The elite football leagues in world football are undoubtedly the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1, and La Liga. Players from around the World flock to the top European leagues and spend the best years of their career competing at the highest level. Not all players are one-club men like Francesco Totti, Carlos Puyol or Jamie Carragher though—instead choosing to fly the nest when their careers are nearing an end.
It seems that every few years a new country becomes the new hottest destination for ageing footballers looking for a new challenge (or a last pay day!). The MLS remains popular and has seen the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, and Thierry Henry. The ISL in India was graced by Robert Pires, Luis Garcia, and David Trezeguet. Most recently, Chinese clubs have bank rolled the arrival of Oscar, Marko Arnautović and Marek Hamsik.
In the space of a few weeks in 2017, Michael Essien, Carlton Cole, Peter Odemwingie, Mohamed Sissoko and Didier Zokora all arrived to play in Southeast Asia. This was a short-lived period of footballing significance in Indonesia and their newly formed Liga 1.
Much like the structure of the leagues mentioned previously, these former Premier League stars were moving to their footballing retirement home as marquee signings and were getting paid much better than their peers in the league. Despite this 2017 renaissance in Indonesia, it had already been home to some big names in its more formative years.
Argentinian golden boot and World Cup winner in 1978, Mario Kempes, was plying his trade for Pelita Jaya in 1996 where he ended a successful career. Another World Cup hero Roger Milla finished his playing days at the age of 43 with two spells at Pelita Jaya and Putra Samarinda. No doubt, the success of securing these World Cup heroes and the media attention it brought to the league, would have shown the league organisers that this was the best way to raise the profile of football in Indonesia. Milla is clearly still proud of his spell in Asia as he recently tweeted:
‘Age is just a number. At 43 years old, I was still playing because football is life. I had a great time in Pelita Jaya, Indonesia’
More recent examples are Eric Djemba Djemba at Persebaya Bhayangkara in 2015 and Lee Hendrie at Bandung in 2011. Hendrie commented on the corruption of the league at the time:
‘We were 4-0 up, cruising. The pitch was fucking shit, the game, the players were low low down conference level, possibly even worse than that. Ref starts giving stupid penalties and next thing you know, it’s 4-3. I’m thinking, how has this happened. They’ve had two penalties and a free kick led to a shitty goal. I said to the goalie, “slow down” as he’s about to take a goal kick, “slow it down and we’ll win the game”. The ref then blows up and gives a free kick for time wasting, 6 yards out. They said we can’t even put a wall in the way because it’s so close. They then take a free-kick and basically pass it into an empty net. I said to the ref, how can this happen, and he just said, “time wasting”. We ended up drawing the game 4-4. They were telling me when I got there about getting corruption out of Indonesian football, and the ref’s giving free kick’s six yards out and we’re not allowed a wall. That was me done.’
What differs Djemba Djemba and Hendrie to Kempes and Milla is that they came after the World Cup of 2002. It’s fair to argue that one of FIFA’s primary aims of awarding the 2002 World Cup to South Korea and Japan was to get the planet’s most populated continent more interested in football. Asia is a potential goldmine that has yet to be fully utilised; in 2002 FIFA attempted to do so. Six times more people live in Asia than in Europe so the possibility of getting more switched on to football would only benefit its governing bodies.
Asian football is still streets behind that of Europe and South America, this is partly down to the absence of Asian teams in the first organised World Cup tournaments. The first Asian participant was the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1938, but they were making up the numbers for teams boycotting and involved in wars. It’s only been since the 1978 World Cup that there has been a consistent qualification slot for Asian teams, which is only half of all the World Cup tournaments in history. This lack of experience and involvement will no doubt have stunted the progression of Asian sides. The lack of respect shown to Asian teams, who had as much involvement in the spread of football as anywhere else, was narrow minded as the tournament organisers overlooked the integrity of the continent’s teams.
The fact that in 2017 Indonesia had to resort to tactics used in the 1990s to try and raise the profile of the league, shows the lack of impact of the 2002 World Cup. As much as signing high profile players is exciting for supporters at home and abroad, it seldom leads to much improvement of the league. Ageing players who travel to receive big wages will not improve a nation’s sport; they’re just mercenaries who are looking for a final payday in the sun.
The 1938 participation from an Indonesian side in the World Cup shows they have the most international pedigree of any Asian nation; however, they have not qualified since and hold the record as the nation of the least games played (1) and goals scored (0).
This 2017 push for high profile players was a sorry return to previous tactics following the failure of the 2002 World Cup to raise the profile of Asian football. Nevertheless, these seven players that arrived in the space of a few weeks created an interesting insight to the league at the time and the mentality of the players arriving.
Of the seven, only Peter Odemwingie had not come from or went on to spend time at clubs outside of the nation’s holding the five big European Leagues. This does illustrate the kind of player and the mindset of those who had been brought in to try and resurrect a struggling league.
As well as this the governing bodies in charge were not up to the job. Following the former Liverpool player, Mohammed Sissoko’s red card for Mitra Kukar, he was able to play in the next match despite the opposition side sending a letter to the league to remind them of his suspension. They later saw the error of their ways and cancelled the game, awarding Sissoko’s side a loss.
There is a thirst for football in Indonesia, crowds are huge but not necessarily safe. In the 2017 campaign two Indonesian supporters passed away with flares and fireworks being used as the reason for their deaths. There was also the unfortunate passing of ‘keeper Choirul Huda who had a heart attack on the pitch following a challenge against Didier Zakora’s Semen Padang and later died in hospital. These three tragedies rocked the league at the time, but the crowd fatalities displayed a lack of health and safety awareness from the league organisers.
The league was not fit for purpose, they had the fan base, and some good players who had come to play football (regardless of the money involved). But the organisers in charge were not good enough, not just at the top level but even those in charge of each individual club. Carlton Cole recounted his time with Persib Bandung:
‘They have a system over there of dictatorship within the clubs. You’ve got the chairman, the main guy that owns the club, underneath him you’ve got the local guy who is the manager and then underneath him, you’ve got the coach. The coach does the coaching from day to day and the manager, who might not know anything about football, he picks the team. The chairman would be the one who gets the players in, like me and Michael Essien. The chairman didn’t tell the manager that he was doing that, so it didn’t go down well because the manager used to own the club but had now been bought out. The manager wouldn’t want me and Essien because he didn’t give permission for us to be signed. There was just a constant kerfuffle going on with the order of law out there. So, me and Michael Essien weren’t getting any game time out there and we just couldn’t get going. I thought, if that’s happening to Michael, I can’t even say anything.’
Cole cut his time in Indonesia short and ended his contract early, missing out on the prior agreed wages, just to get out of the club. Essien was happy to remain and keep his money that he had been promised. Things were so bad in Bandung that their coach, Djadjang Nurdjama, was eventually banned from football for six months after banning both Cole and Essien from training.
All the seven players had left Indonesia by 2018 and football returned to the way it was. The sorry truth is that the governing bodies and the clubs were not equipped to run a successful football league in Indonesia.
They have the fans, they have the money, and they have the footballing heritage. Asia was let down by FIFA and will always be playing catch up to Europe and South America. It’s sad that when Indonesian football supporters could have been rewarded with a good league on home soil, they were let down by those in charge.
China seems to be the destination of choice now; India has had its day and sadly so has Indonesia. Wherever the next desirable destination may be, they need to ensure the people in charge are better equipped to capitalise on any potential exciting opportunities, such as seven former Premier League stars joining the Indonesian league in 2017.
PETER KENNY JONES
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Peter Kenny Jones