This week we had a call with Ezra Walian. The 23-year-old striker who grew up in Amsterdam and who recently joined Persib Bandung. He was part of the golden youth team of Ajax Amsterdam with players like Donny van de Beek, Frenkie De Jong and Kasper Dolberg, became national champion, and with 28 goals he finished as the top scorer of their team. Yet he left Ajax in 2016 and went on to play for Almere City and RKC Waalwijk before making a move to Indonesia.
His Indonesian roots made him eligible to be naturalized and represent the country of a thousand islands. He made his first minutes for Indonesia U23 in 2017 while he still played in Holland, that first experience with Indonesian football made him longing for more and so the journey begins.
He signed a contract with PSM Makassar, the local pride of South-Sulawesi. Although the roosters from Makassar didn’t have long to enjoy Ezra’s qualities. After only half a season in Makassar the competition got suspended due to the Covid-19 outbreak. A year without Indonesian football passed, but Ezra is back and it seems he is more motivated than ever. His latest club? Persib Bandung! The famous team from Bandung who once featured players like Sergio Van Dijk, Raphael Maitimo and Michael Essien. With three goals in six games, he is definitely off to a great start!
This is the story of Ezra Walian.
I was born in Amsterdam, a city I keep close at heart, although my parents thought otherwise. They decided to move to Nieuw-Vennep, a village on a stone’s throw from Amsterdam, but just a bit quieter than the big city. I have to say I was happy growing up there and regularly visited Amsterdam ofcourse. First to visit family, after that while playing in the youth academy of Ajax. So Amsterdam feels like home to me.
But before joining Ajax I first played at top amateur teams (VVC) and after five years I joined HFC Haarlem, where I played for a year. I have to admit I didn’t like it at first. I was about nine years old at the time, and suddenly I found myself playing at a professional football club. I had to get used to the demands from people, coaches and trainers. But I managed to find my way.
Each March we got notified which clubs were interested in having us young players, and this time AZ showed interest. I was about 10 or 11 years, and it seemed like a good move forward. A lovely club, warm and friendly, great youth academy and so I signed at AZ. I played in their youth academy for 4 years, but the plan they laid out for me after that period did not live up to my expectations, besides that I was a fan of Ajax ever since I was a little boy. So when Ajax offered me a youth contract I couldn’t resist. Funny thing is, once I went on to play for Ajax, I noticed the big difference between the two youth academies.
The youth academies of Ajax & AZ Alkmaar
I have to say that the difference between the youth academy of AZ and Ajax was quite big, I don’t know if it’s still like that, but the type of people who play for both clubs differ quite a lot. At AZ you’ve got a lot of players from small villages who are down to earth, while at Ajax you find a lot more macho-like types. I noticed the bar at Ajax was way higher in both the facilities, as what is expected from you as a player. But it was wonderful to represent my favorite team in the Netherlands.
Nothing comes close to the youth academy of Ajax in my opinion. Even outside the Dutch borders the youth academy is world-famous. Just have a look at foreign players; If they get the opportunity to choose for Ajax, AZ and PSV you know who they will pick right?
The season I played for young Ajax they bought Mateo Cassierra for example. A player who wasn’t even 20 by the time, was brought in for 8 million euros!? Well then you know who will play haha. I understand how it works; you just have to be better, but it was hard to claim a spot between so many great Dutch and foreign footballers.
Just before leaving Ajax, something special happened. At the time the PSSI was looking for foreign talents with Indonesian blood running through their veins to strengthen the Garuda squad. I got invited by the PSSI to undergo naturalization and adopt Indonesian citizenship. An odd move considering the fact that Ezra didn’t make his debut in the Eredivisie yet.
Naturalization and debut for the Indonesian national team
For some people it might have come as a surprise, but due to my Indonesian roots, I was eligible to go through the process of naturalization. My father is originally from Jakarta, while my grandfather was born in Manado, they moved after the declaration of independence of Indonesia. I mean it wasn’t really dangerous for them, but since we had some Dutch blood in the family, they felt it was better to move to Holland.
Because of my roots I always felt connected with the country and during my time at Ajax we visited the country several times to host football clinics, that’s when the spark really caught me. I mean what is there not to love about Indonesia right? When the PSSI came with their proposal It felt like a natural decision to go and play for the Indonesian U23 team.
I made my debut against Myanmar in the run-up towards the South East Asia (SEA) games. At that time (2017) former Real Madrid midfielder Luis Milla was the head coach of Timnas U23. The coach was loved by fans and players due to his warm personality, the attractive way his teams play, and above all his love for Indonesian football.
It was a pleasure to play under Luis Milla. He is such a personality and loved by both fans and players. Unfortunately, his contract got terminated right after the SEA games. I still don’t understand exactly why, as his performances were great and there was no reason to let him go in my opinion.
Under the guidance of Milla we made it to the semi-finals and played against Indonesia’s arch-rivals Malaysia in their national stadium, the Bukit Jalil stadium. The stadium was filled to the brim with 80.000 raving fans from both sides. You could see nothing but black and yellow in the stands and a deafening amount of hostile noise coming down on the pitch. The atmosphere both on and off the field was super intense. Both teams went all out for 90 minutes, but in the end we pulled the shortest straw. In injury time we conceded the 1-0 from a corner kick, and we lost the game. Man, I was devastated afterwards.
After that tournament, I haven’t played any international games, unfortunately. The FIFA has some rules in place considering the naturalization of foreign players. These rules were introduced in reaction to South-East Asian countries making deals to naturalize foreign players in return for large sums of money. Although I didn’t play any games in an official FIFA tournament, some countries objected that I was eligible to play. Now after the new rule changes I am eligible to play again, the only thing needed is a letter from the PSSI for a change of association, but I haven’t heard anything for the past one-and-a-half year. I sure hope to be called up again if I manage to maintain my current level.
