JAKARTA: Top-flight football returned to Indonesia Saturday as a new league kicked off after a two-year absence sparked by a major crisis, with big-name signings adding a bit of stardust.
Liga 1 replaces an old top-level league, which was halted in 2015 due to a row between the government and local FA that triggered turmoil and led to the country being hit with a one-year ban by FIFA.
The league is long-awaited and seen as a major boost for football in Southeast Asia’s biggest nation, with supporters hoping it could mark a turning point for the sport after years of problems.
Adding to fans’ excitement, Indonesian football has in recent weeks seen its most high-profile signings for years with former English Premier League stars joining local teams.
Former Chelsea stars Michael Essien and Carlton Cole have signed for Persib Bandung, while ex-West Bromwich Albion forward Peter Odemwingie joined Madura United.
The season got under way Saturday with two matches. All eyes were on the clash between leading sides Persib and Arema FC, which kicked off at 6:30 pm (1130 GMT)and Essien was part of the squad playing.
Eighteen teams are competing in Liga 1 and the season runs until November.
Joko Driyono, deputy chairman of the Indonesian football association, known as the PSSI, said he hoped Liga 1 could revitalise the sport in the country after last year’s FIFA suspension.
“A new league brings a new spirit, we hope this league can drive forward the development of football in Indonesia,” he told AFP.
The recent crisis was the most serious to hit Indonesian football for years.
It saw the sports ministry effectively oust the PSSI, which many accused of incompetence and corruption, after the two sides clashed over who should compete in the then top league, the Indonesian Super League.
The 2015 season was abandoned and soon afterwards world governing body FIFA, which takes a dim view of governments meddling in domestic associations, suspended Indonesia.
The ban was lifted in May last year. Indonesia made a quick return to form in their first international tournament since, reaching the final of the AFF Suzuki Cup — the Southeast Asian championship — in December.
They lost to Thailand.
While waiting for Indonesia’s new top-flight league to get up and running, teams last year competed in an interim championship.