Southeast Asia Indonesia

OPINION: Should the Piala Presiden Be Treated as A League Cup?

Every year, before the start of the new Liga 1 Indonesia season, the Indonesian footballing authorities held a pre-season tournament that was participated by all 18 Liga 1 clubs – and occasionally two Liga 2 Indonesia clubs. The year 2022 was no exception, with newly-promoted Persis Solo and PSS Sleman set to take on each other in the curtain-raiser of this year’s tournament on June 11th. But as preparations for the 2022 Piala Presiden are still underway, the tournament’s existence itself has invited mixed reactions from the public within Indonesian football.

The Piala Presiden was first held in 2015 to fill in the void left behind by the 2015 Liga Super Indonesia season, which was shelved following sanctions placed on the Football Federation of Indonesia (PSSI) by FIFA. With the public longing for local football action, the 2015 Piala Presiden provided the perfect tonic for a nation’s footballing drought, with Persib Bandung lifting the trophy after beating Sriwijaya FC 2-0 at the Gelora Bung Karno on 18 October 2015.

Following the resumption of Indonesian football in an official capacity after FIFA had ended their sanctions of the PSSI in September of 2016, the Piala Presiden was held on a semi-regular basis prior to each Liga 1 season, with the 2020 edition being not held due to the COVID-19 pandemic while the 2021 edition was replaced with a similar, stand-in tournament – the Piala Menpora.

Arema FC are the tournament’s most successful club with two wins in 2017 and 2019. Indeed, the Singo Edan were the defending champions coming into the 2022 tournament, being the last team who lifted the intricately-carved trophy made out of teak wood. Meanwhile, Persib won the inaugural tournament back in 2015 and Persija Jakarta were triumphant in 2018.

However, in the seven years since the Piala Presiden was first held, the tournament has attracted its own detractors.

While the Piala Presiden was initially seen as an oasis in the midst of a barren footballing landscape brought on by FIFA’s sanctions on the PSSI, nowadays it’s seen as an over-glorified set of friendly matches, a cash-grab attempt from both the PSSI and league operators PT Liga Indonesia Baru (LIB) to line their pockets, considering the promising stream of income that comes with sponsorship and broadcasting deals.

The Piala Presiden was also heavily criticized as an unwelcomed distraction for clubs preparing for the new season, especially those who are participating in Asian club competitions whose matches were played around the same time as the tournament.

A prime example would be Bali United’s elimination from the 2018 AFC Cup group stages. In their debut Asian campaign, then-head coach Widodo Cahyono Putro decided to prioritize that year’s Piala Presiden over improving Indonesia’s standing within the AFC Club Competition ranks with a decent continental campaign.

Taking on Yangon United at the Kapten I Wayan Dipta Stadium for their AFC Cup curtain-opener, Widodo fielded the reserves against the Burmese champions on February 13th, clearly prioritizing their Piala Presiden semifinal match that took place the very next day. As a result, a second-string Bali United side were humiliated 3-1 at their own backyard, which set the tone for a dismal group stage campaign even though Widodo fielded his best squad in subsequent matches.

Widodo’s gamble worked out – somewhat – as Bali United overcame Sriwijaya 1-0 in their semifinal, before succumbing to Persija 3-0 in the final. Ironically, Persija were also taking part in that year’s AFC Cup campaign, but the Macan Kemayoran had a decent squad depth and knew how to divert their priorities when it needed to, hallmarks that won them the Liga 1 title at the end of the 2018 season.

Another point of criticism that was directed towards the Piala Presiden was the fact that the PSSI are taking full control of clubs’ pre-season even though each club has their own agenda to prepare for the upcoming 2022/23 campaign. It’s a huge rarity for a football federation to organize an entire pre-season tournament from scratch, as such tournaments were either organized by the clubs themselves or by third-party organizers.

Take for instance the International Champions Club, a pre-season tournament that pits European (and sometimes North American and South American) clubs in locations scattered around the world. It was organized by Relevant Sports Group, a sports promotion company backed by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and former New York Jets executive Matt Higgins.

In a more localized sense within the context of ASEAN, there’s the Leo Pre-Season Cup in Thailand, organized by the Boon Rawd Brewery (the producer of Leo Beer). The pre-season tournament saw Thai clubs sponsored by the brewery’s products (Leo and Singha) going up against one another as well as invited clubs from other Asian countries.

Both tournaments were held by third parties, with zero involvement whatsoever from the football associations of the participants.

The 2022 Piala Presiden also forced clubs to cancel a number of pre-season tournaments that they have organized themselves. For example Persebaya Surabaya had to cancel this year’s Piala Walikota Surabaya due to scheduling conflicts with the Piala Presiden. The 4-team tournament was set to pit Persebaya together against Persis, Bali United, and PSIS Semarang.

Persis also had to cancel this year’s Piala Walikota Solo due to the same reason as Persebaya’s, with the tournament supposedly featuring Persis, Arema, Bali United, Persib, FC Bekasi City, Bhayangkara FC, RANS Nusantara FC, and Sriwijaya FC.

And although there were no official confirmation about it, RANS Nusantara’s proposed pre-season tournament – which is set to feature Brazilian legend Ronaldinho – is likely to go down the drain as well due to the Piala Presiden.

With the PSSI and the PT LIB seemingly so eager to hold the Piala Presiden each year, I believe that the tournament should lose their pre-season tournament tag and it should be upgraded into a tertiary cup tournament, beneath both the Liga 1 and the Piala Indonesia (which hasn’t been held since 2018/19 due to the pandemic).

Both Thailand and Malaysia have managed to integrate two cup tournaments into their respective league seasons, with both the Thai League Cup and Malaysia Cup proving to be successes of their own alongside the countries’ respective FA Cups. Cambodia are also currently trialing their own league cup, the CCNC League Cup, for the 2022 season.

The Piala Presiden being turned into a league cup would also benefit clubs as it won’t hamper with their pre-season proceedings, and in the case of clubs who qualified for AFC club competitions, their continental campaigns. This is due to the Piala Presiden being held in parallel with the clubs’ league season, thus freeing up significant space in the pre-season calendar.

There’s also an added incentive of additional silverware at the end of the season, a proper trophy to be won, instead of an over-glorified pre-season honor. Clubs are also allowed to field their fringe players in the tournament, providing them the opportunity to earn themselves some much-needed game time.

Financially it will benefit the clubs too, with prize money being awarded to clubs participating in each round in addition to the money being awarded to those who would win the competition. This would inevitably help out the smaller clubs participating in the tournament.

In the end, regardless of your stance towards the tournament, the Piala Presiden is here to stay for at least one year and it may stay even longer should the federation wish to. But unless the federation would start to treat this competition as a proper cup competition and not just a mere pre-season trophy, criticism towards it will always come from all places.