First club contract in Indonesia; welcome to Makassar
Then in the 2019/2020 season, Ezra signed his first contract in Indonesia. Even though the transfer seemed logical after his debut for the national U23 squad, it didn’t feel that way. After I left RKC Waalwijk I was a free agent, I was hoping for a club somewhere in Europe, but no real serious offers came in. Until PSM Makassar came along!
In 2018 PSM had already tried to sign me, but back then they only offered me a 1-year contract. As I believed I still had a shot in Europe it didn’t feel right to move to Asia just to play there for one year. Football in Indonesia can be hard on foreign players. If you don’t perform, you are out straight away.
A good friend of mine (Raphael Maitimo) who played there at the time recommended the club and when I joined, other Dutch players like Marc Klok and Wiljan Pluim played there as well. Our coach was Darije Kalesic, known from De Graafschap and Roda JC. Both a pleasant man and a decent coach. Life in Makassar was nice, I enjoyed the city and appreciated being there together with my girlfriend.
I have to admit that when I arrived, the season was nearly finished and they already had a good season. They won the cup and performed well in the league, so to be honest I haven’t played that many memorable games. You could feel that the pressure was off, and the competition was decided.. Although there is one game I will never forget.
The farewell of a legend
For many years ‘gondrong’ Hariono represented Maung Bandung. With humbleness and everlasting pride, this legend graced Indonesian football. Currently he is finishing up his career at Bali United, but Ezra will never forget the farewell match in Si Jalak Harupat. “That has to be the most memorable game during my time at PSM.”
It was the last match of our season, and It so happened to be the last match of Hariono for Persib. What I witnessed that game was unbelievable, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The number of fans at that game and the respect they showed for one of their most beloved players was just insane. I mean the capacity of the stadium is 40,000, but official seating in Indonesia isn’t a thing, so probably 45 or 50,000 people chanted 90 minutes long to say goodbye to their legend. Massive banners were shown, the player all wore his number in order to honor Hariono, an experience I’ll never forget.
Persib legend ‘Gondrong’ Hariono
Don’t underestimate playing in indonesia
Playing in Indonesia is fantastic. The support in the stands, the wonderful culture and beautiful surroundings, but you shouldn’t underestimate it. Football here doesn’t look very good at times, but make no mistake, many Europeans have a hard time here. You shouldn’t underestimate football in Indonesia.
The conditions under which you have to perform can be really challenging. From the intensity in the style of play to the weather and pitch conditions. I mean if you see the type of fields we have to play on, well I wish you good luck on your first day if you are used to pitch-perfect grass. There are plenty of examples of players of whom their adventure ended within six months. They think: “ah, we will show them who’s boss”, but it doesn’t work that way. You really have to prove yourself first, show what you can, and then beautiful things will come.
The funny thing is that local players easily control a pass even if the ball bounces in all directions. They are used to those conditions from an early age and manage to control the most unexpected passes. Apart from that, the style of play is completely different from Europe. Here everything is based on intensity and power, rather than on tactics. Which makes games both attractive and frustrating at the same time haha.
In the Netherlands everything is based on the tactical aspect of the game. There is a clear plan, and you train every day to execute that plan to perfection. They don’t know that here, which makes sense. There is no youth academy, no licensed coaches who educate young players, or even basics like good balls can be lacking. In that respect, we are really lucky in the Netherlands.
Sometimes I really don’t understand why those conditions and facilities aren’t available here in Indonesia. There is so much money involved in Indonesian football, especially with 300 million inhabitants, who are all crazy about football. And yet football is not getting off the ground. Indonesia is being overtaken by other Asian countries left and right. Far too little is invested in building a solid foundation for young talent. Such a shame to see.
Next chapter: Paris of Java
Talking about Persib legends, another former Persib legend played a role in Ezra’s transfer to Persib Bandung. Former top scorer Sergio Van Dijk, who is currently active as a player agent, brokered Ezra’s transfer to the Paris of Java, where he joined fellow Dutch players Nick Kuipers and Geoffrey Castillion. The club from West-Java is currently coached by Robert Rene Alberts, the man who witnessed countless adventures on Asian territory.
After my contract at PSM ended, I had a few offers from clubs like Persib, Borneo and others. But I have to say the connection with Persib was great from the start. I am the type of person who needs to feel welcome and at home at a place, and after the conversation with Persib it felt like this was the case.
It’s one the most beautiful clubs in Indonesia when it comes to history, fans and the city. I didn’t feel like moving to live somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but Bandung is a beautiful city. Combined with the Dutch coach and great feeling I had with the club, I felt this was the right decision.
Prior to our interview, Ezra just finished the Piala Menpora(Indonesian pre-season cup) in which they lost the finals against arch-rival Persija Jakarta. Accounted as one of the fiercest derbies in the world. Overall, he played a good tournament, scoring three goals in six games, but the aftertaste of the finals was pretty bitter. “It’s just unbelievable how we entered that first game.”
I mean it’s the most important game of the year for the fans and if you take a look at how we played, I still can’t believe it. We weren’t fighting for each other like you should in these kinds of games and therefore we lost that first leg. Then the second game we started of well, creating a decent amount of chances, but after we received a red card in the 30th minute, you know it’s going to be near to impossible. Atleast I played a decent tournament so let’s hope I can keep this spirit and create good memories here in Bandung and perhaps the national team as well.
I hope to play for Bandung in the upcoming years. It’s a beautiful club and I’m still young. So who knows what the future will bring. Perhaps I can make a nice transfer to Thailand or Japan in the future. Although Thailand seems a more obvious choice considering the huge quality difference between the Japanese and Indonesian league. But hey, you never know.. let’s see what the future has in store for me!