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Spreading the love for Indonesian football culture


Sergio Van Dijk – Flexible People Don’t Break

His name was derived from former Brasil striker Serginho Chulapa. Who stole the hearts of Brasil fans during the 1982…

By Awaydays Asia , in Interviews , at October 27, 2020 Tags: , , ,

His name was derived from former Brasil striker Serginho Chulapa. Who stole the hearts of Brasil fans during the 1982 World Cup. The same year Serginho Van Dijk was born. Although he stays humble and prefers to be called Sergio. “With a name like that, people expect Brazilian dribbles. But that wasn’t really my style haha”. 

But scoring goals was his style! In succession, he managed to find the net for clubs in The Netherlands, Australia, Indonesia, Iran, and Thailand. Crowning himself as the top scorer of the Australian A-league before the likes of Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler, and becoming an Indonesian international along the way.

We had a video call with Van Dijk to look back at the adventures he experienced during his career. From packed stadiums to fields occupied by sheep and local children. And from parades in the streets to Molotov cocktails thrown at the player bus.

This is the story of Sergio Van Dijk. 

Indonesian international Sergio Van Dijk

Grassroots

Sergio Van Dijk grew up in Assen. A medium-sized city in the Northern parts of the Netherlands where he completed the youth academy of FC Groningen in the same era as Dutch legend Arjen Robben. After promoting to the Eredivisie with F.C. Groningen, he moved on to play for second-tier clubs Helmond Sport and FC Emmen. Scoring a total of 54 goals in 146 games in the “Eerste Divisie”. But that wasn’t enough for the Dutch-Moluccan striker from Assen.

After 6 years in the Eerste Divisie, I got a little bored, to be honest. I was ready to take the next step! I got close to a transfer to the Eredivisie a couple of times, but it just didn’t happen. So as I was already preparing for a new season in Holland my agent came with a surprising offer from “down under”. He introduced me to Brisbane Roar, a Dutch-owned club based in Australia. After some quick research, I decided to take the offer and went on a plane.

Sergio Van Dijk celebrating a goal for Dutch side FC Emmen
Stormvogels Telstar – Emmen , Sergio van Dijk celebrating the 0-1 (picture by ProShots)

Going Down under

Brisbane Roar was founded in 1957 by Dutch immigrants which can be seen by the typical Dutch lion in their logo and the fact that they play their home games in a bright orange jersey. After Guus Hiddink’s success as the head coach of Australia, the club was more than welcoming towards Dutch players and our vision on the game. A funny sight to me, to play on the other side of the world but with Dutch management and influences all around me.

Before my agent brought me the offer, I didn’t even know they played professional football in Australia. But it turned out that the physical and opportunistic playstyle in the A-league really suited me. I had four successful seasons for both Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United in which I scored plenty of goals. 

“I moved to Adelaide United where I managed to win the prestigious prize by scoring 16 goals and stay ahead of seasoned strikers like Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey, not the least of players.”

During my first two years at Brisbane, I came close to winning the golden boot and in 2010 I moved to Adelaide United where I managed to finally win the prestigious prize by scoring 16 goals and stay ahead of seasoned strikers like Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey, not the least of players. In my final year at Adelaide, the relationship with the trainer decreased and I wanted to move. Luckily my goals in both the league and the AFC Champions League didn’t go unnoticed in neighboring Indonesia.

Mom’s suitcase

As a young boy, I grew up with a lot of stories about Indonesia. My grandparents are originally from Maluku and Java and so we still have a lot of family in Jakarta, Bandung, and Maluku. 

“The scents her suitcase brought upon, where instantly telling me: Ah so this is Indonesia! Little did I know that I would one day be a player in the Liga 1, let alone representing the Garuda.”

I will always remember my mom coming back from her yearly family visit to Indonesia. As a young boy, I was always anxiously waiting for her to come back to open her suitcase and show us what kind of special things she brought with her this time. Her stories in combination with the scents her suitcase brought upon, were instantly telling me: Ah so this is Indonesia! Little did I know that I would one day be a player in the Liga 1, let alone representing the Garuda.

