Fearless Indonesia on verge of AFF Suzuki Cup upset

Indonesian president Joko Widodo enjoyed his Saturday night watching the national team defeat Vietnam 2-1 in the first leg of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final. There is still a long way to go but if it all ends in Hanoi next week, the exploits of this team will live long in the memory, inside the country and out.

As a year that has seen Leicester City win the English Premier League ends, it may just do so with another unlikely triumph. The four-time runners-up going all the way in an eight-team tournament may not be quite the same as a 5,000-to-1 shot capturing one of the toughest leagues in the world but the spirit is still there.

Indonesia reached new levels of intensity on Saturday to thrill the watching president and fans. Vietnam arrived as the clear favourites. The Golden Stars had won all three group games in Myanmar and were looking forward to progressing to the final but they faced their stiffest test of the tournament so far.

Boaz Solassa was in the middle, probing and pushing the Vietnamese defence. On the right Andik Vermansyah looks more dangerous and determined when he pulls on the red shirt of his country than the red shirt of his club Selangor. On the opposite side was Rizka Pory, twisting and tormenting to give the visitors no respite at all. Then there was Stefan Lilipaly in midfield pulling the strings.

The running was non-stop, the hard work prodigious and at times, Vietnam struggled to cope. Central defender Que Ngoc Hai had looked imperious in the group stage but gave away a silly penalty, was lucky to stay on the field and looked generally flustered given the pace and movement of the men in red.

Vietnam had chances – two very good chances in the second half that, unluckily for them, fell to Nguyen Van Quyet rather than Le Cong Vinh. And before the end, there was still time for goalkeeper Kurnia Meiga to pull off a fabulous save to somehow stop a deflected shot from heading into the top corner.

“We still have a match at home so we still have a big chance,” said Vietnam coach Nguyen Huu Thang. “I was not surprised by the strength of Indonesia because such enthusiastic fans makes them stronger. I am not happy they scored from a penalty; however, I believe in my players. But the one away goal can be in our advantage when we play in Hanoi. The result was difficult to take but we are confident we can still win.”

The coach is right. Vietnam are still in a pretty good position. They could easily have left with a 2-2 draw following their second-half display, although the first half penalty they were awarded and scored from was generous. Hanoi will be just as much a cauldron for Indonesia as Bogor was for Vietnam. For the Garudas to go through, they are going to have to perform to their very best.

And that could happen. It is happening. Indonesia play with such freedom and intensity with a desire to attack that it is difficult for others to handle. It has been mentioned many times but it bears repeating that this Suzuki Cup is the team’s first competitive action since the last tournament two years ago.

The FIFA ban lasted from May 2015 to May 2016 and set back the football scene by a considerable amount. The new league set up in 2016 before the ban was lifted did not contain any spaces for the national team to play. That meant that coach Alfred Riedl was limited to two players from each team with a couple of teams even refusing to send players that the boss wanted.

But it seems to have created a spirit that is carrying these team to the semi-final and perhaps beyond. The ban and the situation has taken the pressure off. The fact that the Austrian has said that he will step down when this tournament finishes (though success could change his mind) could be another factor in the freedom that that the team seems to have at the moment.

Indonesia are not only confounding expectations, they are inventing a new identity, a way of playing that should stand the country in good stead for years to come.

It is not premature to say that Indonesia can win the title. It is possible. Vietnam and Thailand may still be stronger but nobody can outdo the Merah Putih when it comes to spirit, energy and intensity.

The sight of Boaz Solasso lifting the trophy in December would end a year that has seen some unlikely successes – such as Leicester – in a perfect way.

Indonesia don’t just have the support of their people and president but they are also gathering the neutrals and romantics of Southeast Asia behind their cause.

John Duerden