The View From Southeast Asia

The magic of the World Cup captivates the entire globe, even those not directly involved, as Neil Sherwin found out on a recent trip to Indonesia.

Walking down the streets of Bali, one of the 6,000 or so inhabited Indonesian islands, you would be forgiven for thinking that the locals were gearing up to follow their national heroes at this summer’s World Cup in South Africa. The market stalls are full to the brim with shirts, albeit fake ones, of every team possible, while the bars are decorated in the flags of the 32 participants and there are massive World Cup themed nights planned for the next month or so.

Indonesia in its present state has never made it the World Cup, though they did make it through to the first round in 1938 as the Dutch East Indies. The qualifying campaign for the 2010 finals in South Africa was a major disappointment as they again failed to make significant progress. This is despite having a population of almost 230 million and also the largest economy in Southeast Asia.

Football (the locals prefer to use the traditional term rather than ‘soccer’) is huge in Indonesia with the Premiership having a huge following, while Barcelona are easily the most popular team outside of the English League. The national league is very well supported, attracting a large television audience, and it is the country’s most popular spectator sport.

The Indonesian Super League (ISL) was founded in 2008 by the nation’s governing body Persatuan Sepak bola Seluruh Indonesia (PSSI) due to an increase in the amount of top level clubs. In the decade preceeding the ISL there were a number of complicated structures in place but the format has been decided upon with 18 professional clubs competing in a home and away series. The winning side is guaranteed a spot in the AFC Champions League the following year.

Persija Jakarta, whose home shirt I picked up while over there, are probably the best supported side in the country and play in front of a partizan crowd at the 88,000 capacity Bung Karno Stadium which also houses the national side. One of their best players is captain Bambang Pamungkas who has banged in 77 goals in just 90 games for the club to go with 35 goals in 68 international appearances.

The 2009/10 season drew to a close last weekend so I was fortunate to be able to take in the ISL Allstar game between league winners Arema Indonesia and the Allstar Perang Bintang side. The game was played in Malang and the Allstars side was chosen following a public SMS vote. As expected, it was a very open affair and finished 5-4 to the Allstars after a display of stunning strikes and horrific defending.

Arema’s league title was their first since their foundation in 1987. Captain Pierre Njanka, capped 47 times by Cameroon, was an inspirational figure throughout the campaign, with Slovakian striker Roman Chmelo chipping in with 13 goals to be the club’s top scorer.

Their supporters, known as the Aremania, are renowned for their passion and have twice been voted the country’s best football supporters, in 2000 and 2006.

Despite such a well supported league, the quality of players being produced is simply not good enough for Indonesia to compete on the international stage. There were high hopes for progression under the management of former Aston Villa player Peter Withe, but he was sacked in 2007 following the first round exit ASEAN Football Chmpionships, a tournament between Southeast Asian sides.

Withe’s replacement, Ivan Venkov Kolev, suffered the same fate after failure to qualify for the World Cup this year, and Austrian Alfred Riedl has now taken over the reigns. Riedl has international pedigree having managed Vietnam, Palestine, Lichtenstein and Laos, as well as club sides in Belgium, Vietnam and Kuwait.

There is hope amongst the locals of one day reaching the promised land of the World Cup, and if qualification places were handed out for passion then Indonesia would be there every time. As it stands however, there is a long, long way to go for them to even think about competing with the game’s elite.

The Author

Neil Sherwin

Co-editor of Writes mostly on Premier League and A-League with contributions to other sites including TheFootballSack, InBedWithMaradona and Bloomberg's BSports. Has featured on The Guardian's Football Weekly.

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