Former Persib striker Sergio Van Dijk as a child.
Sergio Van Dijk as a young child, already having the ball attached to his foot (Picture from Sergio Van Dijk)

Football is like religion in Indonesia

Fast forward to 2013. Due to my performances in Australia, I got in contact with Persib Bandung. And because of my Indonesian heritage, the PSSI also informed if I would be interested to play for the national team of Indonesia. Of course I felt honored. Persib is the biggest club in Indonesia after all. Every Indonesian player would love to play there. Besides that, my childhood dream was to become an international. Although I didn’t expect to play for Indonesia at that time haha.

“Next to religion, football is the second biggest common denominator in Indonesia. It’s a way for people to escape the struggles of everyday life and be part of something bigger”

How I would describe that first period in Indonesia? It’s difficult to put it under words as the closest thing to compare it with is a rollercoaster. Out of nowhere, you’ve got loads of (media) attention. You instantly turn into a famous Indonesian once you play in the Liga 1 and represent the country. The adoration for football knows no limits. Next to religion, football is the second biggest common denominator in Indonesia. It’s a way for people to escape the struggles of everyday life and be part of something bigger. The football community.

Convoy Exceptional

The first time I experienced this, near to holistic way of approach to football, was when I scored against Arema Malang. That day we played the grudge-match against Arema in Si Jalak Harupat. A stadium located on a scenic location just 20 kilometers outside of Bandung. Arema are known to be good friends with Persib’s archrivals, Persija Jakarta and therefore automatically turning them into enemies for us.

That season we were competing for the championship with Arema so there was a lot at stake. At that time, they had some good players in their squad like Christian Gonzales, Greg Nwokolo and Viktor Igbonefo. So it was a head-to-head game. The stadium was packed, you could feel the tension from the crowd, hanging over the pitch. 

After 35 minutes I opened the score with a free-kick. The stadium exploded! We eventually managed to win the game 1-0. The fans went absolutely crazy and awaited us outside the stadium to form an escort convoy back to Bandung. We always used to say to each other: “If we win, the whole region of Bandung can sleep well tonight”. Well after that match it took 7 hours to complete 20km due to the traffic jams caused by all the fans. So we came home well after bedtime haha.

Indonesia’s “El Classico”

The craziest experience I had was the away game with Persib to Persija. The Indonesian El Classico. This match is usually played on neutral terrain to avoid fan clashes. But was scheduled to be held at Persija’s Gelora Bung Karno this time. We stayed in a hotel, close to the stadium so we could minimize risks while driving there. We had to cross one highway, pass the tunnel and we would be there. 

“All of a sudden, my teammates were standing on their seats and quickly pulled me up in order to get away from the windows. That’s when the first rocks smashed the windows”

On matchday we got on the bus, as usual, to make our way to the stadium. I was focused on the game, listening to music and didn’t pay attention to what was happening outside. All of a sudden, my teammates were standing on their seats and quickly pulled me up in order to get me away from the windows. That’s when the first rocks smashed the windows. People started screaming. The bus was stuck in the middle of a group of Persija hooligans. One of those supporters threw a Molotov cocktail on the back of our bus. The bus managed to break away, and whilst still burning we made our way back to Bandung. Luckily nobody got seriously injured. But these things shouldn’t happen in football. Eventually, we played the match on neutral terrain (Sleman) after all.

One of the fiercest rivalries in Indonesian football. Persib Bandung vs Persija Jakarta.

The worst pitch in football history

One of the last games I played in my first year in Indonesia was the infamous away game to Persiwa Wamena. A 16+ hour flight from Bandung to Jayapura to get on a propellor plane to the Wamena regency. Located in the center of Papua, amid mountains, this village is only accessible by plane. The inlands of Papua are relatively untouched and has it’s own, distinctive football culture. The village itself has about 1,200 inhabitants of which many locals still walk around with bow and arrow and the traditional penis sheaths.

“When we arrived at the pitch, the local children were still playing on the fields amidst sheep and goats running around. One side of the field looked more like a swamp, while the other half had grass down to your ankles.”

As usual, the day before the match we were allowed to train on the match field. Well match field.. one tribune and a pitch surrounded by concrete walls. When we arrived at the pitch, the local children were still playing on the field amidst sheep and goats running around. One side of the field looked more like a swamp, while the other half had grass down to your ankles. Well maybe they clean it up before tomorrow I thought.

