China may have the most star-studded league in Asia but Indonesia is another sleeping giant that is starting to import some internationally famous players in a bid to raise standards at home and profile overseas.
Former English Premier League stars Michael Essien, Didier Zokora, Carlton Cole and Peter Odemwingie are closer to the end of their careers than the imports in China but their arrival could make a difference.
After years of corruption scandals, political infighting, crowd violence and international bans, the players are helping Indonesian soccer make positive overseas headlines for the first time in years.
“Their arrival is a good thing because they can help the Indonesia football league profile overseas,” Jacksen Tiago, former head coach of the Indonesia national team and now in charge of league side PS Barito Putera, told Associated Press. “We have more coverage from international media and more quality players will be looking for a chance to come over here in future.”
That has an effect at home too, said the Brazilian. “Now television, papers and fans are more excited about football and people are really happy with those big names around the country. They feel really proud to have international players here and local players can learn from them.”
Like China, Indonesia has long been regarded as one of the world’s great underachievers given its undoubted passion for the sport and league games that regularly attract more than 20,000 fans.
The national team appeared at the 1938 World Cup as Dutch East Indies but has made little impact since. A FIFA ban, imposed in May 2015 after governmental interference in the running of the game, was seen as necessary by some after years of mismanagement and scandals in the local game.
The ban was lifted in May 2016 and in December, Indonesia reached the final of the AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s regional tournament, equaling its best ever showing.
Alfred Riedl was the national team coach at the time and retired after the final. “There has always been talent in Indonesia and we showed that,” he said. “Indonesian football could be very soon the number one in Southeast Asia but the clubs and the federation need to be future-oriented.”
There are challenges for the foreign stars coming to Indonesia according to the Austrian.
“The facilities such as dressing rooms, training fields and stadiums are still poor so if you are coming from Chelsea to Indonesian football there is a big difference.”
Jacksen is sure that, assuming the imports settle, they will enjoy their time in the passionate soccer nation.
“The football atmosphere is Indonesia is just amazing and the foreign players will enjoy the atmosphere inside the stadium and it will help them adapt to the culture here. Fans make us really enjoy our work, because they really appreciate people with quality here.”
The biggest star is Essien, formerly of Chelsea and Real Madrid, who signed for Persib Bandung in March along with former England international striker Carlton Cole.
Essien scored his second goal of the season on Sunday to put Persib top of the standings. Odemwingie has scored three in four appearances for Madura United.
Riedl, who had three spells in charge of the national team, has doubts whether the imports will have a lasting impact and would prefer more money to be invested in youth development.
“It may be more exciting for the fans and the media,” he said. “But I don’t think that bringing former big players to Indonesia will help. I am not sure that they are coming to serve Indonesian football. They take big money, for Indonesia at least, and leave whenever they want.”
Jacksen, who has coached eight clubs in Indonesia, is confident however that money spent on star players will encourage improvements elsewhere. “It will make clubs invest more in their facilities for training sessions. The quality of referees will improve sooner or later, we coaches must improve our coaching knowledge to handle players like those big names and the facilities to training will be better.”
The Brazilian acknowledges however that it will all take time.
“There is still complaining about referees, aggressive football and riots between fans,” he said, but added: “The federation is trying to solve the problems and bring more coverage and money to the game. They are trying to make the league more professional in every aspect.”
Story: John Duerden