposal, with Evan and Hansamu Yama joining the likes of Andik Vermansyah, Ezechiel N’Douassel, Awan Setho, and Renan Silva in the Guardians’ lineup.

Last but not least, a lineup of potential Liga 1 champions won’t be complete without Madura United. Having been known as the Indonesian Los Galacticos in recent years thanks to their steady influx of star players, Madura United have failed to win any major silverware since their establishment in 2016 and the Laskar Sapeh Kerrab are tackling the upcoming season using a new approach, relying on young talents such as Kevy Syahertian, Kadek Raditya, Dodi Alexvan Djin and Ronaldo Kwateh to go alongside established names in Slamet Nurcahyono, Bayu Gatra, Asep Berlian, Jaimerson Xavier, Fachrudin Aryanto, Alfin Tuasalamony, and Zulfiandi.

A Quartet of Dark Horses

The buildup towards the 2021 Indonesian football season saw an influx of investors splashing their money in Indonesian football clubs. And whilst the trend is more prevalent in the second-tier Liga 2 – with the likes of Persis Solo and PSPS Riau receiving brand new wealthy owners and clubs such as Dewa United, RANS Cilegon FC, and AHHA PS Pati being established and backed by the nouveau riche – the Liga 1 also saw their fair share of new investors who will turn their teams into potential dark horses challenging the elite.

Arema FC have been going through tough times after finishing 2nd in the Indonesian Soccer Championsip A back in 2016, however the Singo Edan are looking to return back into the elite following the appointment of Gilang Widya Pramana as club president. Through his company Juragan 99 Trans, Gilang revitalized Arema and the Malang-based billionaire (dubbed the Crazy Rich Malang) has brought in the likes of Diego Michels, Renshi Yamaguchi, Carlos Fortes, Adilson Maringa, and Sergio Silva into the squad, along with former Ubon United, Melaka United, and Semen Padang head coach Eduardo Almeida.

Another club who received an investment boost is Borneo FC, whose owner Nabil Husein established a collaboration with Chandra Kurniawan, the president of CRK Corporation. The collaboration saw Chandra purchasing a controlling stake within Borneo, which would hopefully take the Pesut Etam to newer heights in the coming future. Having lost captain Diego to Arema, Borneo managed to reel in Persipura Jayapura legend Boaz Solossa to the club, while former Johor Darul Ta’zim head coach Mario Gomez will once again oversee Borneo in this season’s Liga 1.

PSIS Semarang are another potential dark horse. Having impressed with their plethora of youth players in the 2021 Menpora Cup, they received significant investment from Wahyu Agung Group, who own 30% of the clubs’ shares. Youngsters such as Pratama Arhan, Alfeandra Dewangga, and Andreas Ado will collaborate together alongside seasoned players in Bruno Silva, Fandi Eko Utomo, and Hari Nur Yulianto, as the Mahesa Jenar hope to build upon a memorable Menpora Cup performance with an equally strong performance in the league.

PS Sleman are the last of the four potential dark horses in the upcoming Liga 1 season, however unlike the aforementioned trio the fruits of investments done by investor Marco Gracia Paulo has already been felt in the Menpora Cup a few months ago. Unlike Arema, Borneo, and PSIS who received their investment boosts after the Menpora Cup, PSS’ financial injection was done prior to the pre-season competition, after a period of uncertainty regarding the club’s ownership. Players such as Bachdim,  Kim Jeffrey, Arthur Irawan, Miswar Saputra and Irfan Jaya were drawn into the Super Elja and they helped the club to an impressive 3rd place in the 2021 Menpora Cup – a signal of intent that the Sleman-based club are here to upset the order.

A Season of Struggle for PSM?

Having played in the AFC Cup as recently as 2020, this writer predicts that PSM Makassar would struggle massively in the upcoming Liga 1 season. Despite bagging a 4th place finish in the 2021 Menpora Cup, financial problems continue to plague the Juku Eja and they reportedly owe unpaid wages for 17 of their players. With the threat of being kicked out of the league looming above them, PSM has been working hard in paying their financial arrears – although this isn’t exactly the preparation that the South Sulawesi-based club needed with the new season just around the corner.

Although there has been cases of teams being stricken financially overachieving in the league, there were even more cases of teams severely underperforming as a result of their financial problems – Leeds United, Portsmouth, Parma, and most recently ChievoVerona being prime examples of such teams whose on-pitch performances were being affected severely by financial shortages. Only time will tell on whether PSM will once again overachieve this coming league season or they will follow in the footsteps of the four aforementioned teams and see their tenure in the top-flight being cut short.

History have shown that at least one newly-promoted side will struggle in the league and eventually face the drop. Out of the three newcomers to the Liga 1 this season, this writer believes that Persiraja Banda Aceh would face the toughest struggle. This was down to the departure of several key players – talismanic striker Assanur Rijal had moved on to Persis Solo, with winger Miftahul Hamdi, midfielder Feri Komul, right-back Eriyanto and center-back Ganjar Mukti joining him at the newly-rich Laskar Sambernyawa. Luis Irsandi and his iconic hair was also off to the Liga 2, joining Muba BaBel United, while another one of Persiraja’s attacking talent in Vivi Asrizal has joined Semen Padang.

However, predicting who will go down from this season’s Liga 1, as with other seasons, can be quite a tricky job. Teams who are predicted to finish well down the table such as Persela Lamongan, Barito Putera, or TIRA-Persikabo more often than not defied expectations by notching a series of strong performances throughout the season before finishing the season in a respectable place.

In the end, the ones who will struggle greatly are those who are unable to set themselves off the mark as soon as possible or those who are unable to recover in time from any kind of setback being posed upon them.

After being on hiatus for a while, Indonesia’s top-flight football league is about to restart and the excitement is palpable. However, one must always remember that for this year, it is not advisable for fans go to the stadium due to the pandemic situation. Spectating your favorite team’s games from your home is more than enough for you to show your support for your team.

Stay healthy, stay safe, and may the best team win!