It is no wonder that Indonesia did not want a ‘redraw’ of the 2018 Asian Games men’s football tournament.
Group A with Laos, Hong Kong and Taiwan was looking very nice indeed for the hosts before the original draw was botched. Organisers somehow forgot to include the United Arab Emirates and Palestine in the original ceremony.
Instead of doing it all again as was planned, the two teams were simply added to two groups. It was unfortunate that Palestine joined the Indonesian pack, but finishing in the top two or three should still be well within the reach of the Merah Putih.
The Asian Games may not be that big a deal for the rest of the world but, obviously, in Asia, that is different. There are plenty of interesting events and sports for those in Jakarta and Palembang to watch from mid-August but none will get the continental-wide attention of football.
As always, different countries have different priorities. Some see the tournament as one mainly for development, some see it as an end in itself and plenty are somewhere in between. Yet, when it all kicks off, thoughts will turn to the gold medal that will be on offer on September 1.
It won’t be easy for Indonesia to be part of that final match. There are other nations with more international experience and talent but none will have the backing of the amazing local fans. Anyone who was in Jakarta during the 2007 Asian Cup will never forget the amazing atmosphere at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. Crowds of more than 80,000 packed into the arena and never stopped singing, helped by a team that was always competitive.
But when the country was banned from the international stage for a year by FIFA in 2015, it set the football scene in the country back by some considerable distance. The effects are still being felt but the next few weeks offer a return to a big continental stage for the first time in years. It is a chance for the Under-23 team to show what it is made of to fans at home and around Asia.
It is to be hoped that the hosts go far – that is always important in any tournament. If Indonesia fall at the group stage then the atmosphere for the knockout stage will also fall flat. For the neutrals, seeing the men in Red go to the latter stages will ensure that the excitement is maintained. It doesn’t matter if there is no medal dangling around necks at the end of it all; just to be able to dream of one for as long as possible will be enough.
That is the task of the team – to make one of the continent’s most passionate football nations dream passionately about local football once again.
Vietnam did exactly that in January in the Asia Under-23 Championships. The team went to China without many expectations but ran all the way to the final. On the way, the nation watching back home went crazy with millions spilling out onto the streets up and down the land to cheer on their new heroes.
This was a country that was dreaming of major Asian success for the first time. For those of us who have lived in Asia for a long time, it has often been a source of frustration that Asian football fans don’t care too much about Asian football.
Here though was an entire nation thrilled to see a new bunch of stars excelling in a tournament that was Under-23. it was a magical sight and showed that the power of the beautiful game, one that is strong enough to unite those two rival cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in national pride and joy.
The #TorchRelay2018 continues to visit places around Indonesia. And after leaving the serenity of Bali, we have arrived at West Nusa Tenggara! Were you part of the crowd? Can you spot yourself? #AsianGames2018 pic.twitter.com/5ypRXr4uml
— Asian Games 2018 (@asiangames2018) July 25, 2018
Indonesia is even bigger and disparate, yet to see something similar in the coming weeks would move the hardest of hearts. The world’s fourth most-populous country loves football a lot more than the top three – China, India and the United States – but does not get anything like the same attention. They have also been starved of success and good news for too long.
Winning gold does not have to be the objective at the Asian Games as there is something much more valuable on offer. There is a football crazy nation waiting to dream, desperate to dream. The dreams may not come true but just stirring the senses and quickening the collective pulse could help give Indonesia a new start and a new spring in its step. There is all to play for. Vietnam showed that.