New-found discipline drives Indonesia to fairytale final
Despite their domestic football league troubles and a Fifa ban, Indonesia have overcome all odds to reach tonight’s Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup final. Ahead of their clash against Thailand, our analyst Antony Sutton (email@example.com) looks at how the Garudas have risen from international wilderness to be on the verge of regional glory.
As dawn broke across Jakarta yesterday morning, there was an extra layer to the city’s notorious traffic jams. Alongside the normal early commuters bracing themselves for another day at the office, there were local football fans hoping their early-bird diligence would give them an edge for the hottest show in town.
Indonesia’s progress to tonight’s Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup final against Thailand has caught many by surprise. Victory over Singapore in the final group stage match in Manila meant the PSSI, the Indonesian football association, were left scrambling for a suitable stadium to host Vietnam as well as cater to the large number of fans who would expect to see the game.
You could hardly blame the association for being unprepared. Not even the most die-hard Indonesia fan expected their heroes to qualify from a group featuring favourites Thailand and co-hosts, the ever-improving Philippines. Against two tournament favourites and an experienced, if somewhat dour, Singapore, what chance did Indonesia have?
It is not as if they had gone into the tournament with the best preparation. Following a Fifa suspension over government interference, football had consisted of several ad hoc competitions cobbled together while the national team was put in mothballs. Any hopes they may have had of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup — let alone the World Cup — were dreams for future generations.
Austrian coach Alfred Riedl was bought back for his third spell once the Fifa suspension was lifted, as the PSSI set about preparing for Asean football’s biggest competition against a backdrop of apathy from the clubs which had settled into a routine of regular competition. The Indonesia Soccer Championship was neither a league nor a cup, but kept players fit and armchair fans happy.
Such has been the success of the band-aid competition that, when it came to selecting a squad for friendly matches ahead of the Suzuki Cup, the clubs told Riedl he could only pick a maximum of two players from each club. Instead of being able to call on the best players available, Riedl had to temper his expectations with the clubs’ own demands.
Somehow a squad was cobbled together but on the eve of the departure to Manila, one striking option was unilaterally withdrawn by his club side, while the Japan-based Irfan Bachdim had to pull out due to an injury, leaving the team heavily reliant on the experienced Boaz Solossa up front. Defensively, Riedl gave 30-year-old Benny Wahyudi his first cap since 2013 and called up 27-year-old Fachrudin Aryanto to stabilise a backline that includes youngsters Yanto Basna (21 years old), Abdul Lestaluhu (23), Hansamu Yama (21) and Manahati Lestusen (22).
When Indonesia lined up for their opening game against Thailand at the nearly-empty Philippine Sports Stadium, they were doing so against a backdrop of low expectations. Back home, the local competition carried on regardless, competing with the national team for TV viewers.
The second half in their opener against Thailand gave a hint this Indonesian team possessed a character few outside the squad could have suspected. Two-nil down at half time, they clawed back two quick goals to leave the Thais in unfamiliar territory ... parity with a local neighbour. Seventy-two hours earlier, the Thais had gone toe to toe with Australia in Bangkok in a World Cup qualifier drawing 2-2. And here was a ragtag squad scoring twice while stretching the Thai defence almost at will.
Although the Thais scored two late goals to win 4-2 eventually, the final result flattered them. Inspired by the industrious Stefano Lilipaly and the pacey trio of Solossa, Rizky Pora and Andik Vermansyah, Indonesia — for a while at least — had the Thais on the back foot and sent out a message to the rest of Asean.
Pace is always their trademark, but Manila saw Riedl add a defensive discipline that perhaps has not always been a feature of Indonesian football. The coach, along with his staff, deserve enormous credit for instilling the hard work ethos in such an inexperienced squad.
Next up was the Philippines, and Indonesia dominated. A late equaliser by the hosts cost Indonesia the points their performance had deserved, and they went into their final group stage game knowing a win over Singapore should be enough to see them through.
This new-found character was again evident against Singapore as they weathered a Lions assault. Although the Lions took the lead, there was a sense that Indonesia had the mental strength not just to score a goal but to go on and win it. Well-taken second-half goals by Lilipaly and Vermansyah booked Indonesia their place in the semi-finals.
Perhaps there was an element of luck in Indonesia’s progress. The highly-fancied Philippines had been hit by withdrawals and injuries of their own and, lacking a strong domestic league, they do not have the resources to call upon like Indonesia. And Singapore? Confidence was low going into the tournament and while the Lions are defensively sound, goals had been hard to come by.
The Indonesian fairytale continued against Vietnam over two legs in the semi-finals. It was certainly a white-knuckle ride for Riedl’s men, but Indonesia dug deep for a place in the final for the first time since 2010.
IN THE FINAL ON MERIT
For those neutrals seduced by Indonesia’s swashbuckling style, they would never suspect the conditions under which this squad was assembled. Skipper Solossa has stepped up to the plate, scoring three goals so far while Lilipaly, who plays in the Netherlands with Telstar, has chipped in with two of his own.
If there was an element of luck getting out of the group, their semi-final performances proved Indonesia had reached the final on merit. The confidence in the team was palpable in both legs and in Kurnia Meiga, they had a goalkeeper to match the best in the region. Two outstanding saves, one in each leg, kept Indonesia in the game and his all-round commanding performances perhaps gave his inexperienced backline crucial confidence.
Indonesian fans have been walking on air ever since their place in the final was confirmed. There have been nearly 150,000 ticket applications for the 30,000-seat Pakansari Stadium to see the first leg, with half being sold online and another half to those braving those long queues in Jakarta and Bogor.
Such has been the unlikely path to the final that those supporters believe anything is possible — even a first-ever Suzuki cup triumph. And the Thais, for all their pretensions of World Cup and Asian Cup progress, will not be underestimating the Indonesians. In their five matches so far, the War Elephants have conceded just two goals ... against Indonesia.
Cold hard football logic suggests Thailand with their greater quality are the favourites but football is also about passion and heart.
And, the Indonesians have those qualities in abundance.
* Antony Sutton is a freelance writer who spends much of his time covering football in South East Asia. He also writes the Jakarta Casual blog.
SUZUKI CUP FINAL, 1st leg
Indonesia v Thailand
StarHub TV Ch208 & Singtel TV Ch114, 7.30pm