Indonesia have been the bridesmaids but never the brides at the AFF Suzuki Cup. Four times did the Merah Putih make the final and four times did the players sink to the turf in disappointment and frustration at the final whistle.
This is the prize that the fans want. Coming so close and being able to see your reflection in the trophy is painful. The World Cup is so far away that is does not even register, the Asian Cup is also over the horizon but the ASEAN prize has been right there and within reach. Yet it has slipped through the fingers.
Now things are different. For one thing, the nation is happy to be in Manila at all. The year-long FIFA ban that was imposed in May 2015 threatened the team’s involvement. It dragged on and on and as 2016 dawned, there seemed to be no solution. As it cost the country the chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup and its clubs the chance to participate in the 2015 and 2016 AFC Cups, it was a real worry.
Fortunately, FIFA ended the suspension in May leaving the way open though things are never that simple in Indonesia. The situation was not exactly healthy even before the ban. The country’s passion for the beautiful game can be a curse as well as a blessing. As well as the tens of millions of fans, it also attracts those who would use it to amass personal power, influence or fortunes.
Years of mismanagement had left the national team and football scene in a sorry state. There’s no need to get into all of it again but when the president of the PSSI, the country’s football federation, is in prison on corruption charges then you know there are issues. The prisons, the politics, the rebel leagues, no league and the ban add up to chaos.
At least Austrian coach Alfred Riedl knew what he was getting into as he returned for a third spell as national team coach earlier this year. After naming his first squad (of 47!) back in July, there were some people in the game who said that the country should not even bother with the tournament at all – it was ‘too soon’.
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That is true in respect of winning the thing. Indonesian hands on the trophy on December 17 would be as surprising as a certain English Premier League success earlier this year. It is just not going to happen.
All that is fine. There is no reason to be focused on the final. In some ways, this is refreshing. There has been such a desire to finally win the championship that it has been suffocating in the past. The pressure has been immense.
There is a certain amount of freedom now. For once – and this may be the only time this ever happens – there are no expectations. There is little pressure. Avoiding three defeats is perhaps the minimum, a win would be nice while being in the running for the last four would be well-received.
But for Indonesia, the next few weeks are about the next few years. The coach can use the upcoming games to try and put together a team for the future, a team that can challenge for the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup with an eye on the 2023 Asian Cup in mind (the ban meant that 2019 was never a possibility). It is time to look at a few youngsters and establish a way of playing that can, in time, go all the way down to the different age levels.
One for the future: Indonesia’s Evan Dimas
It is not easy when you are playing regional rivals and there is pride and passion at stake but the focus has to be on the long-term. This is a unique opportunity – and it won’t last for long — to play the long game with little of the usual pressures. It should not be wasted.
To an extent, Malaysia and Singapore should think about doing something similar. Malaysia especially have issues that have been well-documented. The ‘retirement’ of four of the best players from Johor Darul Ta’zim is part of the war between that club and country and results for the national team have been very poor in recent times.
Malaysia are also highly unlikely to win the competition. Winning would merely serve to paper over the cracks. Better for coach Ong Kim Swee to do something similar to Indonesia and build for the future when the pressure and expectations are not high.
He has been doing that, a little, of late by taking an inexperienced team for friendlies in Singapore and at home to Afghanistan. OKS does not have too many options anyway.
Singapore are in a better place but being placed in a tough group makes things a little different. The Lions will feel they have a chance of getting to the group stage and beyond, and with a new coach in place, will be going for glory with an experienced line-up. Here too however, Singapore could do worse than remember that the AFF Suzuki Cup is not the be-all and end-all.
It is Indonesia though who have the most freedom to look to the future.
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