Well, that didn’t happen.. They chalked white lines on the field where possible and off you go. They want you to perform as a player and as a team. Well, how can you perform in such circumstances? I think even Messi and Barcelona would have a hard time playing here. That made me wonder, is this already the place I want to be at this point in my career?

Football stadium in Wamena, West-Papua, Indonesia. The worst field in football history according to Sergio Van Dijk.
The notorious pitch in Wamena, West-Papua.

Under the Persian sun

Then I got an offer from another league that flies under the radar of the conventional football leagues, the Iranian pro league. One of my former teammates in Australia had played there and gave me the advice to take the offer. So with passion to prove myself, I was off on a new adventure.

“Most people don’t even know about professional football in Iran, but they tend to forget that it is one of the highest-ranked countries in Asia.”

Most people don’t even know about professional football in Iran, but they tend to forget that it is one of the highest-ranked countries in Asia. I arrived at one of the biggest clubs in the league, Sepahan. Our coach was former Croatian international Zlatko Krancjar and our team consisted out of many Iranian and Albanian internationals. For the biggest derby (Sepahan – Persepolis) you can easily find eighty-to-a-hundred thousand fans crammed inside the stadium. 

But it turned out to be a challenging time. I had a hard time adjusting to the different standard and pace compared to Indonesian football. Suddenly you find yourself among internationals with a much higher skill level and physique. So the first period I was mostly keeping the bench warm. When I was finally up and running, the management changed due to disappointing performances of the team and I was told to leave the club. In terms of performances, not my best period. But definitely a unique experience.

The passion for football in Iran clearly captured during a Sepahan match
Sepahan fans celebrating a goal for their local glory.

Just enjoy the show

Before heading back to Indonesia I tried my luck in the Thai League 1. It was a blessing to play on pitch-perfect fields again, with good facilities and a western vision on approaching the game. But after one good season at Suphanburi, I decided it was time to close off my career in Indonesia and fully enjoy my time at Persib. After all, the country has provided me with so many opportunities to grow and achieve my dreams.

Even though the facilities and professional approach to the game weren’t always on point, you find things in Indonesia, that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. The intense atmosphere, the ridiculous, and at the same time, funny circumstances you have to perform in, make it so unique and enjoyable.

“Don’t think you are a professional in bad circumstances. Rather think that you are an amateur in well-paid circumstances”. I believe that people should be more flexible in order to break less easily.”

So sometimes you have to put things in perspective: “Don’t think you are a professional in bad circumstances. Rather think that you are an amateur in well-paid circumstances”. I believe that people should be more flexible to break less easily. Playing in Indonesia definitely tests your abilities to handle change and getting out of your comfort zone. 

Sergio Van Dijk celebrating in front of the Bobotoh of Persib Bandung
Sergio Van Dijk celebrating a goal in front of Persib’s Bobotoh.

Sergio Van Dijk’s life after football

Nowadays Van Dijk is active as a player agent for Tevreden Group. A player agency founded by former professional and manager, Brian Tevreden. Together with other former pro-players like Collins John and Edson Braafheid, their focus lies on the development of young players in The Netherlands. Besides that, Van Dijk runs his own agency: SGM Global. A company focused on football related business development between Europe and Asia.

I was well prepared for my life after football. During my years as a pro, I already attended a lot of meetings from player unions where they prepare you for the decrease in finances, attention, and change of lifestyle. So I knew what to expect. The difficult thing for me was: “Can I find something I can do for a living, with as much passion as playing football?”.

I already knew that I didn’t want to become a trainer and that business was more appealing to me. So I started working as a personal injury lawyer while following two studies at the same time. But I quickly realized this is not what I want to be doing. That’s when I refound my passion through SGM global and Tevreden Group. I like being involved with everything that happens in the world of football and these days I enjoy watching my son play on the weekends. He plays in the youth of FC Emmen, so perhaps we get a second chance to move abroad in the future 😉

Awaydays Asia interview- Sergio Van Dijk - Flexible People don't break

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