Retrospective: Robbie Gaspar

IMG_2303Two years ago I ventured on a three week journey around South East Asia, watching and chatting to a range of Australian footballers and coaches. A number of stories followed from these meetings. Here is a retrospective look at the five-days I spent with Robbie Gaspar in Bandung, Indonesia. Robbie is a great man who these days has over 83,000 twitter followers rather than nearly 50k. He’s hung up the boots, too, but is still fighting for the rights of professional footballers across the globe.

With a Twitter following fast approaching 50,000 and instant recognisability on the streets of Bandung, Australian midfielder Robbie Gaspar is on the frontline of the fight to fix Indonesian football.

It’s a mild Saturday morning in Bandung, Indonesia. Traffic relentlessly snakes its way through the narrow, winding streets as locals trade their wares at the edge of the road.

Having risen early to venture to training, Robbie Gaspar beams as his blurry eyes catch sight of a youngster buzzing by on his motorbike.

It’s not the daring speed at which the rider is travelling, nor the dangerous swerves through oncoming traffic that makes Gaspar smile – that he has witnessed many times before. It’s the fact that etched on the motorcyclists back sits his surname: “Gaspar”.

Born in Perth, Western Australia, and with just a handful of Australian national league games in the early 2000s to his name, Gaspar is far from a household name in his homeland.

But in Indonesia the former Sydney Olympic players’ celebrity extends from the beaches of Balikpapan to the markets of Malang, and most certainly to the bars of Bandung.

We arrive at Stadium Si Jalak Harupat. As Gaspar and his then teammate, Montenegrin Miljan Radovic, emerge from their car some 250 kids who have gathered to watch their heroes train swamp them. Dozens of mobile phones instantly appear and the kids clamber for a photograph.

The youths are insistent, but not rude. Gaspar and Radovic fulfil every last request and eventually make it to the relative comfort of their decaying change room 15 minutes after their arrival.

“It feels good to be recognised for what you do,” Gaspar says.

“They love their football here and they’re very passionate about it. When fans come up to you and ask for a photo or autograph in the street it makes you feel appreciated and it makes you want to put that bit extra in on the field. Each team from each city has that loyal, die-hard following. Footballers here are like footballers in England.”

It’s true, footballers in Indonesia are like footballers in England – they’re revered. Trouble is, football in Indonesia isn’t like football in England.

Political infighting has dogged the Indonesian game for years, holding back the undoubted potential of the domestic scene, and subsequently Indonesia’s national teams.

Unratified rebel leagues, match fixing, player strikes, and games being postponed – even cancelled – at the very last minute are an unfortunate reality of the current landscape.

Having spent seven seasons in the many incarnations of Indonesia’s “top flight”, Gaspar is well placed to outline the problems that plague the game.

“Some of the things I’ve seen and heard in the last seven years are a disgrace,” he says.

“Football here is such a powerful tool that a lot of people want to get involved for the wrong reasons. I just want to see people getting involved for the right reasons.

“What’s happening to the players shouldn’t be happening. The players need to be treated with respect. The players and the fans are the most important part of the game. If everyone put their own agendas aside and worked for the betterment of the game this place could be anything.”

Gaspar doesn’t hide the fact that when we met, he was one of the lucky few. His club at the time, Persib Bandung, is one of Indonesia’s biggest, routinely drawing crowds in excess of 30,000.

Studies have shown that across the diverse archipelago approximately 20 million people watch Persib’s matches on television, while hopeful entrepreneurs hawk unofficial merchandise around Bandung. Importantly, the club pays their squad and staff on time.

Others at Indonesia’s 90 professional outfits are not so fortunate. Many players go months without their salaries, with club owners simply refusing to stump up the cash promised in their contracts.

Gaspar admits players routinely break down, departing their teams and with that losing hope of recouping what they’re owed. Others battle on with their fingers crossed, all the while struggling to provide for their families.

Having seen the plight of his fellow professionals first hand and advocated for them unofficially for years, Gaspar was recently appointed an executive of the Asosiasi Persepakbola Professional Indonesia (APPI), Indonesia’s first players union akin to Professional Footballers Australia (PFA). In essence, his voluntary fight was formalised.

“Being from Australia we are from the culture where we like to stick up for ourselves and stick up for our mates,” he says.

“As footballers we are like family, so when you see a fellow footballer not being paid, it’s unacceptable. I just want to help out the boys. The players in Indonesia are not used to having a players union so we need to educate them that we can help them.”

While APPI have enjoyed some success in securing payments for players thus far, Gaspar’s support of his fellow professionals extends beyond merely campaigning for cheques to arrive in their bank accounts.

It’s Sunday dusk and Gaspar takes me to meet Juan Marcello Cirelli, a 28-year-old Argentinean player who counts River Plate among his former clubs, and Andri Ibo, a 22-year-old Indonesian defender of Papuan decent. Cirelli and Ibo play for Persidafon Dafonsoro, a small side based in West Papua near the city of Jayapura.

Tomorrow, Cirelli and Ibo will line up against Gaspar’s Persib. Tonight, they are brothers in arms.

We share dinner at one of Bandung’s popular malls and as the passionate, articulate Cirelli outlines that Persidafon’s players have gone six months without salary, Gaspar listens attentively.

Like an investigator he probes the Argentine for more information. His phone buzzes numerous times throughout the two-hour rendezvous, usually with another Indonesian-based professional on the end of the line.

When the bill arrives Gaspar insists on picking up the tab for his guests.

“Every day I am on the phone getting feedback from the guys,” he says.

“There’s a lot of work in it because there are a lot of professional players in Indonesia, but we are speaking all the time. APPI is holding regular meetings with the federations and working hard to sort this out as soon as possible. When we do, the potential for football to grow in Indonesia is phenomenal. We’re slowly trying to implement PFA models.”

Indeed, Gaspar believes Australia can and should do more to contribute to Indonesia’s development, while reaping rewards of its own.

From player and coach exchanges to Hyundai A-League clubs marketing themselves in Indonesia, Gaspar reckons the opportunities that can be enjoyed by a close relationship between the nations is limited only by imagination and endeavour.

“We’re neighbours,” he says.

“There are 240 million people here compared to less than 25 million in Australia. Australia would be crazy not to tap into it, and Indonesia could learn a lot from Australia’s professional practices.”

“Sport breaks down boundaries and football is a great way for Australia and Indonesia to communicate.”

Due to the current restructure of the Indonesian league system, Gaspar – along with Radovic, Brazilian Marcio Souza and Singaporean Noh Alam Shah – was recently released from his Persib Bandung deal. He hopes to sign at another club prior to the commencement of the new Indonesian Super League season – whenever that may be.

His impassioned mission off the pitch continues unabated.