For much of the 21st century, and even before, Indonesia have been one of the problem children in Asian football. One with huge potential but one that was its own worst enemy and always getting into trouble.
There’s no need to go over the issues in too much detail but a quick recap would have to mention the following: a federation president in prison on corruption charges, rebel national teams, leagues and federations, foreign players dying as they went unpaid and couldn’t afford medical treatment, violence inside and outside the stadiums and then there was the FIFA ban that was imposed in May 2015 and lasted a year.
Ok, when they are bad they are pretty bad but, as the nursery rhyme goes, when they are good, they are very, very good indeed. In terms of passion, there may well be no country in the whole of Asia that can match the archipelago.
If only they had the success that some other countries have, then the future really would be red –countries like South Korea. Last week in the 2018 AFC Champions League, 2012 continental champions Ulsan Horangi thrashed Melbourne Victory 6-2. It was a great result that sent the South Koreans into the second stage of Asia’s flagship competition. It also sent the Aussies out. It was a big match then but the attendance did not manage to make it into four figures. The Stadium may be far from much of the city but it was still a hugely disappointing figure and embarrassing one for a city that size of Ulsan.
— Persija Jakarta (@Persija_Jkt) April 11, 2018
Overall, Korea quite likes football but it is by no means a football country. Despite that, K-league teams have won more Asian club titles than any other, and more than the next two most successful nations (Japan and Saudi Arabia) combined. When it comes to the World Cup, then only 14 nations anywhere in the world –and we are talking about the genuine giants like Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina –have appeared more. Korea are also heading for a ninth successive appearance and only five countries can beat that.
Such success is expected in Seoul. World Cup qualification is not exactly greeted with a shrug of the shoulders but is not widely or wildly celebrated. The poor performances in the last qualification campaign led to major criticism and there was even some criticism of the players when they celebrated clinching a place in Russia. There was a feeling that they had not performed well enough overall to deserve the celebrations.
Part of it is human nature. A team that qualifies for every tournament is not going to get as excited about another qualification than a nation that never qualifies.
You have to wonder what would happen in Indonesia if the national team ever makes it to the World Cup. The celebrations would probably be visible from space. Millions of tourists visit the country without ever knowing that they are in a place that loves football. On March 24, I was in Bali in a full stadium watching the team defeat PSMS 1-0. Just a short Go-Jek ride away was the tourist hub of Ubud — a beautiful place but few would think at first glance that there was a thriving team nearby. Indonesia deserves the chance to show that passion more often.
Asia saw it on Tuesday, once again. The AFC Cup is the Europa League to the Asian equivalent of the UEFA Champions League though unlike the European version, not all countries can enter the AFC Cup. The top nations such as Japan, Korea and the rest, are confined to the Champions League.
Persija Jakarta don’t care. They are pulling in numbers that all bar a very few clubs in the entire world would love. 49,000 came to the Gelora Bung Karno for the opening win against Tampines Rovers of Singapore. There was 46,000 for the visit of Song Lam Nghe An.
On Tuesday, came the big one with the visit of Malaysian powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim. For the first time ever, more than 60,000 fans attended an AFC Cup match.
It is not just the quantity of the fans but the quality of the atmosphere. What would the Asian Football Confederation give to have a few more of these nights in the AFC Champions league?
Everyone should taste the Gelora Bung Karno experience at least once. Indonesia deserves to be in the international headlines for something positive. And that was the case this week thanks to Persija Jakarta. It just goes to show the potential that exists in the country. Just imagine what would happen if there was international success for the country to celebrate –one day the world will see.